Dan Lam was born in the Philippines to Vietnamese refugee parents. The small family made their way to Texas when she was just a baby and established in Houston. Later, she and her mother would move to Dallas, TX.
Always one to follow her intuition and passion, she pursued an academic path in the fine arts. Dan obtained her Bachelors of Fine Arts from the University of North Texas in the fall of 2010 and went on to a Master's program in Fine Arts at Arizona State University, graduating in the spring of 2014. Since her March 2014 thesis exhibition Can I Touch at the Harry Wood Gallery in Tempe, AZ, Dan has been busy participating in group shows and producing new work. She is represented by the online gallery Insituworks.com, an online marketplace which is backed by the New York Foundation for the Arts.
She is currently working with Left Field SLO gallery located in San Luis Obispo, California. She participated in their Inaugural Show in March 2015 and is set to have a group show at Left Field in early 2016. In March her work was apart of Kid Stuff, a juried group show at Halt Gallery in Phoenix, AZ. In May, her work was displayed in Venice as part of the BiennialProject’s online juried competition ArtVenice Bienniale 3. Her newest work can be seen currently at Kamiposi Gallery in Midland, Texas and at Holly Johnson Gallery in Dallas, Texas. Dan has had the honor of being published twice in New American Paintings, first in the MFA Issue no. 111 as Juror’s Pick and she will be in the upcoming West Region Issue No. 120.
Open to new experiences and surroundings, Dan moved from the large city of Phoenix, AZ in the fall of 2014 to the small town of Midland, Texas. Always on the look out for new adventures, she is setting her sights on the next place to call home.
Q&A with Dan Lam
by Lydia O'Reilly
Your works have a bulbous, biological quality to them. How did you develop the idea for them? They almost remind me of sea anemones, microbes, children's toys, reptilian animals, or even cake frosting. Are these bad comparisons?
These newer pieces have grown of a body of work I made that dealt with the idea of attraction and repulsion, where something beautiful becomes too much. Continuing with themes of beauty, the work reflects ideas of covering up and how one presents themselves to the world. Sometimes the pieces reveal themselves, hints of how they're made, the messiness underneath, and areas that are not so perfect.
While I do look to nature for inspiration, I refrain from direct references. I love hearing the different comparisons people see in the work, which to me implies that I'm pushing the boundaries of the materials. Personally, I relate a lot of the textures, shapes, colors to the body and things that affect the body - fatty forms, candy colors, and decorative textures.
The shapes seem to bubble and swell organically, yet the material/colors/textures are synthetic. Is your work intended to make a statement about artificiality and naturalness? What questions do you want viewers to ask themselves as they look at your work?
Definitely, I think of the synthetic material/organic shape relationship as a reference to our own ideas of what is real/fake when it comes to our constructs of beauty. The tension created when you pair two seemingly opposing things is very interesting to me, you learn quickly that they aren't that far apart from each other.
I’d like there to be some exploration as to why the viewer is attracted to a piece or more interestingly, why they dislike something. It’s easy to dismiss something at first glance if you don’t like it, but sort of forcing yourself to look at it longer than you normally would is where the juicy self-discoveries are.
Do you make a plan on paper first, and then execute in 3D? Or is it more of an intuitive, free form process? What is your starting point---a color? a texture? a mood?
Usually I see the basic shapes and colors that I want in my mind and go from there. I work on multiple pieces at a time and a discovery in one can lead to a decision or start another piece. The nature of the materials I work with allow for control and flexibility. I can dictate where things go, but in the end, I have to let the materials expand and let gravity do its work. I will occasionally sketch a quick shape to revisit later, but my sketchbook is more writing.
I creeped on your Instagram and saw some photos of your process. Can you explain this process a little bit for us? What is your favorite stage of the creation process?
I lay down layers of foam, usually on some kind of armature, manipulating the material and getting it to look the way I want it to. Then I use layers of paint and resin, back and forth, until it's finished. It varies from piece to piece, but that's the general process. I work on multiple pieces at a time.
I really enjoy working with the foam, it’s the most challenging part. It’s difficult to control and timing is huge, so it’s always an exercise in letting go. I’m very interested in color theory, so choosing colors and seeing color interaction is another favorite part.
How do you arrive at the final form? How do you determine when a piece is "finished"?
It’s very intuitive. It's my nature to fill up the space as much as possible and it speaks to the idea of excess, so I usually call a piece finished when I can't do much else to it.
You had a show in 2014 titled Can I Touch. So, COULD visitors touch your artwork? Are they encouraged to? How does tactile experience factor into visual experience?
At Can I Touch the pieces were really tough. They had hard exteriors and were strong, I used a denser foam. The opening night I let people touch them.
Now that I’ve been spiking them, some are bit more sensitive. A few have become painful to hold. Depending on the kind of acrylic I’m using or if I layer resin on top of the spikes, they can prick. So now there’s this layer of the desire to touch, but you kind of get rejected. This beautiful thing becomes potentially harmful.
Some of your pieces even begin to break the confines of traditional art display, melting onto the floor, dripping/seeping onto the surrounding wall, etc. Do you plan to do any site-specific work in the future? Where would be a dream site to install your artwork?
It’s a goal! I absolutely want to do a site-specific piece. I haven’t been able to fully mentally realize what that could look like until recently, so I’d jump at the opportunity.
The freestanding sculptures are great within a living space because they can pop up anywhere, sort of just living with you. It would be amazing to do something like that in a home, where the art interacts with the furniture and fixtures. A dream site would be something like the Rachovsky House.
Your earlier work was much more 2D. How did you become more interested in 3-dimensional work? How does this sculptural quality change how the viewer engages with the art?
I started undergrad do a lot of abstract 2D paintings. I began to question the idea and tradition of painting and wanted to expand beyond the square. I started exploring different materials and building up texture and surface. Eventually the materials grew off the surface. Through lots of trial and error, I found resin and polyurethane foam and they did exactly what I was hoping for.
The sculptural quality just begs to be handled and touched. My earlier 2D works always received comments like “I want to taste it”, probably due to my use of texture and color. It’s gone from wanting to taste to touch.
When did you begin working with polyurethane foam, resin, and acrylic? What has been most challenging about mastering this unusual medium?
I discovered the material at the beginning of graduate school. I was using heavy materials like hot glue and plaster and it wasn’t feasible to go large with those materials for me.
Using non-traditional media can be difficult because you have to learn everything about it yourself, there isn't a class or how-to book on it. But at the same time, that leaves a lot of room for experimenting and unique results.
Thanks so much for sharing you work and talking with us!
To find out more about Dan's work, check out the artist's website.