Moments in Movement
Timothée Chaillou: Dan, do you start a painting with a figure in mind, or do you work with
Dan McCarthy: Previously I'd work from a model or images, now I prefer to work in a
more direct manner, straight from my eyes to my hands. The image becomes a bridge to
channel and project a moment of feeling free. Through my process a type of free gestural
figure drawing has emerged, basically an intimate watercolor sketch on the scale of life
TC: Why do you choose to stylize them the way you do?
DM: I suppose that I’ve arrived at my “line” by allowing myself to draw what I think,
right there and then. Preferring a naturalistic line, I’ve stripped away devices that aided
the image to be rendered more accurately but ultimately became impediments. I’ve
shortened the distance from my head to the paintings’ resolution by accepting my line
and allowing it to simply be. DeKooning spoke of “slipping into this glimpse,” which I take
to mean something like: a moment is always in movement. I like this attitude.
TC: Do you think that the characters of your drawings and paintings are in an “altered
state,” or intoxicated by their own colors?
DM: Probably pretty close to something along that line, I'd like to think they are firmly
present in the moment of infinite potential. Color and line being the expression and
symbolic fact of this state.
TC: According to Susan Sontag, the Camp “is the love of what is not natural, of the
device and exaggeration.” It is “a style of excess, shrill contrast, ridiculous taking,
dramatic quality of a poor deliberate taste which blurs clear boundaries of the nice and
the ugliness, convenience and the malséance.” Is this blurring of boundaries important
for your work?
DM: I’d like to think that Painting has often been about perceived boundaries and
referenced positions in relation to this perception. I prefer to see my work as an
integration and extension into the historical lineage of images: Paintings being paramount
but all images that I encounter in my life such as movies and advertising plus others still
unseen that I assume exist. The boundaries that I’m interested in have more to do with
creating and expressing an immediacy and personal position within the wide lineage of
TC: With all their colors your characters remind me of clowns or theater players. Do you
think that your figures tend towards clownish buffoon-like characters?
DM: I see it more as a reduction and distillation, a compressing of emotion into line and
color, more like calligraphy. I’ve allowed myself to make this naturalistic caricature—
which is an extension of my direct and unprocessed drawing ability and skill set—at an
enlarged painterly level.
TC: Do you agree with Mark Schlüter when he writes that ‘clowns are screens onto
which the enjoyment of the others’ suffering can be projected. This suffering can be
staged either as a melancholic gesture, as an enigmatic irony or as a brash slapstick (...)
Clown takes the stage as a strident transfer of a gaiety as fake as it is false?’
DM: Lon Chaney is reported to have said: “There is nothing on earth more frightening
than a clown after midnight,” and Lon Chaney would have known. There are many types
of clowns: The Pierrot, The Tramp, The Augustine... each with a specific affliction, role
and personality. Antoine Watteau for instance painted The Pierrot (Gilles, 1718–1719).
The clown is there in the center of the ring for a reason, certainly inviting more than
applause and laughs, his vulnerability makes him an easy object of projection for a host
of sublimated wishes. The clown is probably the collective vessel for our deepest wishes
and worst fears.
TC: Marnie Weber said that clowns are “stuck in an existential quagmire of being
cheerful. To be happy is a very dark journey.” Is it relevant for your smiling figures?
DM: Life undoubtedly has it’s dark moments but I prefer my figures live in the light. I
could imagine that to find happiness or satisfaction after a long dark journey would be
the best informed happiness of all.
TC: You infuse feeling into your works that make them warmer than many other artists’
works. What do you think of the terminology used by Keith Mayer son to describe your
work as “figurative narrative allegorical”?
DM: That is a pretty expanded term, and why not? I would generally associate “narrative”
and “allegorical” with the term figurative anyway. It's somewhat surprising how limited the
range of color has become within contemporary artworks in the past ten years.
TC: Who are the greatest colorists of your time?
DM: It's color combined with narrative that for me is the most interesting position, so
it becomes a combined balance of narrative, composition, and line that have a direct
relational weight to color. I've always thought that Balthus's painting The Cat of La
Mediterranee was a near perfect combination of color and image.
TC: For this recent series of drawings and paintings exhibited at Anton Kern Gallery, why
do you leave your backgrounds blank?
DM: They are not really blank, the paintings outside the figures are stained and have
stripped borders near the edges, the blank or unpainted space in the drawings reveals or
exacerbates the process thus becoming part of the subject.
TC: Could you please talk about the titles of these paintings? Some evoke drugs or
music and some vacancy, happiness or liberty.
DM: Like poetry, I hope the titles function like fruit on a tree. The popular culture allusions
in some titles function like an intuitive haiku, a way to double back on the painting and
perhaps provide a different cultural location or season. A way reinvest or redirect an
assumed position or perceived identity.
TC: How do you construct these paintings and drawings? Could you explain how you
bring up these images? How do you start?
DM: It starts with a readiness to commit to time and energy. The process demands a
period of uninterrupted concentration so I need to get in a mental place where intuition
can flow. I'm basically making a free hand direct line drawing on canvas knowing every
detail counts. It’s a feeling of being ready to work—that’s really ready to work.
TC: Could you talk more about the process of your paintings?
DM: I’m actually a process painter. I begin by applying a heavily marbleized gesso to a
stretched number 10 canvas, first with a brush and later with 14” cake decorating knife,
in some cases applying up to 40 coats on a single canvas. Image s are created by first
making a painted image upon on canvas of similar size and pressing it face to face into
the canvas with a prepared surface. Transferred, rinsed, stained, pin-striped and tweaked
into place, the paintings are related to unique mono-prints. The unique marbleized
ground creates effects and conditions that are specific to the materials: aquatint like
washes, ghost lines and the registration of slight mark making. Most traces of direct
hand work are removed through the process.
TC: And what’s the process of your drawings?
DM: Related to the paintings process, the recent drawings are created by painting on a
sheet of prepared paper and transferring that image to another sheet, this second sheet
represents the finished drawing. The process is carried over from my current painting
process and allows for the creation of an immediate image with the gestural application
softened through a nuanced removal. The graphic printed quality is part of the drawings’
TC: For what reasons do you reject 3D illusionistic space in favor of a flatness?
DM: My investment in the image does not require the illusion that comes from the
rendering or depiction of depth, its not so much r ejecting illusionistic depth as it is
embracing a type of truth. This truth, as I call it, is part of my process which is a
combination of my skill set and the subject of my work. The different layers of material
process represent an investment in time, this sequence of gestural layering creates a
space akin to depth.
TC: There is always a balance between grace and monstrosity in your portraits, don’t you
DM: That balance is the edge upon which I rest.
TC: Can your work be seen as “pretty ugly”?
DM: I suppose that would depend on whom is doing the seeing. I would like it seen as a
direct engagement between a wish and an action, the result being a type of personal
TC: What do the birds we encounter in your drawings symbolize?
DM: I’ve been observing birds recently as my studio window looks out to a small garden,
their song and flight inspire. They symbolize a type of fragile freedom.
TC: They are always accompanying a face. Sometimes they are close to the face,
sometimes they are in front of it and sometimes it's like the faces are coming from their
beaks like speech bubbles. Could you please talk about these differences? Are they
giving birth and color to these faces?
DM: They are communicating scale, indicating potential, symbolizing sound and song:
encouraging a dialogue outside of one’s self in the direction of nature and the world at large.
TC: Are Aesop's Fables or Jean de La Fontaine's Fables inspirations and references for
DM: I love Aesop’s Fables. As a child my mother read them for us at breakfast. I can
remember being able to visualize each scene and the moral ending was of course the
icing on the cake. Plus, Aesop often featured birds to illustrate moral positions in a
number of his Fables!
TC: When I approach a work of art, I always depart from its references in order to find its
singularities. What aspects of AR Penck, Rosemarie Trockel, Walter Dahn and George
Baselitz do you find compelling?
DM: I really enjoy that period of German painting. It appeared liberating, emphasizing
the creation of personal images while exercising freedom and investigation. Those artists
all somehow represent a personal position, a trademark hook or riff that simultaneously
shares an accessible picture of the world from a unique vantage point. A restless
investigation and in the course of looking, finding bridges to r elated worlds with new
paths. I find this position inspiring as it requires a confident independent thought
process and sense of freedom. I believe this independent thinking could have lead to a
reinvestment into previously disregarded materials or methods such as Trockel’s work in
ceramics and wood carving for Baselitz. Penck and Dahn ar e both acclaimed musicians
as well as painters, I’d imagine the freedom and lack of materialism in music could lead
one to liberating places.
It makes perfect sense that Sigmar Polke apprenticed in a stained glass factory
before he became interested in painting These artists seem to share a head to hand
immediacy coupled with a fearless sense and scope of scale extending to social issues
without slipping into pop cultural art positions.
TC: Do you feel connected to the work of Charles Burchfield?
DM: They seem to stop me every time I see one. I’m arrested by his jagged electrical
storm of color and highly personal feeling which makes them fee l “visionary.” They seem
to be all exclamation points and question marks. He had an unusual technique in that
he used watercolor paint with a “dry” consistency and painted upright on an easel.
Burchfield’s images feel like an early spring thaw after an icy cold winter, gloomy and
electric all at the same time.
TC: Explaining your work you made references to the Victorian graphic art.
DM: The images from this period feel both overlaid and unified at the same time: the 19th
century bridging the 20th. The elements of drypoint & soft g ound etching combined with
photographic devices created awkward and strangely compelling images.
TC: How have Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints influenced you?
DM: Beginning with the wood block itself, the process required a wide range of trades,
each possessing a skill set that was both masterful and impersonal. It’s amazing how
color, scale and line come together on paper to indicate temperature, wind direction, and
season. Given the complexity of the process, the simplicity and generosity of the image
TC: Your recent ceramic sculptures are called Facepots. You said that the reason you
“chose faces is that it's an obvious starting point to express elements that are important
to me in my work: emotion, attitude and humor.” Do you portray the “human comedy”?
DM: I’d like to include in my work something of the living spirit, something positive that
can be taken away and built upon by a viewer. Certainly more a feeling than an attitude
TC: You said that “the ceramic process seems to invite windows of opportunity.”
DM: Working a lump of clay into a coherent form, tempering that form with heat into a
vitreous body, decorating the vitrified surface with dull toned glaze that be comes a bright
glass surfaces, all this is a very dynamic process to witness. The ability to participate in
the process is comforting as it is informative. Witnessing and being involved in positive
transformation is liberating.
TC: As you said, “in the plastic building phase, the slightest touch, scratch or poke is
potentially registered, very similar to drawing.” What can you accomplish with cera mic
that you can't with painting and drawing?
DM: Three dimensions in physical space is one, physically modeling a mouth rather than
signifying one with a line is quite a different proposition from painting. The lustre glazes
that I’m using contain small amounts of gold, platinum, silver and nickel that when fired
create a thin glossy metallic glaze film, while not exactly alchemical, it’s certainly “kiln magic.” A painting cannot really simultaneously render a front, side and back of an object, Cubism was simply a semi linear sequencing of views.
TC: What aspects of work Peter Voulkos, and Robert Arneson could be said to
approach, or depart from, yours?
DM: Peter Voulkos and Robert Arneson were “The” prototypical 1970‘s Bay area ceramic
Funk Artists. Although their work was markedly different from each other I feel they
shared a unique tactile sensitivity that was directly applied to the wet clay. They both
possessed a “touch” that was very much at the service of the work which seemed to
connect a deep wish to a very distinct personality. Voulkos being all wild style and labor
ready was somehow bound to the tradition of pottery, after all his vessels began life on
the potter’s wheel. Arneson was really willing to hang his personal emotions out there
backed up with a wicked wit and a major skill set.
TC: Regarding your ceramics you made references to the Medieval/Gothic period stained
DM: I’m interested mostly in the rendering and composition of the imagery in medieval
stained glass. I like the isolated figures in richly colored back lit grounds, the depth being
color based with blue receding and yellow moving forward. Segmented sections joined
by leaded veins and colored glass create an image where simply rendered figures gain
currency through their interaction with light and color. Similar to the Ukiyo-e block prints,
the rendering is concerned with story telling within flattened space. The emotionality
contained in the rendering of the medieval figure is inspiring.
In the end it's really all about the vibe that the image delivers.