I first saw Dan McCarthy’s paintings around 10 years ago, and they’ve confused me ever since. There aren’t many contemporary painters unironically pursuing landscapes and the body as subject matter. Are these paintings transcendent dreamscapes or bawdy tragicomedies? I rarely have a straightforward answer.

When I first visited Dan’s Brooklyn studio in 2006 he was in the throes of the “white paintings,” showing his surfer/ skater-types in fields of white. Recently, he’s re-integrated the Pacific Ocean-like contexts for the subjects of his portraits, though he’s retained the skin tones and extremely thin paint quality from the white paintings. Here, I ask him why.
Nick Stillman, July 2011

After several years of painting people in fields of white, you’ve brought backgrounds back. First: why?

The psychological aspect of the body needed to expand away from inward contemplation toward interaction with the external, natural world.

This reintegration has taken a multitude of forms: localized seasons, juxtaposed temperatures, multiple light sources… the mixed metaphors that emotions contain.

How does a background or context affect the emotional range of your paintings?

By becoming a narrative extension of the body, a wished or willful environment becomes part of the body.

Set and setting are crucial to our understanding of events and ourselves.

Light and dark, deep and shallow, hard and soft all describe both emotions and space.

Like a shadow is to a figure, the context is a chance to reiterate a nuanced repositioning of the body.

Something carried over from the earlier white paintings is your treatment of skin tones. Could you discuss why you’ve gravitated toward red and blue, especially?

I wanted to reinvest the individual with new properties by relocating the color from landscapes into the body.

It was also a device to steer clear of associations related to realism, as my depiction of the body became more accurately observed.

Colors have emotional associations, but also physical properties. Perhaps it’s my identification with the emotional that affords colors these properties.

Yours are not people of our reality… their skin tones, extra limbs, and statuesque presences. My sense is that they’re not “symbolic” but more expressions of an emotional spectrum. Maybe?

Decoys, hybrids, and surrogates: perhaps more human than human.

The figures are expressing personal rather than symbolic emotional responses. Not at the dramatic and volatile ends of the spectrum; more contemplative, alert,
observational, engaged, present.

I have never seen the colors in Munch’s paintings a green man, for instance as the least bit unusual.

Iconographically, your paintings are very minimal. I’m curious about the decision-making process when you include something from the world, like a rainbow-colored scarf.

Or a fish.

Memory and intuition play a large part. Growing up near the Pacific Ocean and sensing its enormity was the theme of my life. As a teenager I worked on fishing boats.

This memory of freedom and potential has stuck with me. It’s not nostalgic… really more a conflict.

A rainbow-colored scarf would be a manmade symbol or keepsake of the idea or memory of a rainbow. To adorn oneself with a symbol of a rainbow is a choice, whereas a rainbow
in nature is an occurrence.

I see the choice as empowering, proactive.

Choices provide options. Building upon options can be a path to freedom.

Fellini or Lynch?

Fellini! The joie de vivre, the circus, the intuition and serendipity, glimpses that reveal worlds… worlds like and unlike the one we think we already know.