Of light and color: In conversation with Dan Perkins

The influence of 19th century Romanticism is not immediately apparent in the geometrically abstract work of Dan Perkins. However, for the New York based artist, channeling light and color into fluid geometries becomes a kind of impossible sublime form. Like the Romantic painters, who were inspired by the inherent unknowability of nature, Dan’s paintings respond to a similar metaphysical impulse, but with the knowledge that this is ultimately a mirage; and that the painting cannot transcend its own physical limitations.  

Over the years Dan’s work has moved away from including any representational elements, such as trees and recognizable landscape features in his earlier work, towards pure abstraction. Color remains central in Dan’s work. Using oil paint and fine synthetic brushes, he meticulously blends colors to create perfect saccharine gradients that appear to have been digitally created. Dan is interested in the idea of how screens mediate so much of our reality, and how technology affects our perception of time and space. The Mobius-like geometries of his current work are studies in color and luminosity, but also optical illusions where information doubles back on itself continuously and where the promise of sublime transcendence turns out to be a trick of the light.

Dan Perkins. Photography by Jessica Ross.

AMM: Hi Dan! To start us off, can you share a few milestones – good or bad – that have shaped you as an artist over the years?

DP: Moving to Brooklyn was a mental milestone in a sense, and I think positive things have come from that choice. I’ve been here about three years now, and I’ve had the opportunity to show at Spring/Break Art Fair, Crush Curatorial, Juxtapoz Projects, as well as other spaces. Shortly after graduate school I did a fellowship at Hamiltonian Gallery and that experience taught me a lot about putting together a solo show, as well as working with a gallery, so that was a learning experience for sure. Currently, I think being in dialogue with a rigorous community of artists here in New York has been an important part of my artistic life.

AMM: Has your style of painting changed over time? What are you inspired and influenced by?

DP: Over the last few years my work has become increasingly abstract, utilizing color to create perceptual shifts and fields. The perception of color, space, and form as a mental and physical process has been a constant source of inspiration. I think I have grabbed on to particular art historical periods that explore that in different ways. One of the first and most lasting sources of inspiration for me, would be 19th century Romantic painters and their exploration and use of color and light as a reflection of something metaphysical or transcendent. Artists such as Caspar David Friedrich, JMW Turner, and Frederic Church come to mind.

AMM: Color is evidently a very important aspect of your work. How do you generally decide on color palettes for paintings? What informs these decisions?

DP: I have a catalog of images and sources that I use as a source for color relationships in my paintings. I find referring to something outside of myself really helpful for understanding and making color decisions. The catalog is composed of my personal photos, photos of others, photos from old magazines and catalogues, screen-shots, etc. The images and sources all depict or reference the natural world in some way. From these I distill and edit moments of color down into unified fields. Recently I have been thinking increasingly about night, and natural and artificial sources of light at night, nocturnes in a sense.

Studio wall

AMM: Over the years your work has tended towards increased abstraction. What has inspired this move away from the landscape elements in your earlier work?

DP: I think in my earlier work, I was really attempting to channel and mimic my ‘painting heroes’ such as the 19th century Romantics mentioned earlier. In a sense, I think this is a fairly typical trajectory for any young artist. At a certain point, you want a voice that is more your own, while still holding on to the things that inspire you most. I found that in abstraction, I could channel the luminous qualities of light that are present in those artists, while playing with form and geometry in a way I find more relevant to contemporary experience.

AMM: In a previous interview you spoke about your interest in nature and reflecting on the sublime. Please tell us more about how you engage with some of the Romantic notions of the sublime through abstraction in your work.

DP: The concept of the sublime has been a long standing source of inspiration and query for me. In terms of abstraction, I view much of the Light & Space artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s as touching upon aspects of the sublime, while using an abstract formal vocabulary. James Turrell’s Roden Crater Project is an excellent example collapsing the space between abstraction and experience of the actual, so they are viewed as inseparable. I find this to be an inspiring line of inquiry.

For me, the idea of channeling the luminous qualities of Romantic painting into fluid geometries becomes a way of describing an impossible sublime form. Something that could possibly transmit sublime understanding to the viewer or recipient, but ultimately is a bit of a mirage or hallucination.

Night Phaser, 2018, oil on panel, 10” x 10”

AMM: Looking at your paintings from 2016, the fractured planes and perspective almost takes on a metaphysical quality, suggesting multiple realities stacked together. Is this reading far-fetched? What are some of the broader themes and concepts in your work?

DP: Not far-fetched at all! In a sense, I am interested in understanding and navigating the type of space that the internet now makes possible. I have a fascination with how digital reproduction has greatly flattened time and space. Something that happens across the globe is instantly viewable in your palm and so on. It is interesting to ponder that perhaps we are experiencing multiple dimensions of time and space simultaneously. In the back of my mind, I am interested in seeing that as a potentially powerful and sensorially rich experience, rather than a depressing one. I have to admit that attempt at optimism can be difficult to maintain, haha.

AMM: What does your studio look and feel like?

DP: My current space is in Ridgewood, NY, on the border of Bushwick and Queens. The space is a large ground floor that is partitioned into three private studios. The space feels open and tall because it has 14’ ceilings, with the partitioning walls being 8’ tall. Generally speaking I keep things pretty organized, thinking on a grid to organize materials and tools. I built a small storage loft which helps keep the foot-print of the studio a bit less cluttered. The building also has a lot character with the ceiling and structural walls being covered with original pressed tin. Apparently the space used to be an old button factory.

AMM: What color would you say best represents you, and why?

DP: Haha, impossible to answer in my opinion. I have been thinking a lot about color shifting into darkness while maintaining its color quality. So maybe black, I suppose everything fades eventually.

AMM: There’s an interesting interplay going on in your paintings between the very flat surface and the illusion of depth created by the geometric forms. Please tell us more about this and what this represents.

DP: I think in many ways this is one of painting’s essential paradoxes: A flat surface that depicts depth. Reflecting on that idea gives me the space to experiment and play with composition in a way I find visually engaging and perceptually challenging. In another sense, I am interested in creating a paradoxical whole. Something that claims to represent and encapsulate the entirety of an experience, while being a figment or mirage. In some ways, my interest in Mobius-like forms comes from exploring this thought.

Midnight Green, 2018, oil on panel, 16” x 12”

AMM: Your paintings from this year are very crisp and polished, resembling digital designs more than paintings. Have you ever worked digitally? What interests you in this hyper-real style of painting?

DP: I have long standing interest in the digital as a means of describing or reproducing something. Increasingly, I have become interested in the space between the physical and digital, a space that seems to be dwindling or collapsing. Considering this collapsing of distance is very interesting: it is simultaneously alluring, scary, arresting, shallow and so on.

In one sense, I am interested in attempting to mimic the machine. There is a certain Luddite pride in making the hand-made look digital or mechanical, and in another sense, it becomes a jumping off point for considering our relationship to the digital.

In terms of working digitally, much of my work with color is first sketched out in photoshop in terms of general color relationships, however all drawing, masking, cutting, and painting is done by hand.

AMM: What’s your creative process? There’s obviously a lot of planning that goes into each work. How do you start and where do you end?

DP: I keep several small sketchbooks where I explore a variety of compositional ideas. These sketchbooks are a space to experiment and play. From there I pick particular compositions that I think are spatially engaging and interesting, and scale them up into larger drawings.

These drawings are for transferring the composition to the panels that I paint on. The drawings are made at either quarter or half scale of the final paintings. This allows me to work out the complexities of the piece before transferring to paint. Then the composition gets mapped out on the panel where I focus almost solely on color, form, and light. I use oils throughout my painting process and there is a lot of careful stenciling and blending to achieve smooth yet crisp transitions between forms.

AMM: Do you have any interesting projects coming up? What’s next for you?

DP: Currently, I am working on a new body of monochrome works on paper, as well as finishing a group of mid-size paintings. In 2019, I have an upcoming group show, and I’m always open for studio visits!

Find out more about the artist: www.danperkinsart.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

Untitled Works on Paper