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Interview: Danica Lundy and The Vivid Scene

The Kiss (detail), oil on canvas, 64 x 84 in., 2017

By DANIEL MAIDMAN, Sept. 2018

Danica Lundy (b. 1991, Canada) is a painter and draughtswoman from British Columbia, Canada. She holds a bachelors degree in painting and printmaking from Mount Allison University and received an MFA with a concentration in painting from the New York Academy of Art. She is the recipient of a British Columbia Arts Council Scholarship, an Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant, the New York Academy of Art Leipzig Residency in Leipzig, Germany, and the New York Academy of Art 2017-2018 Chubb Fellowship. She has exhibited in group and solo shows in Leipzig, Vancouver, and New York.

She speaks here with artist and author Daniel Maidman about the development, ideas, and imagery of her current work, on display at the Chubb Fellows Exhibition at the New York Academy of Art through September 25 (details at bottom).

Daniel Maidman: Your imagery seems to be rooted in the rites of passage of adolescence - the awkwardness and excitement of rituals that bring boys and girls together just as they are negotiating how to be attracted to one another. What does this imagery mean to you, and what do you want to accomplish in depicting these scenes?

The Kiss, oil on canvas, 64 x 84 in., 2017

Danica Lundy: Oh, this is a great, can-o-worms kind of a question! I could go anywhere with this one. My initial thought was… adolescence is such a sweaty place. It’s the first time you get a whiff of a new, curious stench emanating from your friend, the first time you associate the sweat on your palms and the little hook in your chest to the word “crush.” a wonderful, horrifying new space to navigate the mixing of your sweat with someone else’s. Your feelers are on high alert; the sensory system becomes incredibly sharp and delineated, colourful — which inevitably also leaves some things fuzzy on the edges — kind of like a perpetual acid trip. But this state of wide-open, perceptual wonder can leave you vulnerable to a hard left jab, and things can go dark pretty quickly, too. I love this about my memory of adolescence; it upholds such delicate, complicated duality.

Teenage experience establishes sharp sensory precedents. I want to dig into a time that is viscous, palpable and ineffably vivid, and make paintings that are equally so. The very act of painting lends itself to the nuances of a sweaty, confusing time, you know?

The imagery itself is plucked not just directly from my memory, but from lore and collective memory and my own reimagined…I could go on ranting, but I’ll stop there. Like I said, can-o-worms kind of a question.

DM: That absolutely comes through in your paintings. You have a powerful eye for detail and for constructing and arranging a scene, in a very theatrical or cinematic way. This is going to lead me into a few questions, because I'm very interested in how you came to this sense of scene direction plus visual composition. Let's start at the beginning - what, if any, are your inspirations for this kind of construction? And are they restricting to painting, or are you drawing on other media or phenomena as well?

DL: Well, you just got me thinking about stages, like Caravaggio's — that painting at the vatican where the stage sits at eye level, and the guy holding christ has that damn perfect elbow jutting out like it’s trying to stake out a new dimension or push through the picture plane — or early netherlandish paintings that are so shallow in depth you could say their “stage" is kind of a coffin on its side. Imagine getting stuck in there? (i’ve had nightmares about being stuck in a van der weyden painting.) And a more recent example would be those stunning, gouged-out stage-edge paintings by didier william at dc moore that evoke, at least for me, the vulnerability and power that’s involved in seeing, looking, being seen. (side note: I used to star in musicals until around the time I stopped taking penalty kicks in soccer).  

I think narrative painting owes a lot to the paradigm of the stage; not only does it provide the idea of a platform to act out conversations and confrontations, grow characters, and direct a plot or narrative, it demands consideration about what’s happening in the wings of the painting and who is in the audience—about the lighting, props, set. Theatre is a natural armature for building elaborate worlds of artifice. 

Burn Baby, Burn, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in., 2016

All that being said, I don’t really think about theatre explicitly when I’m constructing my compositions. They usually start with a sharp feeling and a space that begins to take form, as characters, colour, visual metaphor, and emblems of physicality occupy the space and complicate the initial feeling until it’s much more. They usually start as sketches. The scenes need to be deep enough to dig into, to find more depth, and build relationships between everything… I guess I’m taking cues from visual and emotional experience at large. I learned a lot about composition from Wade Schuman, Alexi Worth, and Sebastian Burger. 

DM: I was interested in the degree to which you start the paintings with sketches. I've been looking at your drawings for a few years more than your paintings. They obviously come from the same artist, but the feel is completely different. It's famously difficult to preserve the spontaneity and energy of drawings in paintings. This actually doesn't seem to be an issue for you at all. But the difference in feel is perhaps a difference in fineness of line - your drawings are very intricate meshes of fine ballpoint lines, and this gives your drawn worlds a kind of manic, hyper-detailed tone. Your paintings feel much more relaxed; there's less information, allowing actions and emotions to come more easily to the fore. So my question is, how do you anticipate, in sketching a painting, how the act of painting it will change its meaning? How do you explore and anticipate one set of meanings in a medium which, in your hands, leads to a different set of meanings? And by the way - "this isn't an issue for me" is a totally legitimate answer!

Preparatory sketch for King of the Forest, pen on paper

DL: You’ve pinpointed a contentious discussion that has raged at many a crit. for a long time, it was, "why can’t you just paint like you draw, Danica?!” 

To begin, I’ve always drawn. When I was little, I was plopped in the corner of my dad’s workshop by the space heater and directed to copy from his beloved renaissance sculpture books while he chipped away at stone or wood. I mimicked michelangelo’s cross hatching and leonardo’s smoky shading… I was always hyper-focussed, and could copy things pretty early on. I distinctly remember my mom’s reaction one day when I asked for a photo of a reindeer to copy for a christmas card. She was in hysterics, afraid my imagination had been compromised, and furious that my dad had somehow diminished it by teaching me to rely on photography. I mean, that’s a legitimate concern, wouldn’t you say? Anyway, drawing feels as intuitive as running at this point — the pen leads me around like my legs do on a good 10k. Painting came later. Painting is more like boxing while balancing on a bowling ball and reading proust. In french. With expired prescription glasses.

Preparatory painting for King of the Forest

I look at my own work pre-NewYork and wonder if I had two artists in me duking it out. The most glaring differences between the media were probably in my approach: the drawings were observed from life, or a hypnotic conjuring of my innards, or both; the paintings were derived almost exclusively from photography. I’d also add, I’m super detail-oriented, sometimes neurotically and to my own detriment — I’ll walk into a familiar room and reel at inconsequential changes, or take serious note of small shifts in people’s overall tenor. Beards piss me off because I can’t collect micro movements. If anything is amiss in my studio I can tell right away, which might surprise people who see the state of my clothes and palette. I’m my own peppy, pathetic private detective. 

So when I draw, it’s really about settling into auto-pilot sleuth mode: looking, seeing, and feeling what is being looked at on a fundamental, unthinking level. If drawing was searching for what might be there and what might not, painting was establishing what certainly was. But I think my first year of grad school changed that. I realized I’d built up a young lifetime of visual data somewhere between my head and hands, and that, due to my tendency to latch on to details of all sorts, my intuition was charged with the nuance of my emotional and physical understanding. In painting, this allowed me to shed any reliance to photography, and rely instead on that interior, visual/emotional vault. I think this shift fostered a tighter relationship between the media, or at least my approach to the media.

So, it has taken three paragraphs to get to the crux of your questions—how the act of painting will change the meaning of the drawing. The sketches I now make to map out my paintings are meant to serve the painting— they're my cheat sheets. I can sketch out ten different compositions with ease, memorize the feel of them unfolding on the page, and then approach the painting battlefield armed with at least the ghost of that composition in my hand. Painting requires undivided attention. Painting is hard. My aim with painting is to get in a rhythm like drawing, and tapping into that unthinking sleuth spot.

I guess their relationship isn’t mutual yet: it feels like my drawings are doing a favour for my paintings, like it’s their side gig, but my paintings’ influence hasn’t leeched into my drawings. Actually, that’s not quite right… my drawings now take on compositional elements stolen from painting conventions. The other thing I’ve been doing more and more in my paintings is delving into the micro the way I do in drawings. But it’s hard to see those details unless you take in the painting outside of the JPG world. Also, as I paint I fill in what wasn’t there in the initial sketch, so I’m actually diving into increasing detail as the painting grows.

King of the Forest, oil on canvas, 72 x 96 in., 2018


This is a great convo to be having with someone who also splits his time between two media. how do your drawings speak to your paintings? is the relationship in their meanings elastic? Do you feel like you have an alter ego?

DM: Your alter ego question is very interesting, because I've never considered it from that perspective before. I underwent a crisis in 2005, confronting the real unlikelihood that it was going to work out with me and film. When I came out the other end of that, my film impulse had fragmented into writing and art. I see those as quite distinct facets of myself. If you ever read de Chirico's novel Hebdomeros, you'll find it absolutely swarms with people. This is completely distinct from the empty plazas of his paintings, but the sensibility is very much the same in both his media. I feel like that - the writing and art have nothing to do with each other, but from outside, they're probably both recognizably me. However, inside of art, I've never drawn a strong distinction between drawing and painting. I've wrestled with the ordinary formal and procedural problems - why does no background work in a figure drawing but not a figure painting, what to do about the line and energy translation, etc. - but I've never considered them distinct. And in light of your question, I think I can better put my finger on a certain hold-up taking place in my paintings; that they really shouldn't just be painted versions of the drawings. So my most successful paintings are likely the ones that diverge most and have the most intrinsic painting-ness, and are neither drawing-like nor expressions of a medium-less idea that just happens to find itself embodied in paint. So, no, I don't have a feel of an alter ego, but I think I'd like to develop one over the next few years.

DL: LOVE this revelation! Can’t wait to meet him!

DM: I guess that kind of covers your other questions too.

I'd like to get into something else that interests me about your paintings. They remind me a bit of the somatosensory homunculus - the representation of the human body with structures proportionate to the amount of area they get in the sensory part of the brain.

Somatosensory Homunculus (Source)

In your paintings, you will absolutely bend composition and space around making sure we get to see the nipple, the wound, the lips, or whatever else the characters crave. Similarly, you will draw attention to the desired or attended-to region with really lurid bright colors, or brightness. Do you have any account of how you developed this particular image language? It seems to me that, like the homunculus, it remaps the raw image of reality to the terrain of sensation and desire. I've found that increasingly interesting in your work over the past few years.

The Peel, oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in., 2017

DL: You have touched on something super important to me. I kind of think about it as a sensory landscape, or a human-scape. I’ve been grappling with the right way to describe this, and the ineloquent explanation I’m about to give might be better if I were an astronomer, or explorer, and had the right terms for navigating dark places with light or landmarks. But I guess that pinpoints my intention. The places that light up in my paintings, often articulated as you said with a lurid palette, are a system for manoeuvring an unsafe or chaotic environment (both for me and a viewer), whether it turns out to be a pleasant path or not. When something lights up, it might be triggered by a character’s (or a colour’s) desire or alarm, but it’s generally evidence of a spike of curiosity, longing, fear…it’s a way of slowing and speeding up a viewer’s travels through the painting while revealing the character’s innermost motivations. It's a cross-section of the limbic system. It also maps and mimics the way we get through our long human days. We do absolutely crazy things to get that peek of a glowing nipple, or feel something past a growing apathy. I try to approach each painting as a patch of land I have never explored, but also as a familiar ceiling whose cracks or glow-in-the-dark stars I’ve observed for a long time.

It might seem like a bait and switch to lure a viewer to bright and “attractive” visual sentences, only to recognize the private, and at times gory reality of what is described. But for me, it’s more about tending with violence or tenderness (or something in between) to the areas where conversation can happen between shapes, colours, and above all what they come to represent. I give a lot of attention to convergences— that which touches or comes close to touching something else. I want to charge up those encounters like they’re people who have never met, or have known each other in various forms over millennia. 

I’m not sure how this language came about… it’s just how I’ve been able to find my way around. WM

Chubb Fellows Exhibition 2018 (also featuring excellent work from Eleni Giannopoulou and Isaac Mann)

On view
September 425, 2018
Monday through Saturday, 9am–8pm
Sunday, 12pm–8pm

Wilkinson Gallery
New York Academy of Art

111 Franklin Street, NYC 10013
212 966-0300

Cover photo of Danica Lundy, courtesy of Lia Crowe and Boulevard Magazine 

Daniel Maidman

Daniel Maidman is a painter and writer. His art is included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and the Long Beach Museum of Art, as well as numerous private collections, among them those of New York Magazine senior art critic Jerry Saltz, Chicago collector Howard Tullman, Disney senior vice president Jackson George, and Gemini-winning screenwriter Jeremy Boxen. He has produced paintings in collaboration with best-selling novelist China Miéville, award-winning poet Kathleen Rooney, independent film icon Martin Donovan, and noted installation artist Erika Johnson. Maidman’s art and writing on art have been featured in ARTnews, Forbes, Juxtapoz, Whitehot Magazine, Hyperallergic, American Art Collector, International Artist, Poets/Artists, MAKE, Manifest, and The Artist’s Magazine. He blogs for The Huffington Post. He lives and paints in Brooklyn, New York.

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