Danielle Orchard, b. 1985 in Michigan City, Indiana, raised Ft. Wayne, IN. She obtained a BFA in Painting from Indiana University in 2009 and an MFA in Painting from CUNY-Hunter College in 2013. She has studied in Florence, Italy, and Giverny, France. She was a Dedalus Foundation MFA Fellowship Recipient in 2013, and was chosen as the Alma B.C. Shapiro Artist in Residence at the Corporation of Yaddo, 2014. She joined the curatorial team at Underdonk in Brooklyn, NY, in 2014.
These paintings are about the anxiety around physical intimacy, the risks inherent to knowing another person. I paint mostly women, because that is the experience I feel best equipped to discuss. I explore these ideas by culling from Western art history, and look to Analytic Cubism, the Italian Renaissance, the Chicago Imagists, the Bay Area painters–any moment when the female figure has been used to indicate an otherwise hidden psychological position. My process is disorganized and frenetic, with an emphasis on the tactile and sculptural quality of oil paint. I pour, scrape, and build up thick fields of impasto until an image is realized. I search for sources on Instagram and in museums and books, and am most strongly drawn to points of physical pressure–two vases touching in a Morandi, Georgia O'Keefe's hand resting on a cow skull–elliptical moments that I hope to capture and merge with the cast of characters I paint, characters who are, ultimately, proxies for myself.
Q&A with Danielle Orchard
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Danielle! Can you tell us a bit about your background and what prompted you to become an artist?
I grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, as one of 6 kids. I attribute my consistent interest in painting the figure, at least in part, to the size of my family. I’ve always loved drawing and making things, and when I got to Indiana University in 2004, I was lucky to work with a few exceptional painting professors, in particular Barry Gealt, whose relationship to painting is both critical and romantic. I traveled with him and our painting class to Giverny, France, and Florence, Italy. Until recently, I don’t think I fully appreciated the education he was offering us. Painting history felt accessible and malleable. It was also during this time that I met some of my best friends. We were a tightly knit, competitive group, and those relationships have continued into our 30s.
Do you usually work at a particular scale?
My ideal scale is around 70 inches, but I enjoy and rely on smaller canvases. I try to have a mix of different dimensions on hand, from 11 x 14 inches on up. I’ve always been averse to preparatory studies. I believed confusion and anxiety should be stored and directed toward the principal canvas. I was afraid of losing the sense of freedom offered by dramatic revision. Now I can see that confusion, anxiety, and the freedom to revise aren’t going anywhere, and that it’s actually really fun to allow ideas to spread out and develop across several surfaces. A painter I admire referred to the studio wall as an “ecosystem,” which perfectly describes the game of looking for formal and narrative connections across different studies.
Can you walk us through the stages of planning and making a painting?
Aside from my newfound love of preparatory studies, I’ve also been into transcribing my own mostly-inscrutable notes. I can never fully recall why I took a screenshot or wrote down a phrase or color idea, but it’s fun to guess at one’s prior intent. It’s half memory game, half stream of consciousness exercise. I recently saw the amazing Thaw drawing collection at the Morgan library, and my friend and I were both moved by Van Gogh’s note taking. He would scribble in color ideas, “greenish yellow,” for instance, that may or may not have been an adequate reminder, but retained just enough of a color idea to prove useful. My paintings usually grow from these little notes and sketches, combined with gestures and themes pulled from Western painting history.
Do you you prepare the canvas prior to painting in order to create the very rough, textured surface or is inherent to the process of painting?
I like to gesso first and then follow with a few coats of oil primer. I don’t add anything to alter the texture, but if there are clumps or inconsistencies in the oil primer, I usually leave them. The rough texture comes gradually from reworking.
Do you work from drawings, references or life at all?
I ran life drawing sessions at Indiana University, and then again at Hunter College. I really miss it, and keep talking about bringing it back in some capacity. I refer to photographic images all the time, most often things I’ve saved on Instagram, but I never paint from them directly. I have to translate them first into my own hand, and then work from the drawings. Without that middle step, I can't get the images to sit in a canvas. I find it difficult to decide if a drawing is a successful work in its own right, and I rarely sit down to make a serious, intentional work on paper. That might relate to the amount of line that I use in my paintings–the impulse to draw might be satisfied there. I usually view my works on paper as private, preparatory ideas, but I want to change that, and recommit myself to a serious drawing practice.
Have you always worked figuratively?
Yes, but with a varying degree of legibility. My undergraduate work had a heavy De Kooning influence, and I was more interested in obscuring narrative than I am now. In my thesis work at Hunter, narrative legibility was very important. I was painting maternal scenes, and I was very interested in the hidden psychology of mothers, and the difference in scale, almost hierarchical, from child to mother. I’m also embracing intentional rendering and stylization, two things that I always felt were impermissible, but now seem part of a central painting conversation.
Are there any overarching themes that you keep returning to in your work?
Although I’ve moved away from scenes of mothers and children, the impulse to locate intimate, universal themes in the Western canon still guides most of my work. I’m drawn to themes that are iconic, almost cliched, motifs so common they go unnoticed; our relationship to them as viewers is almost unthinking. Right now I’m painting written correspondence, like rejection letters, for instance. I love making common sources of joy and disappointment outsize and dramatic.
You are a member and curator at Underdonk, an artist-run space in Ridgewood. Can you tell us more about your role at the gallery?
Underdonk is great, and I’m lucky to be a part of it. I joined at at time when I was feeling very isolated from my peers, and from my reasons for moving to New York. I was waiting tables, hating my paintings, and feeling very cut off. Underdonk was rejuvenating. Viewing art had a new dimension. Every time I visit an artist’s studio, I’m looking for connections and through lines. The aspect of the this project that allows us to stay committed, as busy artists with children and jobs and lives, is its inherent flexibility. Responsibility shifts regularly and fairly. We take turns curating and co-curating shows, and once a year we band together to hold a benefit auction to fund our programming for the coming year. Elisa Soliven curated our next show, opening Friday, December 1st.
What is a typical day like for you?
I would describe my days as severely lacking in regimentation. I wake up sometimes early, sometimes late, and then I drink a bunch of coffee and look at the Internet until I feel bad about myself, and then I head to the studio. Sometimes I worry about mortality and go to the gym for twenty minutes. When I have fantasies about moving out of the city one day, a central theme is waking up at the same time everyday and having regular meals.
Who are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
I have a bunch of staples, including Morandi, Matisse, Pontormo, Sillman, Vuillard, Bonnard, Beckmann, Kirchner, Willem De Kooning, Alice Neel. More recently I’ve been really into Mary Fedden, Lois Dodd, Giovanni Bellini, Felix Vallotton, Heidi Hahn, and Holly Coulis.
Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your groove or energy in the studio?
Stress from personal relationships and money are the two biggest sources of derailment. When I can keep those under control, I’m usually very productive. I also have the bad habit of not eating when I’m hungry, then losing all energy and focus.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro and Raymond Carver’s poems and short fiction have been relatively recent, very important reads for me. I’m now reading John Cheever, but in a very half-assed fashion. I’ve mentioned this a million times, but the Amy Sillman Weight of Color lecture is really interesting.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
I go back and forth between podcasts and music. There are days when I’ll go through one artist’s repertoire, and other days when I’ll listen to hours of political podcasts. I love Sound and Vision with Brian Alfred, and WTF with Marc Maron. I have a friend who’s a podcast enthusiast, and sends me lectures by painters, poets and writers. Sometimes I just want to hear albums that I loved in high school.
Can you tell us a bit about your studio space? What are absolute necessities in the studio?
I have a new studio in Greenpoint, on Porter Avenue. I drive there from Bedstuy. I’ve never been one to dramatically personalize my studio. I don’t have a couch or lofted storage or anything like that. It’s very simple–bookshelves, a painting table, a drawing desk, and a couple of chairs. I keep my brushes clean, but I’m otherwise very messy. I never have caps on my paint. I like to walk and get coffee or tea while I’m painting, to take a break and clear my head, so there are quite a few empty coffee cups. I need access to a lot of painting books. There’s also Color-Aid paper scattered everywhere. I'll sometimes pull color ideas directly from the chance arrangements of this paper, and I also use it to make tiny, abstract collages that inform larger painting moves. I also mix paint to match Color-Aid, which helps when I feel like my palette is getting stale or muddy.
How do you navigate distraction or lagging motivation while working?
I try to put my phone in a coat pocket, or somewhere out of immediate reach, so that I have to remove my gloves to get to it. When I’m lacking in motivation or inspiration, I’ll usually just stop working and flip through books or call someone. I find that pushing through does not help me, but stepping back has the potential to.
What brought you to NYC from Indiana?
A bad break up, and acceptance to Hunter College.
Are there any other artist-run projects that are doing interesting things or that you feel are having a positive impact?
So many! I love 106 Greene, Underdonk’s neighbors TSA and Microscope, and Mrs. are all showing exciting work.
Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I’m doing a week-long show as part of Journal Gallery’s Tennis Elbow series, which opens at noon on December 2nd, and I have a few paintings in a group show at D.C. Moore, up through December.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us!
To find out more about Danielle and her work, check out her website.