Danny Ferrell: making art that blows your heart wide open!

Growing up in a conservative community, Danny Ferrell’s paintings are at once personal, political and universal. Turning the male gaze in upon itself, his work explores masculinity and gay identity. Danny’s visual language and imaginative figurative style evoke a contemporary romanticism that disrupts traditional gender tropes and representation. The candid figures that inhabit his compositions are beautifully rendered, often situated in natural settings and suffused as if from within in golden lighting that radiates a homo-erotic glow.

Danny uses signifiers of popular culture to anchor his images in a particular time and place. Despite this, the diffused lighting and rich colors conjure up feelings of youthful nostalgia and long, carefree summer days. Beneath this rose-tinted narrative however is a real story of struggle, otherness and self-love. In the illuminating interview that follows, Danny shares some of his personal narrative as an artist as well as insights into his work. With a Masters in Painting from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Danny Ferrell lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

AMM: To start things off can you please tell us a little about your artistic journey thus far, and maybe some of the highs and lows that have shaped your career?

DF: I’m from a really small town in central Pennsylvania, a place where conservative, religious traditional family values are placed above all others. If you deviated from those cultural norms, you were treated as a pariah, a herald of immorality. In my hometown, my sexual identity was merely a role which one could “perform”. As a young gay boy, I was forced to conceal my authentic self from my friends, family and peers, which left me with severe feelings of alienation and guilt. When I entered my teens, I started questioning why the world was the way that it was, so I began combining larger ideological questions with my natural facility for painting. My formative environment provided me with the emotional temperament to engage in creative endeavors, but my othered personal history remains the beating heart in all of my work.

For me, the highs and lows are summarized in my story — low for the obvious reasons, high because it shaped who I am and solidified the themes in my work. Other highs and lows are going to RISD and every show that I have had the privilege of participating in. Conversely, I find myself quite blue when I can’t quite grasp an idea, or a painting fails (which is often!).

AMM: What appeals to you about hyperrealism? Can you tell us a little about how you’ve developed your style over the years?

DF: When I was kid, I suffered from a tremendous amount of bullying from kids and adults alike. The harassment was so severe that my parents enrolled me in weekly martial arts classes, which
I took for more than a decade. Thankfully, I had a facility for drawing that superseded people’s perception of me. Art making was a glimmer of positivity in my life, something that no one could take away from me. As a result, I was absolutely determined to draw and paint representationally to the best of my abilities. I wanted to be recognized, to be understood. Maybe that’s where the photographic component of my work is derived from: somehow, the young boy inside me still wants to prove people wrong, and in order to do that, I have to make paintings.

I’m not sure I would use the term hyperreal to describe my work, but of course I understand why people may arrive at that conclusion. I see myself engaging in a type of “magic reality” building, similar to the wonky worlds Tooker or Cadmus create. My work has a relationship to photography, but the paintings do not necessarily report back to photography; I see the work as stylized and organized in a way that belongs to painting alone. Making a painting involves a continued working relationship; this isn’t always the case with photography. Paintings take on a life of their own and will tell you what they want; you have the freedom to add and amend anytime during the process. Painting requires the artist to be responsive and flexible enough to be able to deal with that working relationship, and utilize it in some sense.

AMM: How does popular culture influence you as an artist?

DF: I love popular culture, despite all of its curiousness and perversity, and much of my inspiration is sourced from pop culture. Ed Paschke is one of my very favorite painters for this very reason, as he addresses this theme among many others in his work. The use of commercial or cultural signifiers is a strategy used to place my paintings in time. For example, the Diet Coke can in Tallboy is branding particular to 2016. The Diet Coke can in 2012 looks quite different, so there is an immediate contemporary reference, followed by the relationship to art history. Tattoos, accessories, and fashion are all signifiers of the subject’s individuality. It’s important to me to give my viewers some insight into who the figures in my paintings are, and move beyond mere formal appreciation.

Obviously living in the age of technology and social media has many pros and cons. What is so great about Instagram or Tumblr or Flickr is that you can type “clouds” into their search engines and literally have 60 million reference photos for clouds. These platforms are unyielding resources that I definitely use in my process. Often I’ll scroll through a bunch of photos and stumble upon one with an interesting component that inspires a scene in my head, and I can build and edit from there.

AMM: Mood lighting, if I can call it that, features in many of your paintings. To what effect do you use light/shadow in your work?

DF: You can definitely call it mood lighting! My first experience with a painting hung in my late grandmother’s house, and now hangs in my apartment. It’s of my great aunt Virginia, her skin saturated in a deep red light. The light and color are so strong that they both assert themselves as ghost characters within the painting. It feels so contemporary, despite have being painted in 1913, and I think I try to emulate those formal characteristics in my work.

As mentioned earlier, I take a lot of my formal cues from the Cadmus Circle, particularly George Tooker. Tooker’s magical images were drawn from mundane experience, and documented homoerotic currents in American life. Tooker engaged in a number of themes throughout his life: love, death, sex, grief, aging, alienation and religious faith. I’m always struck by his quote, “I am after painting reality impressed on the mind so hard that it returns as a dream, but I am not after painting dreams as such, or fantasy.” His work blends the epic and banal in painted images of simple moments or interactions, and somehow that is achieved through light and color.

AMM: Flowers and tattoos are common motifs in your work. Can you tell us more about your visual language?

DF: In Othello, Shakespeare writes, “Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners.” I’ve always associated this beautiful line with tattoos, and the complex relationship most of us have with our physiques. Tattoos incite selfhood, and are symbolic of what it means to live inside of our bodies; they are also great ways to achieve multiple pictures within a painting.
I love when paintings have doubleness: first the impact of the image is there, followed by a delayed perception or realization of other hidden aspects.
I want my work to be covert then overt; embedded and then obvious (or the other way around).

Similarly, flowers reference our bodies in obvious ways. In an attempt to heighten themes of masculinity, and particularly gay effeminacy, I want to locate the male figure within nature. In western painting, nature is typically inhabited by women, where they often become sexualized accessories. By placing my figures within nature, the gay male takes on that role and is defined by the conventional masculinity that wields power over culture. I also think nature and the landscape are multilayered spaces – the topography, morphology, and geology are where humans can project quotidian drama.

AMM: What’s the Pittsburgh arts scene like right now?

DF: The Pittsburgh art scene is small but mighty! A lot of art students from our local universities stay in the city because of cheap rent and a bourgeoning scene, which keeps it fresh with young perspectives. Because New York City is an unviable option for many young artists, its decentralization allows for other cities to see exciting growth in their art communities, which we are seeing in Pittsburgh.

AMM: As an art teacher you must be wise to the influence of advice, good or bad. What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve ever received?

DF: It’s a tried-and-true piece of advice for any person in any type of environment: find the hardest working person in the room, and work harder than them. I’ve also been told to not take life too seriously – and I try not to.

AMM: Do you have a motto or philosophy that you work by? What is it?

DF: My favorite teacher and mentor at Penn State told me that a great painting should “blow your heart wide open.” I’ve been working with that quote at the back of my mind for the better half of 5 years now.

AMM: What are you watching, listening to and reading right now?

DF: This is the best question. I’m in the middle of reading The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon, a breathtaking and compassionate collection of short stories that have really stayed with me. In the studio I am always listening to podcasts, my favorites at the moment are Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell, and My Dad Wrote a Porno which consistently has me in fits of laughter and tears.

Like the rest of the world, I have been gripped and sickened by seeing Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale come alive on television. I adore Veep for my weekly dose of political satire, and of course, I am anxiously awaiting the return of my absolute favorite Game of Thrones!!

Find out about the artist: www.dannyferrell.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Mag.