Painting as contact sport: In conversation with Danica Lundy

A couple recline on the bonnet of a car. We see them through the windshield, their backs and shoulders pressed up against the glass. Their postures are slumped, relaxed, carefree in the night. Inside the car we see the dashboard clock illuminated at 5:43; we imagine the couple at the end of a long night together waiting for the dawn to break. The scene is peaceful, quietly intimate – two friends, or lovers – sharing a drawn-out moment together in their young lives. We encounter the couple again in the painting Rust Bucket, however now the scene has changed dramatically. Our view has shifted to the backseat of the car and into the point of view of another character. We see the squalid interior of the car, empty cans and soft drink containers, the couple on the bonnet now outside the main drama of the scene separated by the windshield. A man in the passenger seat is turned towards the backseat, staring fixedly but unsteadily, one arm stretched back and under the skirt of the character whose view we inhabit. Outside the car other figures move about in the nocturnal scene. In the rearview mirror we see a set of female eyes. Are these the eyes of the character in the back seat? Are they our own eyes, passively taking in this scene?

Perspective is a central theme in Danica Lundy’s work. As in these two paintings, Danica manipulates the gaze and thrusts the viewer into the centre of the scene. The result is distinctly uncomfortable, as these are tumultuous scenes of adolescence and the loss of innocence. They’re dark, nightmarish, delirious. Bodies crowd the scenes, unnatural lighting illuminates naked flesh, liquids leak and drip. Danica’s painterly language heightens the corporeal intensity of the scenes, where violence seems to lurk behind every benign gesture. Her brushstrokes are loose and seemingly messy but underpinned by a rigorous technical skill, made more apparent in her drawings. In part studies for paintings, Danica’s dizzyingly intricate pen on paper works are hallucinatory, leaning towards the symbolic.

Danica is a Brooklyn-based Canadian artist who grew up on a small island in the Pacific Northwest. She received her BFA from Mount Allison University and MFA from the New York Academy of Art. She has been the recipient of numerous art accolades and has had solo shows in Canada, Italy, the UK and USA.

AMM: Hi Danica! To begin, can you tell us about your distinct, highly detailed style of working. Where did this come from?

DL: Hey ArtMaze. First off, thank you for the specificity and thoughtfulness of your questions and I apologize in advance: I’m slow and wordy. My mom is a writer and magazine editor, and has in the past gently advised me to be more direct with my language, and said that density doesn’t help make things more legible. This could definitely also be said for painting. But I’ve embraced that maximalist way of working and thinking and recognize my own failure to concision might wind up providing some strengths as well. Though by the end of this you may take my mom’s side.

So, I think this question answers itself indirectly over the course of the other responses, but the shortish answer is that it isn’t so much a style but an accretion of all the stuff gathered up on the walls of my brain. I want a painting to be able to read like a poem or a nightmare, to evoke a young lifetime’s worth of cultural gunk, great paintings, friction, disillusionment, jubilation, heartache… I want a painting that I can be totally consumed by. I wish these next words were mine, and I regretfully can’t remember whose they are, but I want my paintings to be “a novel that opens up in every direction.” I want them to awaken—like a dark room does, slowly, at the tips of fingers—into a visceral hyper-reality that shows everything at once. Though I’ll always fail at that, too.

AMM: How has your art changed over the years, and what has influenced this? 

DL: The most prominent influence was my move to NYC—both attending grad school at New York Academy of Art and getting to know paintings and artists in person. That really shifted the way I conceive of image-making and the process of building a painting.

(Once, in a half-time locker-room “pep talk” in university, my coach admonished my efforts in centre midfield as those of a 12-year-old boy—a wild frenzy of energy, nowhere structured to put it. That’s sort of how I see myself as a 23-year-old coming to NYC: bright-eyed, naive, driven.)

I’ve drawn since my dad propped me up to copy from his Renaissance books. I got good at replicating things. Most of the “serious” things I made through undergrad, even, followed that same paradigm of mimicry—images sourced either from direct observation or from photographs, with little conceptual or formal reasoning to support that decision. For painting, I always had an intuitive palette, colours that I knew I liked and that liked me back. Grad school challenged all of that.

And then standing in front of centuries-old Flemish masters at the Met, or in a scruffy gallery in Chinatown at the base of the Manhattan Bridge in front of a Kai Althoff, I began developing enduring crushes on paintings. I imagine it’s similar for anyone transfixed by a painting; when one gets me, it’s visceral—a clamp closes over my lungs and gut and when it’s released, I’m hit with a wave of relief, longing and elation.

I started conceiving of a painting as a construction site, a house that’s built inside out, made without a T-square, with some degree of danger and dark humour in the scaffolding around it, and all its nerves exposed like live wires. Or, as a crime scene, where the clues left behind, if discovered, could elucidate a meaningful narrative.

Rust Bucket, oil on canvas, 70 x 62 inches

AMM: Can you share a definitive learning or realization that you’ve had during your studies or career? What has been the impact of this on your work? 

DL: Well, this might sound nerdy. But I remember working on a frustrating painting exercise in first year grad school—I think it was a metallic object sitting on a mirror—and my professor Dik Liu kept coming around and saying, “It all needs to be darker.” I remember grumbling that there’s no way in hell to make it darker, I’ve reached the limit. How can I go darker than pure chromatic black? He said something like, “There’s no way to make that titanium white as bright as the sun, and no way to make any black pigment as dark as your shadow. It’s about compressing all the other values to trick me into believing that your white is powerful enough to blind me. You have to learn to squish the whole spectrum of light into the spectrum of paint.” (I really remember it being that poetic.)

And suddenly my mind, squeaky at the hinges, opened a crack. Understanding some technical fundamentals about how paint behaves—mostly by trying to make light “feel” like light, in my case—and getting acquainted with different pigments on a personal level helped me develop a more nuanced palette, and also allowed me to shed reliance on source imagery and work directly from my head.

AMM: In what ways does your art represent or relate to your own experiences? 

DL: New York City was a culture shock, but it was also a new porthole through which to see my former life on a small island off the west coast of Canada. I realized those years on a sparsely populated, densely forested rock in the ocean provided a deep well of subject matter. But they had also created a soft space in my body that housed some innate consensus about relationships: the need for vulnerability, compassion and empathy, and the prevailing presence of human flaws and fallibility.

The connections I have with people from home (Salt Spring Island) are also uniquely deep—slow-made over many years in a slow town during the worst and best of it. We were stuck growing alongside each other as trees do. We got in trouble, witnessed each other’s fuck ups; made up and lived out stories that certainly show up in my work. All of my paintings host autobiographical content, with repeated personal iconography that shares space with collective and imagined histories. But the way I think about colour relationships and relationships between forms and figures is driven by intuition and the limbic system. In some ways, though this may come off more sentimental than I intend, I treat paint in all the different ways I’ve treated people, and how they’ve treated me.

AMM: The way in which you paint bodies emphasize their almost grotesque corporeality. How does your way of painting with oils support the subject matter or themes in your work?  

DL: I recently wrote something for a different publication and I hope you’ll allow me to plagiarize some of it here, because I think it most succinctly answers this question. One of the biggest imperatives of my work is in world building—if all goes well, I hope to grow these worlds into vivid and lived-in, slow-release experiences that sit on your tongue and dissolve in your mouth and play out in the space between you and the canvas. And I think oil painting really lends itself to world-building.

Paint moves along behind the brush like a slug dispelling slime, a wet trail that leads all the way back to the first time someone made a mark to the searching movements of a hand, here and now. The first marks create the bones of the picture; a mind-made structure. Paint responds to each wobble, push or adjustment, until it eventually settles in and stands still—a door between material and image—only to be covered or transformed by the next wave of pictorial construction.

Growing up on contact sports, I was given a window to my own anatomy through cuts, injuries, bruises and a close proximity to fellow teammates. Painting is a physical undertaking, and inevitably, I’ve also come to understand it as a contact sport. Fortunately for anyone dealing with figurative painting and metaphors therein, paint has bodily characteristics to begin with. And relatedly, we secrete our own kind of slimes when affected in some way by inner/outer forces (sick, turned on, hurt, sad, thirsty, full).

Alexi Worth, a mentor of mine, talks about Dana Schutz’s “Sneeze” painting often—in one small rectangle she’s able to deliver an entire painting proposal or philosophy: paint as snot, paint as an explosion, paint exposing messes, paint as a contagion, paint as a direct emission gathered inside the head and expelled quickly and inexorably outward. These ideas have also given life to emblems of physicality in my paintings.

Double Date, oil on canvas, 39.25 x 27.5 inches

AMM: Similarly, how do you use colour to this end? 

DL: On a whim, I once went to a theremin concert, and over the course of a few hours felt this strange recalibration of my relationship to dissonance. When a theremin finds its way into a soundtrack, its eerie wail is generally used to warn you that something is haunted. Without it, visual cues might guide you to an unintended conclusion. Though I wish I played the theremin or any instrument for this reason and others, I just can’t. But my reaction to and use of colour can probably be served by a musical metaphor.

I used to work with colour harmonies I was attracted to and avoid like the plague the ones that emitted a foul sound. Now colour decisions follow function, to some degree: is this hand content sitting there? Does it wish to be elsewhere? How can its colour and form transmit that restlessness or warn an adjacent character of impending danger? Which tones will make it project sweetness but also untrustworthiness? (Tangentially, if I want to hide the possibility of puncture, for instance, I might make the sharpened edge of a marshmallow-roasting stick appear softer than the marshmallow itself.) I try to listen to the painting and give it what it needs.

My own discomfort with dissonant colours and attraction to others help me build relationships between one form and another, or one character and another. It’s a story-telling mechanism, but less sterile than that sounds in writing. I can sense when something is singing off-tune but will often lean into it to see if it will riff off into an unexpected, delirious solo.

I have also developed relationships, sometimes fraught, with each pigment. I’ve learned by now how they play with others: in an arm wrestle at a party, a lively phthalo will quickly tire out a cadmium, which has more wisdom but little stamina. Ivory black is that guy who corners you and talks your ear off even though your drink is pointedly dry. Purples entice, blues respond, reds listen at the door. I think these stories you tell yourself, as dumb as they might be, eventually animate the subtext of your paintings.

AMM: Many of your paintings seem to engage with a loss of innocence. Please tell us more about this theme in your work?

DL: Most of my work is pulled from a time (or place) that both hit hard and seduced me when I occupied it, and continues to inform what I paint about. Adolescence— where a physical and emotional reality is heightened, sentience bursts forth, different versions of selves are tried on and discarded. Hormones are screaming along to a Nirvana song. It is as painfully, awkwardly formative as it is sweaty and viscous, which is just another reason to paint about it. From my own vantage point, it is a sharp edge between woman- and girl-hood, a brand new and short-lived arena for testing out and experiencing the limits of one’s own power. And yes, it’s where innocence goes to puke its guts out and wakes up in a someone else’s clothes. I’m trying to think of a myth— maybe Persephone being kidnapped while picking flowers and brought to the underworld? Or Eve sinking her teeth into that apple? In both of those scenarios, the protagonist is shifted from a state of innocence to another, by force or suggestion, and inexorably changed.

AMM: Can you tell us about some of the layers of symbolism in your work? 

DL: Something that I love about painting: in this paradigm, a paper bag is never just a paper bag. It’s at best a representation of a paper bag. It also flip-flops from paint to image to paint again, like the duck and the rabbit illusion; you’re either perceiving or interpreting the bag or the paint. It’s connected to any paper bag ever painted before it. If Viktor Shklovsky were roused from the grave and asked to revise his thoughts for me here, he might say, “art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make a bag baggy.” A bag can become a fortress, a jagged entryway, and at a certain scale it could start to feel like a Serra sculpture. The spikes of the bag could evoke teeth, perhaps the tooth of a picket fence, and that same zigzag pattern might repeat at the edge of the waistband of someone’s shorts. And all those could allude to the idea of protection, or a border between what’s inside and what’s outside.

Originally, a bag separates whatever it contains from the outside world, as a fortress protects its inhabitants from enemies, and in Serra’s case, his wall prevents annoyed commuters from achieving the most expeditious route to their jobs. Teeth protect the mouth while smiling or cringing, and a picket fence serves little physical protection but demarcates in its own demure way the edge of a private property (as does the waistband). Each separately carries its own baggage—sorry, had to—and symbolic weight, and collectively they create new narrative possibilities. I employ this kind of thinking when I build compositions, which might explain something about their logic.

King of the Forest, oil on canvas, 72 x 96 inches

AMM: What ideas are you currently exploring in your work?

DL: I’ve been puttering around in the periphery of old paintings. I’ve been really stuck on cars, which grew in part from a memory of an old Toyota Tercel my mom used to drive with its bottom rusted out…my sister and I could watch the puddles in the road spew up and in if we didn’t cover it with duct tape or our boots. Our next car had no heat. When I got mine, I’d turn the heat on and the headlights would dim. It tipped me towards a more gritty, grimy aesthetic than earlier paintings had. Cars feel private but are mostly see-through, they are personal by way of contents but not structure, still until they aren’t, off until they’re on, an equalizer, in a way—dynamic in their ability to hold any old thing or person, viewed outside looking in or inside looking out, and present a stage on which relationships can unfold.

I was recently directed towards an excerpt of a book by Svetlana Boym called “The Future of Nostalgia” as a prompt for a painting in an upcoming show. The following passage felt somehow relevant. She writes: “The twentieth century began with utopia and ended with nostalgia. Optimistic belief in the future became outmoded, while nostalgia, for better or worse, never went out of fashion, remaining uncannily contemporary. The word “nostalgia” comes from two Greek roots, nostos meaning “return home” and algia “longing.” I would define it as a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy. Nostalgic love can only survive in a long-distance relationship. A cinematic image of nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images—of home and abroad, of past and present, of dream and everyday life. The moment we try to force it into a single image, it breaks the frame or burns the surface.”

AMM: What is your process of working? Are your drawings precursors to paintings? Where and how do you work out the complex compositional elements?  

DL: I approach a drawing with a certain strong feeling or a fuzzy idea and through line it eventually becomes concrete. Drawing has always been the most natural way for working through ideas and feelings. When I approach the painting, I’m armed with a ghost of that feeling and the pictorial elements, but I rarely look at the drawing. Then comes that contact sport element. Though I still use sketchbooks (and I have a million stacked around my studio with scribbles and notes that expose my thinking at the time, dumb or valid as it might have been, with holes and taped bits of paper to try to get compositions right), I caved and recently bought an iPad and have been using it to expedite the composition process. I’ll admit it’s a super handy tool, but I miss having those demented, ketchup-stained preliminary sketches on paper.

AMM: What are you working on right now? 

DL: I’m sitting in front of a few paintings right now. One borrows a setting from a painting I made last year called “King of the Forest,” but here the whole scene is unfolding from a different angle with some new clues and cast members. There are a few entranceways as I can see it—one through the partially open jaws of a smoker at stage right (we’re inside the mouth), or over the great wall of that brown paper bag I mentioned earlier, which ostensibly conceals a Forty. Then you fly over the top of a Toyota pickup into a scene where two girls are trying to communicate with their braids from different sides of the painting, and someone else is ripping the skin off a charred marshmallow, scowling across at a stargazing couple in the top left corner. I just finished one based loosely on an Aaron Gilbert painting I saw this past year at Lyles and King, called “Citibank.” Mine is of a guy with one hand pressed up against the window of a car (unrolled just a crack) and the other hand dangling down beside a girl’s flattened head. The two are communicating. In my head I’ve been calling it “Coach.”

AMM: When you’re not making art, what are some of the ways you enjoy spending your time? 

DL: I go on gallery crawls, watch movies, play soccer, discuss everything inexhaustibly with my friend Erin whose studio is down the hall. When I get caught in a good book (reading Murakami right now and it is bending my brain!) I can’t get out of it. When I can go home, I like getting tipsy with my mom and sister and coaxing secrets out of them. I like biking around Brooklyn, finding new neighbourhood gin joints to haunt with my boyfriend, Tim. We have a “tickle trunk,” which is just a duffle bag full of whacky costumes, and I’ll throw one on at any opportunity and go out dancing/flailing. Hardcore techno and everything 90s. And my guilty pleasure is thrift shopping. I have a relatively expensive knack for it. I’ve justified the habit by telling myself the “tactile cataloguing of fabrics and colours and textures informs my practice,” but it’s really about the junky thrill that comes with the discovery of something fantastically worn-in and underpriced.

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

DL: I am working like a lunatic in the studio right now— I have solo show with GNYP Gallery in Berlin opening April 30, and will have a piece in a group show in Brussels with Super Dakota (called “Off Nostalg(h)ia”) on April 22. I’ll have a booth in the Cape Town Art Fair, in TOMORROWS/TODAY with C+N Canepaneri Gallery in February. I also have a piece at Art Basel Miami Beach in the Collectors Lounge with Chubb Insurance.

Find out more about the artist:

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

The Splits, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches

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