Daniel John Gadd: “I'm trying to make paintings that feel human, that feel how I feel”.

The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.

Daniel John Gadd was born in New Jersey in 1986. He graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 2009 and maintains a studio in Ridgewood, NY. Daniel John Gadd’s work references and extends generations of great abstraction from de Kooning to Diebenkorn, to Stella, Tuttle and Ryman by combining the handling of ABEX, shaped formats, and the use of collage and embedding those formal elements with a deeply personal narrative and content. His work is fragile, violent, aggressive, and sensitive all at once, reflecting (literally, with his use of mirrors in much of his work), and sharing our complexity with an acceptance of all of what we are, and in the end, what makes us human (biography courtesy of David and Schweitzer Contemporary).

Brett Wallace: How did you first get involved in painting?

Daniel John Gadd:   I grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey, and I don’t think I had any more interest in art than anybody else. My grandma used to take me and we'd look at the skyline of New York City and I would just draw the buildings, and after a while I memorized how to do it. And so I kind of played around with that. But I got really into sports, played baseball on three or four different teams at once, and it was just so intense that that was my life.

So I went to high school to play baseball and the first year I got there, I was like, I don’t want to be any part of this. I don't know if I burned out, if it was just too competitive or it wasn't the person I wanted to be, or just my natural rebellion was hanging out with the punks who listened to music and made art. So I kind of found it by rebelling against something else. 

There were the jocks and there were the kids that did not play sports. It was an all boy’s Catholic high school so there were two pretty distinct groups.

BW: I can relate. I started skating in 6th grade in the parking lot of my Catholic school. 

DJG:   Yeah. So that was that.  There was an art teacher there that was pretty supportive in terms of hanging out in the art classroom. I guess I became interested from trying to escape something else and found that this was more interesting.

BW: Were there a certain movement or group of artists you were thinking about or inspired by?

DJG: At that time, my only knowledge of art was what the school was pumping, which is Catholic school, so Da Vinci was my art teacher's favorite, you know. Anything from the Renaissance, and anything that had to do with the religious art. I don't know if the curriculum was given to her, or if she picked it out that way to pleasure someone or if that was her main interest, I couldn't tell you.

BW: Painting's history has relied heavily on religious motifs; so Catholic schools really focus on that part of painting's history.

DJG: It then kind of stopped when we had this mural project, where we got an eight by eight-foot piece of the wall, so six of us got together and we had to come up with this design. And she brought in these art books and they're pretty standard, you know, modern and contemporary art books that she probably borrowed from the library, I don’t remember what they were.

So that was my first kind of introduction to anything other than, some sort of agony or religious painting. So then I don't remember how it started when I got super interested in de Kooning and Basquiat in high school. I guess it's a natural progression, because when I see what people were painting, when they were 18, it seems like that's what they were interested in.

There's this big divide where I wanted to go to art school. My parents were like there's no way, "we want like you to get a well rounded education at some liberal arts school" and I said "I'm not going to college then, fine". So I ended up going to the University of Rhode Island for four or five weeks. And I didn’t even know I applied. My mom secretly did it. So I got thrust up there and it was hell. I don’t know if I was homesick or completely truly hated it, but I called every day until finally she was like fine. So I applied to SVA and got in. And then got a traditional art education.

BW:     How did your work develop throughout school?

DJG:   The curriculum was strict at first, figure drawing and foundation painting I and II.  I ended up having Farrell Brickhouse as a teacher and he really changed how I viewed painting.  He became a really great friend to me. He also introduced me to a lot of things, because I was just kind of slapping in paint and he has this huge archive on his computer, which he would project and say, “Well, you're doing this, so why don't you look at this.”

BW:     I want to see that archive. I will need to give Farrell a shout.

DJG:   He taught a class on Saturday’s, I’d come in still drunk from the night before, barely alive. He'd come around and he'd mess around a little bit and then be like, “Well, why don't you look at this?”  He would bring some clarity; he was an amazing teacher. A better friend. An amazing painter, but became a great friend too.

BW: I appreciate his work and how accessible he is to share advice from someone who has been up the river more than a few times. Would it be fair to say he was one of your earliest mentors?

DJG:   It would be completely fair.  I had to leave school and get help, and Farrell convinced me to come back to school.  I was thinking about coming back to school and I saw him at open studios.  He gave me a hug, and at that moment I thought, “I can do this.”  When I went back, it was like all or nothing.  It was the only thing that was keeping me alive at that point.

At that point I was making these figure paintings, portraits in agony, and a series of paintings based on Courbet’s Wounded Man.  I got interested in artists like Jenny Saville. And I made figure paintings up until basically I my studio out here in 2014 into 2015.

Daniel John Gadd, “Wounded Man (After Courbet)”, 24” x 18”, Oil on paper, 2008. Photo courtesy of Daniel John Gadd.

Daniel John Gadd, “Wounded Man (After Courbet)”, 24” x 18”, Oil on paper, 2008. Photo courtesy of Daniel John Gadd.

BW:  Did you choose to skip grad school?

DJG:  I didn't go to grad school. I had a daughter.

BW:  She's beautiful, and so in awe of you.

DJG:  I was always interested in grad school, but all of a sudden I had a daughter and I was like, "well, that's not going to happen". And I was making paintings in New Jersey in my apartment, and it was actually Michael David who, I think because I wanted him to come to New Jersey, said why don't you get a studio here and try it for real.

Moon, Daniel's daughter, in his studio at 1717 Troutman. Photo courtesy of Daniel John Gadd.

Moon, Daniel's daughter, in his studio at 1717 Troutman. Photo courtesy of Daniel John Gadd.

BW: Sounds like it was very sage advice at the time.

DJG: It was a new financial responsibility, it's kind of far, and it's a little bit of a pain in the ass.

BW: Do you still live in Jersey?

DJG: I do. So, I figured out how to make it work. And it just evolves. Leaving early in the morning, before traffic starts and if I have to be home, I do it before traffic picks up again .

BW: So you've almost designed it so that you can do this kind of reverse commute.

DJG: Exactly.  I can be here with no distractions, make work and then go home and be who I am there, not trying to sneak into the bedroom to work. 

BW: And, you work where a lot of painters work, in this neighborhood and in this building (1717 Troutman).

DJG: And I guess people live here, they make art here, and it's like kind of like this amazing thing, so maybe it's weird that I'm not able to live here and be fully involved with the community, but I wanted to be a part of it so I put my studio here.

BW: How have you built a creative life that sustains your practice?

DJG:   I met a dealer in Philadelphia and he was pretty successful at selling my work, which gave me enough confidence to keep it going.  I was living in my parents' basement and they had this huge basement that I was making paintings in.   But then, I pretty much met my wife and we decided to move in together.

It was kind of fun and valuable.  But at a certain point I had to grow up, so I got a job at a picture framing company hanging art, and being an art handler was the way for a while, but from that company I met an interior designer and I've essentially become his assistant, which is great because I don't have to work every day by any means to support myself.  He has very affluent clients, and so I can pretty much design my own schedule.

BW: So, you've kind of created this painter's schedule in a way.

DJG: I mean the good thing is my job is project based.  He calls me and asks if I'm available, and I can say yes or no. And so there may be a week where I don’t get to pick up a paintbrush, but then there may be three weeks where I don't have to do anything but pick up a paintbrush.

BW: The flexibility must be helpful for focusing.

DJG:   Yeah, which I think is good because I always joke with my wife that I don’t really have a skill set per se for another job. I am trying as hard as possible not to have to get a job at the Home Depot, you know, not that there's anything wrong with that. I want to be a painter.

BW:   When we talked a couple weeks ago, you mentioned you were going to start a ten-foot painting. I think this is it. There are works all around on the walls, floor to ceiling, and these structures that you're building incorporate broken mirrors creating reflective surfaces where the viewer can see themselves (making the work in a way self reflective). There is a gravitas and heavy painterly feel to the work while color scheme is actually quite light, which is interesting. 

Daniel John Gadd, “I Know Rivers”, 2016, 120” x 115”, Oil, mirror, aluminum leaf, string and wax on wooden panel.

Daniel John Gadd, “I Know Rivers”, 2016, 120” x 115”, Oil, mirror, aluminum leaf, string and wax on wooden panel.

DJG:   Yeah, well, this work is, it's going to be in the show. The title of the show is "For The Moon" and it's interesting because Abigail's middle name is Moon and we call her Moon at home. I was making these square paintings and I was having trouble with composition, I was getting so formal and you can kind of see it over here. And I had an area like this. And I hated everything but this arced shape in the center.

I took a Sawzall and cut it out. And I did it with three works.

BW: So, the removal of the edges via cutting a circle out the piece inspired a new way of looking at the work.

DJG: It did. I cut out the piece that I was most interested in and then I took a few other paintings I was interested in and cut them too.

BW: A Sawzall is not the typical painter's tool, but quite effective in this case for the removal of material. I like the use of new tool's. 

DJG:  Yeah, as opposed to trying to make a painting work based on something I liked, I just took what I liked and eliminated everything else.

BW:   After all, less is sometimes more.

DJG: I agree. So the first ones were kind of loosely based on going back to the figure and portraiture. And also I had no idea how to communicate with my daughter at that point and I was kind of struggling with that. And I started making these for her. I was trying to think of simple shapes and colors that she could respond to and stuff. And it's funny. We go home and I show her them in Photoshop and she's like, that one looks like broccoli.

So you know, and that's how we kind of communicate every night.

BW:  So that's really interesting. “For The Moon” is actually a visual language of communicating with your daughter. They're also quite figurative with the use of the oval resembling a portrait. Was that an unconscious or conscious move?

DJG:  It's almost like I made something and then thought about it, analyzed it, and I understand it now. Whereas before, I was trying to make something that I already understood. I kind of let go of everything and just took a Sawzall with a nine-inch blade and cut it. And then from there, I had three, at Bushwick Open Studios last year, I mean I had a wall of paintings and the cutouts. So I was like, "maybe I have something here and how can I expand on this? What's interesting about it"?And so I made a bunch of small ones and everybody said you've got to scale up, you've got to scale up.

I don't necessarily know why I tried, and I just kept saying the ones that I scale up aren't any good. And then I scaled up.  I had a collector come by that was from London, she sent me a few images she was interested in and I had them all out nice and neat and one large one that I took off the floor 5 minutes before she walked in.   She didn't look at anything else in the room. Except the huge one. And we talked about it for a while, and that was that. 

BW: The biggest one is unique in that its substrate is made up of multiple sheets of wood. If you were to really look at the moon in a massive exhibit at say a Science Museum, it feels like it would be constructed of a size around 10 feet like this piece.  Could you talk about the surface, including the mirrors on the surface, and perhaps concepts of reflection, sports, competition, rhythm or pacing that you may be examining?

DJG:   I think about rhythm, pacing, things like that, and then also focusing in. Because I played baseball, you're up there and focused on one thing, but also I'm interested in the mirror because of the reflection that it provides, and it can be a metaphor for self reflection or it could also invite you in. So it's also this conception, and I don't consider myself a conceptual artist by any means, but it's this conceptual element.

In this one, “Rosamma”, for example, let's presume you're going to get on your knees to look at it, or are wearing red shoes,  it's going to change every time somebody else looks at it. You know, all of a sudden you put something in front of it, then you have multiple reflections, so you get the light up there etc. 

Daniel John Gadd, “Rosemma”, 2016, oil, wax, aluminum leaf and mirrored glass on wooden panel

Daniel John Gadd, “Rosemma”, 2016, oil, wax, aluminum leaf and mirrored glass on wooden panel

BW: It reminds of early adolescent play in the way of fort building. Simple materials from a house like wood or mirrored glass, a Sawzall someone may snag from the garage etc. The moment and motion of fort building was let's go build a fort and let's do it as rapidly as possible and get it going. It's about the experience.

DJG: Aside from the drill, I didn't use any power tools on these works. And I could have, but I felt it was more interesting to use a handsaw. And, it's funny you mentioned adolescence. It was a really formative time for me and it was a really awkward time for me. So, it kind of led to the addiction, the complete shutting off, of everything. So you know, they're a little bit about self-reflection, about paint, about mistakes, about innocence or the loss of it. 

My daughter is kind of my gift, you know, my normal life, redemption. She's the first thing in my life that I care about more than myself, for sure.

BW: There's this other concept about the moon that I can't help but think about. The idea of the moonshot, thinking big about something and planting a flag to reach for. I think back to JFK’s quote - “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. The quote is interesting in this context because what you're talking about are not easy experiences to contend with. Do you think about the moon concept as a long shot type of goal?

DJG:   I never really have, but I think it's completely accurate in the sense that I was, I think still am, definitely a long shot. I'm happy to be, alive and where I am. It's not therapy. You know, I pay someone a lot of money for therapy, but it does help keep me alive and sane. I would love to think about something else, but at night I'm thinking about how I'm going to deal with that mark or that color.  Am I going to try to play with it? Am I going to sand it out?

BW: And what's interesting about your studio is, well, there's color everywhere, literally everywhere. So it seems like the color really matters, but one thing that really jumped out to me was the lightness of the color. In this work, I think about the Diebenkorn landscape paintings in a way, or in this one where I can see a dialogue with Matisse’s palette.

DJG:   I think if I could make a painting that is already made, I'd start making those ocean compositions by Diebenkorn, especially the small ones on paper. I've looked at those forever. They are rooted in landscape, but they're definitely not paintings of landscapes. I went to the beach for a summer and kind of spent the whole time painting. And these started kind of coming out of it. I was looking at Diebenkorn too at the same time, of course, and thinking what am I going to do, how can I make a painting?

And then also, thinking about how can I make a painting that's not depicting a person that can feel human? You know not look awkward and fragile but feel awkward and fragile.

BW:     It also seems like, and just going back to the construction of these works, there's no true north. It sounds like that you might be working with them on the floor, spinning them around to find what works in the end. It's very hard to find the origin point, and that's one of the things I love about them. Could you elaborate on your process?

DJG:   Yes, certainly. And that's definitely happening, so when I'm working, I'm probably working on five or four at a time, depending on the size. And then little ones. So that they're all over the place.

I've got poles and rollers and whatever, and it's just going back and forth at once. But I do find it interesting one of the criteria for if it's done is if it doesn't work any other way. Like if I flip this upside down, just because. I stop when I look at it and there's no move that I can think that I want to do, including spinning it. Because a lot of times I've arrived at that conclusion by turning the painting around. Like this one was here. I pulled it down, and I was like, well, "what if it's like that"? So, to me that's just as valuable as adding something or taking something away. It's just turning the orientation, looking at it on a different wall.

BW: As I look through these, you can't help but keep noticing the dialogue with past painters. You can almost even look at the corner and you'd see glimpses of Monet’s palette and textured water lilies and de Kooning’s brush speed.  I mean there's definitely some type of balance between, something as peaceful as a landscape. But the cracked mirror really brings in a certain domestic reality that's not always rosy. The cracked mirrors are very, very powerful.

I'm thinking of Dave Hardy's work, where he juxtaposes the hard-edged mirrors with more fluid foam like forms.

DJG:  It looks like it's going to completely collapse.  I think he's cemented those forms?

BW: Yes. How do you think about materials in this work?

DJG: My materials are clearly important to me, because I use things other than paint. The first pieces were just broken mirror, the first large one that I did was a mirror that I took from my parents' house; I took out their vanity mirror.  I was like you guys are moving, "can I take it"? And, I did. And I think they were kind of pissed and don’t get it, but that’s fine.   There's a lot of risk in these. Mirrors are expensive. So when I'm about to crack a piece, you know, this is kind of drawing for me. So to take a mirror and drop it and see what happens, that's leaving it to chance, it's drawing, it's also something that I find really interesting because then I have to put it back together, which is a big metaphor for what I've done with my life.

BW: It's a high beta move to drop a mirror like that. It's interesting that now you've gotten into a process of where you acquire them inexpensively.

DJG:  I’m trying to find them the cheapest way possible. There has been some really big things that are mistakes that can't be fixed. I think that's a part of life too. I'm trying to make a painting that feels human, that feels how I feel.

BW:  The work also has domestic references to me through the use of homeowner materials from wood to mirrors to tinfoil and also how they resemble cooking instruments in some ways.

DJG:   I mean the first time I had the mirror, it was just, I was trying to just take things and put them in for texture and stuff, and then I realized that paint on a mirror has a certain luminosity that I don't know how to paint without it.  Almost a shortcut of texture and glow in one shot. And then all of a sudden it had meaning once I started to make these.

BW: Yes. So how do you feel about the upcoming show at David and Schweitzer?

DJG:   I'm excited and nervous as hell. At this point I'm just kind of like tweaking, but I don’t want to tweak that much.  I was lucky enough to be able to bring most of the work over to the gallery to pre hang the show and have the work shot before the Arts in Bushwick show so the big ones are over there. 

I guess I'm kind of worried about having a room with circles, but I guess every day have a room with squares or squares or rectangles, so what's the difference? I guess they're not really circles either. They're more shapes, you know. I don't think any one of the works are perfectly round, partly because I can't cut a perfect circle.

BW: I think the work is finely situated for the space (now David and Schweitzer Contemporary) because of the focus of the gallery of pushing painting. There seem to be a group of artists thinking about painting as a language of communication, boundary-less space, existentialism, the body, the pressures of what we face today. I am thinking of artists like Paul D’Agostino, Brenda Goodman,  Kathy Bradford, Len Bellinger and Farrell, all of who have shown in the space.

DJG:   I’m really interested in painting that communicates what it feels like to be alive and they all do it really well.  Its an honor to be among them.

BW: Shifting gears, there's no shortage of painters in this neighborhood of Brooklyn. We know how hard it is to sustain a creative life (thinking back to Sharon Louden's book of 40 essays on the topic). What are one or two of the lessons that you've taken away?

DJG: Well, I try to be as honest as possible in my life and in my work. I find that the people that are the most honest in what they're doing are the most interesting. They may not be the most successful, or talented but you know, I don’t choose it, it wasn't in the two-year plan, but I'm a family man, and so you know, Moon will always come first. So I try to find artists that are balancing creative lives. And you know, I would love to be the Bohemian living in the studio but I'm not, I never will be.

BW: That's honesty right there. It's knowing who you are and being comfortable with your identity.

DJG: I think that's important, and also I try to work hard. I try to work as hard as I possibly can. I leave at 5:30am in the morning and get to my studio and I don't know anybody that does that. I'm sure there's someone, and I'm not saying I'm great because I do it. It’s what I need to do to make paintings.

Daniel John Gadd’s first solo show in NYC opens on October 21st at David and Schweitzer Contemporary.