Today at Atmos we’re speaking with abstract artist, Daniel John Gadd in his Brooklyn Studio. Read along for a chance to hear about his Youtube-learned carpentry skills and how he gets the mirrors in his paintings to crack just right.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.
Atmos: Thank you so much for meeting with me today! Can you tell me a little bit about when art first started interesting you?
Daniel: I don’t know when it first started to interest me. I grew up playing a lot of sports, I was a jock and eventually it turned into baseball when I was 9 years old. I was on four different baseball teams at a time and I was playing in the winter. So sports were really important to me, but I had a grandma who I saw pretty regularly. I grew up right over the George Washington Bridge and she would take me to the skyline and I would draw it. After a while I could remember everything that was there, at least in a ten year old’s mind. So there was defiantly an underlying interest and eventually in high school I got to a point where I didn’t want to play baseball anymore. I started to listen to punk music and hung out with these kids that were the art kids, so I kind of fell into it. As a ‘I don’t know what I’m doing and this seems interesting’. In high school I had a really supportive teacher.
A: Did you study art in college?
D: Yes, I went to School of Visual Arts. But first, my parents, although they are supportive, were like “There’s no way you’re going to art school, you’re going to a well-rounded liberal arts college”. I was like ‘Then I’m not going to college’. I found out later that my mom, who is amazing, she applied to colleges for me. So I ended up going to the University of Rhode Island. I knew nothing about Rhode Island, but it wasn’t for me. I’m sure there’s plenty of great people there, but for me it ended up being exactly what high school was. I called her crying every day for a month and eventually she said, “you can go to school of your choice”.
A: Did you study painting?
D: I studied painting at the School of Visual Arts and it’s a good school to study painting. I honestly don’t remember a lot of it. But I do remember going back and it was the fourth year and they give you these studios. They basically tell you, “go make some art”. It’s more structured than that, but it’s basically that. I formed a relationship with a teacher. He introduced me to the gallery (that represents me now).
A: It’s all about those connections. What’s the gallery name that represents you?
A: How long have you been with them?
D: It was Life on Mars before and the director’s name was Michael David and then they became David & Schweitzer and I opened the gallery (with the first exhibition). That was October.
A: Oh recent! And you’ve been happy there?
D: Yeah. It’s cool because they’re supportive and this is actually Michael David’s studio that I am working in now. All of this work is for a show I’m having in November there..
A: Can you tell me a little bit about this series?
D: I come from a figurative background and I was making figurative paintings that kept getting more and more abstract. I had this break through a year and half ago. I was beating a painting to death not getting anywhere and I decided to cut out the only piece I liked. This circular shape, and I was like, ‘holy shit, this is either really good or really bad’. I kind of sat on it for a while and decided ‘I think this is really good’, so I made ten more. Eventually I decided I didn’t care if it was really good or really bad, because it meant something to me. I started to feel alive. The last show at DSC was all circles and was titled For the Moon. It’s my daughter’s name, we call her moon at home. The new work is just the progression of that starting point. I think we paint our biology, these paintings have aggression, athleticism, fragility and are painfully sensitive. If the circles where about taking what makes us most human, breaking it down and reassembling it into balanced wholes, the work in here now is a reconciliation and acceptance that perfection isn’t possible, and celebrating it.
A: When did you start using mirror?
D: I was always speckling in the mirror as the figure paintings got a little bit more abstract. They fully started to come in when I started making the circle paintings. At first the cracks were by accident, but now they’re a drawing device. The mirror is a symbol of the self reflection that happens during painting. It also talks about that fractured part of my life and being completely broken and putting it back together.
A: How long does it typically take to you?
D: It’s an athletic feat. I’m guess I’m still an athlete because these things are heavy. I break them down and put them back together over and over again. None of these paintings started as anything near this shape. So when I’m actually working it’s more like a tornado in here, pieces everywhere. Sometimes I get lucky, a week or something. But a particular part of this painting is over a year old, but it’s been stored away. So did it take me a year and half to make this painting? Yes and no, I guess.
A: How do you start?
D: Normally I take two pieces of plywood and put them on the floor and I’ll put them over what I’m working and I’ll let stuff fall on it. If I see something, I’ll be like, ‘oh it’s ready’. And then I’ll start. Eventually I back it so it can hang on the wall. I’ll make a couple cuts. In between then I’ll play in photoshop. I can decide a color or at least somewhat think of an idea. Or if I want to make a drastic cut, I can cut it off in photoshop to see. At a certain point, the mirror gets expensive and it may seem untrue, but that’s the fifth version of the mirror, because I didn’t like the way it cracked. It gets frustrating but I try to recycle it all. At first it was just slam it, but now I’ve been starting to get a little bit more particular. I want the cracks to mean something and the composition of the piece to relate.
A: How much can you control the cracking though?
D: You can get pretty good at it. You can’t control everything, but you can glue the back in certain ways. So if you hit something that big with a hammer you won’t get the same mark as if you hit something (smaller) with a hammer. There’s math involved. That’s not who I am, but I can at least say, ‘OK, this is three times larger, so I’m going to make the surface that hits it three times larger’.
A: I would have never guessed that, that’s crazy. Is it really satisfying to hit the mirror?
D: Yeah, there’s a certain violence to it. I think there’s a certain underlying anger and violence in me.
A: It’s therapeutic.
D: Oh, it certainly is.
A: You’ve been in New York for how long?
D: So I grew up in New Jersey, about ten minutes from New York. I’ve been here my whole life and when I was a kid we would come here. My dad would take me here all the time. It was funny because he’s not really an art guy and I remember we would skateboard. And he would say, “I’ll take you skateboarding, but you have to come to a museum with me”. I think he really just wanted to go to a museum. Looking back it’s like, oh he knew. I’ve spent times living in Brooklyn and Manhattan, but now I have a family and this has to support that. We live in New Jersey.
A: And you drive in?
D: Yeah, I do this crazy thing where I’ll leave at five in the morning and it takes me 35 minutes. At first it sucked, but I got used to it. The alternative is, though it’s only 20 miles away, you can’t get anyone out there to look at your work. So you’re basically in isolation.
A: It’s nice to have a home to go back to though.
D: It is! I think it’s better for my daughter. We can’t afford to do things that we can afford living there. Our parents are out there so they can watch the kids.
A: Do you have a studio at home?
D: No, just here. I like it because if I’m here, there doesn’t exist. I can be fully invested here. And then alternative, I can be fully invested there. There are times like yesterday we went to the park and out to lunch and got ice cream and maybe if I had a studio there I would say, ‘well let me put in a half day’.
A: It’s nice that it’s two separate environments. Do you like working here alone? Do you listen to music?
D: I do listen to music. I like working here alone though, it’s a pretty crowded building and I can take advantage of that. A second set of eyes is always helpful. Sometimes I’ll end up working in complete silence. But I like listening to music. These paintings are very personal, but I think they can become about some very universal themes. Especially with what’s been going on with violence and anger, but also beauty. These fractured things that are still together, for the better. But your question about music, (I listen to) top 40. Unless there’s a little bit of method acting that goes along with these and then I’ll listen to some sad emo song that I liked when I was 18. I hope no one follows me on spotify.
A: Do you title the works?
D: I do. Some of these have titles, some I’m still working on.
D: The biggest one is the shape because the last body of work that I did that people saw were all circles. Then I moved to the triangle, but I want them to be more organic so I don’t have an ending point. A lot of times I don’t want to fall into the same form because it’s easy. I think that’s been a roadblock lately, to just not continually make the same painting. It’s such an organic process, so there will be ten bad ones before there’s a good one but at least I can save pieces.
A: Yeah you basically source your own works.
D: It’s a form of drawing I guess, or collage.
A: Are there any emerging artists that you’ve seen lately that you like? D: There’s a girl that just graduated from the Studio School, Rose Lopeman. She’s pretty good. A: What does she do?
D: She’s a builder like me. She’s more of a sculptor than I am, but definitely check her out. I used to share a studio before I moved here with Dana James. She pours onto the canvas, kind of like a Frankenthaler, but a little bit more punk. Another painter, Ben Pritchard.
A: Being in New York is amazing because you can always find someone new to like.
D: Oh absolutely. And I think you said it in one of your interviews, there are just so many.
A: Yeah! It’s really hard to sift through. At what point did you think art was a viable career option to do?
D: About two years ago. I had a studio in New Jersey and someone suggested to me that I should move out here and give it a shot and I did.
A: And it’s been working out.
D: It’s been working out and I think that in some capacity I would have to do it. So I don’t think I get to choose if it’s a viable option. I just have to do it and try to make all the other pieces work.
A: And your family is really supportive?
D: Yeah, I mean there are things that come into play like money. So that’s a big one and I’m an abstract painter so it’s hard for a lot of people to get.
A: Do you do figurative stuff anymore?
D: No, it’s all this. A lot of times when I get home, she’s four but she knows I’m a painter, so I’ll come home and she wants to paint. It’s the last thing I want to do when I get home a lot, but we’ve been drawing figures a lot.
A: Your dad used to take you to museums, is there anything that sticks out in your mind as a really big art memory?
D: The first big art viewing memory I have was much later, Jenny Saville’s show at Gagosian. It was these larger than life figure paintings, a little bit Freud, a little bit de Kooning. I was just like wow, that’s really something.
A: Do you like working in a large format?
D: Yeah, I think there are challenges that the small ones don’t have. In the small format there are challenges that the large ones don’t have. Especially now I have the ability to (work in large format) so I want to do it.
A: I find that a lot with artists that I speak to. Once they have the space and the availability to do that, they love doing it. Finding the space to do it is hard.
D: I’m lucky because the gallery has been extremely supportive with me being here, which is why I’m here. My old studio wasn’t nearly this big and I still made big work, but it was just kind of falling on me.
A: Oh, how heavy are these?
D: They can be deceiving. That (points to work) I don’t know how I got it on the wall. I got it on myself and I tried to lift it off, but I can’t. I was working on it on the floor and I lifted it up and I was just like, ‘this is going on the wall’.
A: Sheer force of will.
D: I needed to see it and I did it. After I make the final move, there’s a lot of reinforcement. I’m a good carpenter, so these may look like they’re about to fall apart, but eventually they’re structurally sound.
A: Did you teach yourself how to do carpentry?
D: I did. I didn’t know how to do anything about it. It was almost out of necessity. It was like, ‘I want to build this. Youtube, how do I build it?’. The same thing at my house. We bought a house and it was ugly so I gutted the whole thing.
A: The internet is amazing. Do you collect any other artists’ work?
D: I have a couple things from trades. I have a list actually if I came into some money, I would be broke.
A: Do you hang your own work at home?
D: Not really. I have one painting in my house. It was actually because we had my daughter’s fourth birthday party there and the wall was blank so. And then I decided I liked it so I left it. I try to keep some work for myself.
A: Are there any museums you like to visit outside of the city?
A: Storm King is beautiful, any time of the year.
D: I love the Hudson Valley. It’s my end game, although I’ll probably be priced out by then. A: It’s getting so crazy. Beacon is nuts now. There’s a new museum now too, Magazzino.
D: I think I read about it.
D: I think I need to be financially successful enough before I uproot my entire family to go there. A: Do you think you would work better in the country?
D: Depends. I think it depends on space. I think if anyone has enough time for themselves…I think part of living around here you have to do 50 things to make ends meet. I often wonder as opposed to the country vs the city, what it would be like if I could just paint. I don’t have to worry about all the other aspects. But then sometimes I think it’s really good to be away from the studio.
A: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
D: I think work makes work. Just keep working hard and doing anything possible to be able to make work. I feel like aside from the lucky people who are hand picked in the beginning who are mega stars, I think it’s kind of a boxing match. You keep going, you keep getting hit. Don’t give up.
Images Courtesy of Emma Fishman (@emmafishman)