Dreamily romantic and subtly erotic, Danny Ferrell’s paintings are sexy in every sense of the word. His digitally collaged paintings investigate male identity and sexuality, drawing from disparate images sourced from the Internet, Instagram, and Ferrell’s own camera. Ferrell’s work is infused with the contemporary moment. His attention to the rich history of oil painting, portraiture, and Western tropes of effeminacy, sexuality, and nature are blended with saturated colors, modern branding, and an interest in representation and identity, which cements his work in today’s sociopolitical world. The subtle eroticism he imbues in his work allows for both a queer reading and universal understanding of his depictions of the male form, playing with portraiture through his manipulation of context, space, and figure. Balancing his technical skill and material prowess with thoughtful image compositions, Ferrell’s paintings are seductive works that entice viewers to delve deeper into the image and peel back the layers of the painting surface.
Born and raised in rural Pennsylvania, Danny Ferrell received his BFA with Distinction in Painting from Pennsylvania State University, State College and his MFA in Painting from Rhode Island School of Design. His work has been shown in exhibitions in the U.S. and Canada, including most recently the group show The Staging of Vulnerability at SPRING/BREAK Art Show, NY (2017) and a solo show He’s American at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts (2017). Ferrell currently lives and works in Pittsburgh, PA and balances his studio practice with teaching, working as an Adjunct Professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
How did you first get interested in art and begin making work?
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 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.
What attracted you to painting specifically?
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.
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.
Your paintings are very romantic and intimate and there is a subtle or contained sexuality within them. Can you talk about this choice and how you approach these themes in your works?
My paintings represent fantasies and fears about the Other through depictions of everyday queer male experience. I am enamored with the potential intrusion of queerness in the everyday, and look for it wherever I go. Homoerotic currents in contemporary American life can be found everywhere: in visual stereotypes, the sky as a rainbow gradient at sunset, a discarded pair of gym shorts, or the reflection of two men kissing on a soda can. So I try to find and compose paintings that deliver the energy and realism of daily life, but imbue it with a kind of flirtation. I also see the work structured by a number of dichotomies: public/private, nature/culture, taste/kitsch, transparency/opacity. All of my paintings are loosely based on my own relationships, experiences, and imagination, so the work functions like a daydream, where memory, longing, and external influences shape a personal fiction. De Kooning famously said that flesh was the reason oil paint was invented. Much of the visual forms in my work signify my fascination with the inherent sexuality of oil paint: the painting, from tender brushstrokes to the treatment of the ground, is a process both like masturbation and sex. From surface to image, I want to infuse my paintings with an observable sensuality.
Where do your images come from and what is your process creating these paintings?
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.
I make a lot of digital collages - taking bits and bobs of imagery to create a scene that seems just out of reality, which is an inherent quality of a collage aesthetic. I’ll start with a thumbnail sketch and from there create these digital collages using this free app on my phone called Brushes. I can sit anywhere and have this really immersive and intimate drawing/collage experience with my smartphone. It’s like my 21st century sketchbook. If I can’t quite capture something, I’ll move to paper and flesh out the details. Then the heavy-lifting begins on canvas. It’s not a uniform process, which keeps it fresh and exciting.
Your earlier works also feature yourself as a figure -- how does autobiography enter into your work?
The self-portrait was a really important early exploration of voice. As an undergraduate, the newfound liberalism of art school freed me from the straightjacket of judgement. I wanted to tell my story, and as a nineteen-year old, I thought the only way to do that was to use my body. In retrospect, it was an exercise in finally being seen, reclaiming the boy who had been lost.
I almost never paint myself anymore, rather opting for figures that are stand-ins, exhibiting a similar kind of vulnerability. In these perilous political times, now more than ever I just want to celebrate other people and their respective histories. It’s much less important to be self-reflexive than it is to represent the revere the experiences of different gay men. But autobiography is everywhere in my work.
Can you talk about your material process?
I remember visiting my sister in Los Angeles and going to see the Painting Factory: Abstraction After Andy Warhol exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. There were two Julie Mehretu paintings hanging near the entrance of the show, and I remember being absolutely blown away the surface quality in those paintings. I couldn’t believe how pristine they were. I’m obsessed with the surfaces of Caravaggio or Dutch paintings - they are sexy, both in how they look and feel. I want that in my paintings, but I’m not even close!
I labor over my painting supports until their polished, high-gloss surfaces resemble plastic or skin. Skin covers our frame, is our means of intimacy, and I want the viewer to recall all of the associated fantasies that come with it. I typically stretch canvas over panel. The painting is then fossilized in a gloss varnish, illuminated but camouflaged by the viewer’s image reflected in the surface. This illusionism invites the viewer to focus on the relationships between their body and the image.
The craft in my process allows the paintings to achieve a certain glitz and vanity, and speaks to my role as a gay man who makes paintings. My devotion to craft can be seen as a type of personal protest: there is a dutifulness and type of social comportment that is not culturally expected of man, but historically has been referenced or attributed to women. Craft, at least on a personal level, acknowledges the complicated perception of my masculinity.
You mentioned kitsch vs. taste earlier, and I definitely notice an interest in fashion and branding within your work. How do you approach incorporating these consumer signifiers and can you expand upon your interest in this theme?
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[***painting near here] 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 a mere from mere formal appreciation.
Do you pose people or dictate that form?
I usually go in with a general idea in mind, but the process of photographing models always changes that idea in some way. Most of the time I’ll give some light instruction, but allow enough room for my model to do what feels comfortable. Often it’s the poses that deviate slightly from that original idea that strengthens the concept of the painting. It genuinely depends on the situation though.
Nature is also really present in your works -- when did this enter into your work and what interests you in incorporating it into the works?
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 is where humans can project quotidian drama. This particular setting also questions gender performativity by asking: what goes on in nature when men, particularly gay men, find themselves there? Dominance and athleticism are not always the focus; nature is a place we turn to for solace, to hide, to be intimate, to be alone, to reflect, etc… There’s a part of nature that welcomes self-discovery, a human quality evident across men, women, and the sexual spectrum.
The light and color in your works is very soft and dreamy, but also saturated. How are you approaching and thinking about color?
I take a lot of my formal cues from the Cadmus Circle, particularly George Tooker. Mr. 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.
What are you working on right now?
I just put up a show a few weeks ago at the Pittsburgh Center of the Arts, so my studio is totally empty right now. When your studio is empty, there is this incredible period of rebirth. When you’re in your studio, you typically have all your other paintings around you, and it’s surprising how much those paintings can over-determine the choices you make in-process. I’m pretty excited about the things that are percolating in my head right now.
The next part of the work is to strengthen some of the formal aspects that are already happening and hone in that language. Namely, getting really specific with color and light, strengthening different focal dimensions. I want to have the background be super blurry and the figure be hyper in focus and have really hard, fetishistic edges. I’d like to work on a scale that is uncomfortable for me, something really large. I also have two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, which are dogs often seen in British royalty painting, so it seems like an obvious reference to paint. I also just want to immortalize my two furry babies on canvas. Their names are River and Rainbow.
What is the most challenging part of painting?
Everything? (laughs) I don’t know, I think painting is really hard, an almost impossible task. I guess the hardest part for me is the space between just finishing a painting and beginning a new one. I also find the process particularly difficult when the entire canvas is covered, but not refined enough, so I still have to get through all the difficult heavy lifting of making everything really specific.
What do you think makes a painting successful? What are you looking to achieve in your works?
Donna Tartt is one of my favorite authors, and she has a really good analogy that I always felt was applicable to making a successful painting. She says that a good novel should have density and speed. In other words, you want to give the illusion of reality by packing a lot of information into your work but you want the experience of that reality to go fast the same time. It’s really important to me that the work doesn’t look tedious or overdone.
What is informing your work right now -- who/what are you looking at?
I am always inspired by my peers - artists who are similar in age, hustling and making strides in their careers and practices. It doesn’t even matter what they are making, seeing them do it really inspires and motivates me. I have artists who are in my personal canon that I always turn to: Magritte, Paschke, Tooker, Pierre et Gilles, Kerry James Marshall, Lisa Yuskavage, Caravaggio, etc… My current obsession are paintings of Christ’s ascension, the assumption of the Virgin, and I can’t stop looking at the skyscapes of Tiepolo and Turner.
What is your studio practice typically like?
A typical studio day looks like this: get out of bed around 9 and slowly wake up over a cup of coffee. I get to the studio between noon and 1, and spend a good thirty minutes just sitting and looking at my paintings, gathering the courage to get back into it. I typically never work on more than 2 or 3 things at a time; I get easily overwhelmed if I have a lot of unfinished paintings staring at me. Sometimes I get tunnel-visioned on one painting and it becomes all I want to work on and I’ll battle with it until it’s done. I do prepare surfaces in multiples, so I’ll always have a stock of surfaces to grab from when I want to start something new. I always have some podcasts going - currently working through all the episodes of What’s the Tee with Rupaul and Michelle Visage, like the good gay that I am.
As a practicing artist, what is your relationship to teaching art at a professional university level?
I currently teach two classes at Carnegie Mellon. I teach a pre-college painting course and an undergraduate, augmented drawing class. Teaching is a relatively new experience for me, so I’m still learning how to optimize my effectiveness in the classroom. I love the symbiotic relationship with teaching; I’m imparting knowledge, but the students are also sharing their insights as well. It’s really important to not let your aesthetic preferences dictate the way you interact with students and their work. I want to be open to all ideas, all formal considerations, and foster my students’ idiosyncratic voices. Teaching is a super rewarding experience and it gives you the opportunity to strengthen what you know. I’m still learning what it means to teach and how to do it effectively. Art education is more crucial than ever, so it feels really good to keep that part of our culture alive in whatever small way that I can.