Blake Daniels (b. 1990, Cincinnati, U.S.A.) graduated in 2013 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has worked and exhibited across the United States and internationally. This summer, he was an artist in residence at Ox-Bow in Saugatuck, MI and the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT. This fall, he will be relocating to Johannesburg, ZA. He has recently exhibited at Beers Contemporary by whom he is represented, 5&J Gallery, Fresh Exhibitions, and Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts.
I briefly met Blake for the first time during the last week of his undergraduate experience at SAIC, before winding up working with him during the VOLTA NY art fair this past March, which felt like such a ‘small art world’ moment. Personally throughout the years, my relationship with the medium of painting has gone from being my main practice (during my high school years like many art students starting off), to a more strained relationship as I got caught up within the world of more sleek and shiny conceptual art with less of a history of capital A “Art” attached to it. Perhaps selfishly, I wanted to speak with Blake about his practice to help me understand how he’s connected his research and more instinctual experiences to a medium that can feel so daunting to explore both as a viewer and a maker.
How has your style developed throughout the years, and how do you think it works with the content behind your work? What draws you to using the specific medium of painting?
Materials that made marks or left some kind of residue, whether it was a box of pencils or the excess of ketchup after nearly every meal at my aunts’, became these hidden tools that brought about my thoughts and self-understanding that I didn’t have words for in youth. This became a way to play out my own disconnects with the conservative day-to-day rouse of Cincinnati life, inventing for myself an endless archive of alternative histories, stories, and locations, often with myself as the only constant. All of this is accounted for within the concept of syncretism, a haughty academic word that tries to hold the paradox of multiple and often opposed ideas, beliefs and realities – very physical realities. The funny thing is that I remember having my mother take all these drawings to be laminated at her job; I was so desperate to preserve these imagined memories and experiences, as if two sheets of hot plastic equated to some term of value and relevance, a child’s perversion of institutional visibility and legacy of sorts.
The development of my style at its simplest terms has just been my opposition and acceptance of how I touch things. Communities, environments, bodies, family, food, paintings, myself; each leaving a mark fraught between intention and incidence. In all my attempts to change my approach or medium, I manage to always maintain a sensibility that is painfully honest and revealing of myself. That may be one reason why I paint, it’s such a flexible medium. I love the challenge of making sense of disparate parts and creating non-linear narratives, often in opposition with one another, all through the same material. I can’t shake swamps at the moment; the southern landscape I have been living in this past year has caught me.
Your titles reference a lot of themes in your work as well. How and when do you decide on the text for your piece?
My work and practice are always forming relationships with language. Each work forms in a non-linear fashion and the titles develop in conjunction. Often times I will have an inkling as to the theme and title for new work, but those words are reassessed countless times during the process of painting. There is a lot of historical reference in the work and its titles, often re-contextualized. Sitting on the editorial board for ARC Magazine, a journal of Caribbean art, culture and criticism, I have really adapted language and writing as a fundamental aspect of both my process and outcome. It serves as both a thread of connection within the studio, and a beacon of communication, allowing me to really open what is often a solitary painting practice into a much larger, and now global, social practice.
Are the forms and figures in your paintings direct references to images you come across? How do you collect imagery and decide what to include in a piece?
I’m a bit bad about maintaining a visual archive for reference in my studio. I tell myself weekly I am going to organize and print all the images I am constantly looking at to have easy access to, but it has just gotten lost to time. I do not use direct references when painting but I constantly parse through reference material while I paint. That can range from personal albums, Internet caches, phone pictures and other art. I have a particular fascination with maps and structural drawings, especially regarding civil engineering and city designs. What is fundamental is my time in commute, walking mostly, any form of movement between and around places. The imagery is often collected from memories, both false and true, and conversations had. I then work it out in the under painting exactly what the image will be and the weight of form and figure.
There tends to be natural themes that arise within the work. I look back over the past three years and the work is often dealing with my personal location of social topics such as race and gender through the lens of micro narratives, which I create, maintain and control. I like to feign that I am omnipotent when making these paintings, but they often offer a great deal of imagery and content I couldn’t have accounted for without the process of building the surface. The paintings, though independent in their own right, are constantly calling upon each other with cross-references. I find myself rebuilding fragmented figures from older paintings into my newer works, beginning to create this personal diegesis.
You have lived extensively in both Savannah, GA and Johannesburg, South Africa. Could you explicate how the politics of these specific spaces have informed your practice?
I am currently living in Savannah, and will be moving back to Johannesburg later this fall. Each place I’ve lived at creeps up on my practice in different ways. Sometimes it’s more visual, like as I mentioned earlier, swamps are everywhere in my current work. Other times it’s very subtle, and plays out not specifically in paintings per se, but in the social practice that surrounds them. And at other times its logistical, like the cost and access of paint in South Africa will change the colors, size and ultimately the painting as a whole.
Spending a year now in the American South has both slowed my general pulse down, and given me this peculiar third person view of myself, location and practice that I have never found anywhere else I have lived within the United States. There are the more blatant politics, and histories, that inform race relations and my identifying as a gay male in a region iconic for its conservative values. Yet, I have found vested in cities such as Savannah and Johannesburg, a sort of honesty and willingness. This is seen most clearly in the people I have met, their quiet, humble and hard working nature, their keen vision to imagine and create beyond a lot of the parameters that are imposed (often by ourselves).
I am tragically a romantic, I love the sappiest and most poetic things at times. But in removing myself from the US, and also all over within it, I found quickly that geography never resolved my personal problems without complication. It’s been my privilege of understanding myself through my relationships with the people around me, people of such high caliber, and their willingness to drink the poison at times with me; that has influenced myself, and by way, my work and practice ineffaceably.
You participated in a few panel discussions in March 2014, including for ARC Magazine at VOLTA NY 2014, how did this expand your practice?
Each facet of my curatorial/programming/writing aspect of working within art furthers things that the paintings themselves don’t directly address. The talk at VOLTA in New York helped to further the discussion around practices of labor and exhaustion amongst artists working within or around the Caribbean. While our scope was on the Caribbean and its Diaspora, the topic of labor, exhaustion, and economic viability is paramount to any contemporary practicing artist.
I got to spend just over a week in Kingston, Jamaica in October of last year curating and exhibition titled ‘That Ship has Sailed’ at the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing arts during their large conference for the arts. I worked and met with a lot of brilliant people during this conference, and it was especially rewarding to work hand in hand with Jamaican-American artist, and good friend, Kenrick McFarlane to mount his first show in Jamaica. All of these talks, exhibitions and writing have allowed me to open up my rather solitary practice just a bit, and allow it to interact directly in the world instead of just observing it.
What are you working on currently/ what are you excited for in the future?
I am in the midst of some very large changes and journeying ahead. I recently had an exhibition this July with my good friend and fellow artist Blair Whiteford titled ‘Leisure’ at Fresh Exhibitions in Savannah, GA. Both of us have been working hard for a while to find a venue in which we could collaborate properly and mount an intimate and closely crafted show of our work. Another opportunity that has been in the works for almost a year now is my inclusion in the upcoming survey book and series of exhibitions titled ‘100 Painters of Tomorrow’ to be published by Thames & Hudson.
I am looking at diverting a great deal of my now salvaged time back into my studio I am excited to begin to focus on it more holistically with my own well being in mind which was very hard this past year due to a number of personal reasons.
And the last thing, and probably what I am most excited about is my plan to move back to Johannesburg this October with intent to begin my master’s candidacy in South Africa starting next January. This, I imagine, will change a great deal of things both personally and in the studio. That is exciting, the untapped, and a bit unclear, potential forming at my feet.