Interview with Dan Fig
Questions by Beatrice Helman
Hi Dan! Thank you so much for talking to us. What originally drew you to becoming an artist?
I have an idea that’s somewhere between memory and family lore, but on a trip to the Guggenheim when I was five or six I cried in the gift shop because I wanted a t-shirt with Roy Lichtenstein’s Grrrrrrrrrrr!! on it. Lichtenstein has remained a favorite and probably, in some way, drew me into thinking visually. Calvin and Hobbes was also a big influence, as well as The Far Side and Non Sequitur.
The idea that you could be an artist, earn a living as an artist, didn’t really occur to me until late in college and the conviction to actually pursue that came even later. I didn’t make art for two years after graduating. One of my professors strongly recommended not aiming for grad school right out of the gate, to test whether or not you really had that itch. I taught English for a while overseas and didn’t do much with art but when I moved back to the U.S., to Brooklyn, I looked for a studio right away.
When did you first start painting specifically, and how has your relationship to the act of painting changed over time? Do you remember the first piece that you consciously knew was a painting?
The first time I ever painted was in undergrad, in an intro class at Rutgers. I wasn’t so good at painting representationally and still life and portrait classes were rough. I’m better at it now but there’s always been this instinct to flatten things, to work in two dimensions. I’m sure it has to do with being brought up on Calvin and Hobbes as well as my years studying and working in graphic design, my first intended major in undergrad.
My technical ability has grown and I’m better at making things as I see them in my mind’s eye. And the relationship with painting has become much more deliberate over time.That includes the way I think about it, the act of painting has grown to be an expression of agency for me. I don’t know about the first piece I thought of as a painting but there was a still life of some rags from undergrad that I still like, it’s not unrelated to how I paint now. The rags are simplified and shadows are strongly emphasized, it’s sort of a stylized and concise still life but definitely by accident, I was really trying to paint them as I saw them. But it’s a pretty good painting, I still have it.
Can you take us through your process when starting a new painting?
The last few paintings have come from these images that came to me right before falling asleep. And then I try to hold the image in my mind and if it’s still there by the time I get to the studio the next day I sketch it out. They’ve stayed very true to the original sleepy image as well as the following sketch, which is new and satisfying.
The previous paintings have a more concrete process. I have tons of printed photos from when I’ve been able to travel. In the last three years I’ve spent time in Western Europe, Japan, and Scandinavia. I start with an image that I’m drawn to, a poster for ice cream in Kyoto, cairns in Bergen, a public sculpture in Paris. This particular image or something like it becomes a central element and an orbit begins to form. For a while I decided to only use things that were entirely invented or, if using a reference, that I’d encountered in person. Despite the look of the works, the process is improvisational. I have a built up library of references that become part of the orbit and when compositional issues arise I reference that or paint something made up in a space that feels neglected or unbalanced.
I read a description where your work was described as including “amalgamations of cultural influences” and was wondering if you could talk more about that, and potentially about the different cultural influences that you explore within your work?
I think I relate this most to travel and the influence it has in the studio. “Cultural influences” is a vague term but I think visual culture, especially the distilling of ideas into images, shapes a lot of the work I do. And when I get to travel I see how different cultures interpret and synthesize concepts into language and visual descriptors. Way-finding is one way to see this but advertising is more interesting for me, the language, both visual and written, has to be concise and attractive and this means something different in every country, every culture. There are only a few languages I can read a little bit of so it usually comes to down to the visual elements and interpreting what they communicate, which is the nature of these ads anyway. Getting to see all the different ways that can happen (and there are several other ways outside of advertising, that example is more concrete than most, though) comes back to into the studio with me and influences how each painting thereafter is made. The coming together of these different influences on a single surface, mixed with my own made up crap, is the amalgamation that happens, the convergence of several different ways of expressing just a few ideas. That and soccer.
Do you have an interest in art history?
I do, and I reference it a bunch in my paintings. I love quoting other artists and looking back at those who have said part of what I want to say. I really enjoyed taking different Art History classes in undergrad and analyzing particular works and ultimately getting to travel and see these works in person, there’s nothing like it. I really believe if you have an interest in art you should save what money you can and see art in other countries. Getting to see Japanese woodcuts in person and gaining this insight into representation that, in many ways, essentially led to cartooning; seeing Cimabue and della Francesca in Italy, these are invaluable experiences and explorations of the real deal. It’s really shaped how I think about art and art history and has led to how I make work now.
Could you talk about some of the benefits of doing residencies, and how they help your process? What are the benefits of leaving your space for another?
Yeah, everyone should do residencies. I did one in France and it was great, it was in a really small town with a group of artists from all over the world. Every artist should hang out with people from other countries, I got to see just how stuck in my bubble I was. The artists they referenced, their cultural perspectives, the books they’d read, their takes on the roles of the curator, the museum, the gallery and so on- that alone made the trip worth it. Even just having a friend from London I learned about several artists that I would not have known otherwise. I mean, I have a friend from LA who has told me about artists whose work I definitely should have been aware of and had never heard of. Residencies broaden what and who you’re thinking about and challenge what you already think you know, even if you don’t go abroad for them.
And being in an unfamiliar space to make art is like all of that as well. I don’t have the resources to just ship my stuff over to another space in another part of the world so I had to essentialize my studio. It makes me think of an assignment I had in undergrad, we had to make a painting that did what we wanted it to do in the most concise terms. I had to do that with my materials in traveling to a new space and I learned a lot about what I want out of a surface and which are the right tools for the job. It helped a lot and really shaped the way I thought about my studio after that.
Part of the joy and genius of your work is that it does seem to work with both what’s extremely familiar—a fish tank, a soccer ball—and also the absurd and abstract. Can you talk about the relationship between those two and the intention behind bringing them together in one coherent piece?
I think of the absurd as a guiding rule. I should clarify that I don’t think absurd means stupid or nonsensical. A fish tank is absurd but it has a sort of cultural persistence that means it’s not generally thought of that way. They’re deemed not absurd because of their ubiquity (an absurd idea in its own right), but the notion that we should replicate a water breathing creature’s environment in our homes for our own please or company is bonkers. Who would ever think to think that a fish should be a companion in their home? But a collective belief in that idea pushes it from nonsensical to normative.
I’m really attracted to this idea that the absurd is subtle and not often challenged, I don’t know if it’s art’s role to do that but I think it is part of what I do. I don’t mean that as a form of “social commentary” but as a guiding principle in my studio. People like John Oliver and Trevor Noah use comedy to point out the absurdity that’s always around us, which makes it a little easier to digest but it’s always there, funny or not. Magritte functions in this sort of way and I think the great success in his work is that it’s not surrealist at all, it’s absurdist. And it’s the subtlety with which he addresses that absurdity that makes it challenging and smart.
If the familiar and the absurd are essentially the same, it’s fun to combine with them with the abstract. I think of the paintings as sort of flirting with the representational and the abstract, objects that exist in non-perspectival spaces and as such have arbitrary and undefined rules- their scale shifts aren’t tied to anything in particular and so they can become layers in a compositionally abstract sense while still referencing objects that have an existence in the physical world. The different perspectives should not exist together but they don’t have to adhere to this rule. Which is part of belief in painting and the agency in creates, the space to make an image that is tied to fewer and fewer restrictions and thus more autonomous.
You seem to use a lot of sports imagery—I played soccer growing up and so when I see a soccer ball I swoon a little bit. Did you play any sports growing up or is it more a fascination with our fascination with athletics?
I played soccer growing up and I still play today. I also coach at a school on the Upper West side. I think the fascination you mention is also my fascination with the sport. In my relationship with the game I’m both active participant and passive observer. I’ve learned a lot from getting to see both sides and more now as a coach. I’ve never thought of myself as directly addressing the phenomena of sport, I think because I’m part of that, but, especially with soccer, I’m aware of the global scope and the deification of the game and the players. It’s a complicated issue because there’s a reverence and belief in the game itself and it’s potential that’s sadly tied to the lagging conservatism of the machines that run the game, the corruption of FIFA being a prime example. That’s maybe getting a little off topic, but to be more direct I’m absolutely fascinated with football and I’m going to continue to try and bring that feeling into the studio.
Do you find that there’s a relationship between say, soccer and painting, or that one is a release from the other?
This is something I wrote about extensively in grad school. I arrived at the conclusion that the two are parallel, that they can mirror one another in terms of cultural weight and phenomena but I don’t believe their paths can cross. There are some great artworks inspired by football (Niki de Saint Phalle’s Les Footballeurs being a great example) but there are no great football matches inspired by art. One can be interpreted as the other, but they are inherently separate. This has a lot to do with how each is experienced. The World Cup has a viewership of around 3.2 billion,
Tt’s bubble is a little under half the planet’s population. How many people go to the Venice Biennale, a cynical equivalent as a world event?
Anyhow, in my own studio I think there is a relationship between the two and while I can reference the game I haven’t yet (and don’t know if I ever will) found a way to fold it into the work that really addresses how I feel about it. The simple act of making art addresses how I feel about art, but referencing a thing within that lacks the same gravity.
Can you discuss some of the advantages or disadvantages of getting an MFA? Have you found that you thrive in a school environment or that it’s given you perspective, opportunities, etc.?
Community is a huge advantage and such an important part of being an artist. A lot of us spend several days at a time on our own and it’s really important to be in touch with people who will give you real feedback and just get a drink with you sometimes. Getting an MFA is hard, even at Hunter it was a huge financial burden, you also get a lot of contradictory advice, your access to classes is pretty bad at first, and it can be hard to get studio visits with the visiting lecturers. That being said, I love being in school and how it functions when it functions at its best. It’s been really difficult to finish school and find a path, I didn’t really make anything for several months. But I do have the community I grew into while in grad school and that’s helped a lot.
How did your work change during the duration of the program?
I experimented a lot, I tried my hand at sculpture, video, animation, installation, digital kinetic works, a whole bunch of stuff. In the end the biggest changes were all in painting. My focus, my technical ability, taking the time to make studies, to learn a new technique before trying to use it, saving up and buying quality materials that take a lot of the legwork out of just using crappy, cheap stuff- these were all things I learned in grad school, a lot of them come from working with just one professor in particular. In a way, I came back to where I started. The work I finished grad school felt directly linked to what I applied with, this time with an approach and growth that came with three years of focused study. (btw, yes, Hunter is a three year program).
Your work has such a clear energy to it. What is your personal relationship to motion?
That’s funny because I’ve always thought of the work as pretty static. I think that also has to do with spending so much time with an image that your relationship with it shifts so drastically that it loses some of it’s original luster. I’ll often think a space is empty because it was one of the first things I painted, but really there’s something there that holds it own and I’m just overthinking things.
In terms of my personal relationship, I play football whenever I can, usually several times a week. I like to ride my bike a lot, but I don’t think of myself as very active. Give me a ball to chase and two goals and I’m in.
Do you ever work with other media besides paint?
I tried lots of different things in grad school and I always came back to painting. I think there is more in me that might exist outside of paint, but I don’t feel that it’s time to explore that yet.
Your work definitely has an element of humor, at least, in my opinion. Would you agree with that? What is your relationship to humor in your work?
I do agree with that! I have some friends who are comedians, I’m jealous of them cause I’m not funny and I always wanted to be. I think I try to make up for some of that with my paintings. I really like the idea that a static image can communicate something funny. It requires a distillation of concept and imagery to arrive at something that has a comedic impact, though that’s true outside of art as well.
I see the relationship to humor as being directly linked to the ideas about absurdity I mentioned. I think the humor has to do with the palette and the attitude it conveys as well as the coming together of several seemingly unrelated things in a single space. And they’re paintings and paintings are historically taken seriously. When done for comedy’s sake, an absurd thing being taken seriously will always make me laugh. For me that comedic attitude is epitomized in the French move The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe or a film like Being There (one of Peter Sellers best) and I’d love it if my paintings had some of what makes those funny as well.
Do you see art as a tool for engaging with politics, and if so, how?
I number among those American who became politically aware and engaged after the advent of the fiasco of this administration. I’ve learned a lot, including that I know and believe the answer to this question is yes and that I don’t yet know exactly what I mean by that.
What does a typical day look like for you? How do you stay focused?
On my best studio days I bike up to Williamsburg and play soccer at 7AM. Then home to shower and pack up, and over to the studio with the pup by 9:30. Lately I’ll do some quick watercolors and then start painting. I usually know what I’m going to work on before I get there. I pack my lunch and watch something on my laptop while I eat, nothing longer than a sitcom without commercials. Our arbitrary rules. After lunch I’ll paint for as long as I can before I need to head to a job or, if I don’t have to work that day, until something is done. I try to leave something set up for the following day before I go, whether it’s just setting up stuff to start a watercolor or stretching and prepping a larger surface.
I usually bring a checklist to the studio and when my mind starts to stray I use it as a reference and get to working on something on there. I have an obsessive relationship with time and efficiency, sometimes to my detriment. I’m always, always planning what to do, the best way to do it, and how it can be done most efficiently. It helps me stay focused in the studio. Having to work, though I’d rather not work at all, is part of that and does help with setting time based goals for getting things done in the studio. But I won’t rush things, then you just got it wrong once and have to do it again. I work quickly, naturally. I mean, I also use acrylics and those are quick. It’s not by accident that the medium and I relate to one another.
Are there any other contemporary artists who have influenced your work or have inspired you to attempt new directions? Or, who you just love right now?
My favorite living artist is Camille Henrot, she’s brilliant. I saw her video Grosse Fatigue in Venice in 2013 and I was completely taken with it. I could go on about it forever so I’ll just say google it if you’re not familiar, it’s perfect. The rest of her work, too.
The biggest influences in the studio lately have been Nicholas Krushenick, Patrick Caulfield, Valerio Adami, and Erró. I’ll be in London briefly this winter and I’m hoping to see more of Caulfield’s paintings in person, they don’t make it over here that often.
What are some of the things that are important to you in your day-to-day process of being in the studio?
Keeping the space clean and organized. Podcasts, snacks, taking breaks. The time difference between here and Europe means I can have a really good soccer match on just about every day I’m in there, which mostly energizes me in there and only sometimes distracts me. But if it’s a game I know I want to focus on I’ll just do that, no use ruining part of a painting cause my attention is elsewhere.
Are you a social person while you’re working or more solitary? Are you a person of routine, or more spur-of-the-moment?
Solitary, without a doubt. Though to be fair, Mina, my dog is often in the studio with me. But I need a private space, lock and key, walls to the ceiling, to feel comfortable enough to stay focused. Luckily I’ve been able to find that, I know that gets increasingly difficult here in Brooklyn. I’m big on routine and organization. I like to function within an outline that has room for improvisation. An unscripted TV show could be a good metaphor, something with a clear cut structure and wiggle room.
Along those lines, what are you reading? What are you listening to? What are you watching?
I never read Waiting for Godot so I started it just today. And I often re-read passages in Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game when I’m in the studio. It’s a collection of correspondence between Karl Ove Knausgaard and Frederik Ekelund during the 2014 World Cup. It might be my favorite book, they stray into subjects unrelated to the game and wax philosophical in their matter-of-fact, pragmatic tones. It’s my perfect studio break book.
Podcasts are always on in the studio, some favorites are Pod Save America, Reply All, Today, Explained, Civics 101, The Weeds, My Dad Wrote a Porno, Slow Burn, as well as some fiction ones like Tanis and Ars Paradoxica. I haven’t been listening to much music but I love anything by WHY? or LCD Soundsystem.
I like to watch Explained when I take a break in the studio, the Netflix counterpart to the podcast Today, Explained. I can always watch an episode of 30 Rock, the best show ever. And have been making my through Community again, basically all the early aughts NBC comedies.
What are some of your other great loves outside of art?
Soccer and everything about it, playing, watching, and now coaching. Travel and language are a big influence in the studio. I love etymology from a cultural standpoint, understanding how a word has changed meaning in it historical context and came to be what it is today. I also really love typography and font design. And baking and eating cookies.
What is your personal relationship to social media? Do you find that it supports your work, and your growth, or that it’s dangerous to your creative process? Do you use it solely personally or for professional reasons as well?
I’m on instagram and I’m okay with it. I deleted it from my phone recently cause I was just looking at it way too much. I’ve heard social media characterized as being on the millionth page of the world’s most boring book and you can’t stop reading. So eventually I got around to getting rid of the book. Sort of. I have a device that stays at home and it’s on there so I can check it and post from time to time. I’ve found it to be distracting and it would often get me down, but I think it’s a professional necessity as a visual artist these days.
Is there any advice from your past that really resonated with you?
Don’t network, make friends.
Are there any reoccurring themes that you keep coming back to? Are there any concepts that you’re excited to explore but haven’t yet?
If I had to boil it down, I’d say pareidolia has been a guiding light for years now. This is the phenomena of seeing patterns where they don’t really exist, or a fancy way to say we see faces in everything. It’s a psychological phenomena but I think from a cultural standpoint it has to do with our need to find humanity in things that don’t explicitly exhibit any, to make the absurd familiar so we can feel more comfortable with it. This is why we see faces in electrical outlets and on Mars. In my paintings, it’s been about creating faces but also using the absurd the create a familiarity, as mentioned earlier. It’s taken many different forms, but it’s been a lynchpin in the studio.
I also believe that “you’ll use every single thing you know,” as Steve Martin said in his memoir Born Standing Up. It’s been fun to see that happen in the studio and recognize the cyclical nature of what I reference and continue to hold an interest in.
I really like the idea of skeuomorphism and I’d love to get deeper into it. This is the concept of making something that references it’s original form despite having been developed beyond that. One example is the iPhone ring that sounds like a rotary phone, another is how the Kindle mimics printed ink. It’s this sort of mashup of technological obsolescence and cultural persistence that I find really interesting. I don’t know how I’d explore it, but I like the idea and I find myself thinking about over and over again.
Do you have any projects, shows or residencies coming up?
Not much on the horizon for now, possibly a group show in October. Looking forward to lots of studio time.
Thank you so much for talking with us!
Thank you! Really excited to be part of this.
To find out more about Dan and his work, check out his website.