“I think of my paintings as short stories, mini-narratives that explore the notion of the “outing” – an intimate experience with friends, often a daytrip, which takes place out-of-doors. I address contemporary issues by leveraging traditional painting themes of leisure like boating, hunting and bathing”(D.K). Born in Woodsville, NH, Boston-based artist Danny Keith tells the story of a sentimental journey we have all travelled in one way or another. In exposing himself through its touchy paintings and drawings, he exposes us all to the fragilities and vulnerabilities of our complex existence lived through the expression of a deeper emotional intimacy: love, maybe. The secret need to see ourselves in another pair of eyes. Our past, present and future quest lies in the contemplation of this inexpressible hope. Thus, Keith’s body of work – manifestly executed in a technique that recalls the late 19th century realism – it’s not just a blatantly study on homoerotic aesthetics. In a veiled manner, the artist offers a unique perspective on sexual and sociopolitical issues, but always through a lens of sensuality. Danny Keith’s latest Flannel and Fur, his first solo show, is currently on display at Ratio 3 Gallery, San Francisco, until February 18. Our interview, and more unmissable images, after the jump.
Hi Danny, would you like to tell us a little about yourself, your educational background and interest in contemporary realism. What steered you on the path of being an artist?
I grew up on a dairy farm in rural NH but have lived in cities my entire adult life. I have a separate career in visual merchandising and marketing in fashion retail. I have a master of fine arts degree from California College of the Arts. I have been interested in turn of the century realist/post impressionist painting since my first trip to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston when I was 15 and saw for the first time John Singer Sargent’s painting of the daughters of Edward D. Boit. I developed a passion for painting at a young age, but it wasn’t until 2007 that I decided to further invest in my education and pursue as a career.
Can you describe what is involved in the process of creating your paintings? How do you choose the subjects of your portraits. Do you ever use photos as a reference for your paintings, or are they all people interested in modeling for you?
I find inspiration in museum visits or combing through art books focused on 19th century painting. I like tapping into art history and making interesting connections to today. I work from photographs that I stage/orchestrate. I don’t consider myself a photographer and rarely think that my photographs work as art. For me, the magic happens in the translation of the image to a painting. I don’t see my work as photo-realistic and sometimes that is misinterpreted when seeing photographs of the paintings. There is also a pragmatic advantage to working from photographs; I am not limited by the availability of a model. I’ve found my most successful work is with models that I can form a connection with. The more I paint a model, the better the exploration of getting to know them through the paint. While the paintings have a strong connection to classic portraiture, I don’t think of the paintings as portraits of the model. These are characters that I create using the model likeness of the model.
Apart from being aesthetically pleasing and incredibly appealing, What do they all have in common?
These are celebrations of a new masculinity; masculine balanced with feminine, threaded by past, present and future.
Your influence in art comes mostly from American painters in the 19th century, such as Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent and French painters. Is there any specific painting that inspired your current work and why?
I started responding to fur that I noticed in paintings at the Met and the MFA. I liked that for men it was used to symbolize power and wealth and that for women it seemed to be more about sexuality and sensuality.
A deeper influence on your work is sociological. Your entire imaginary offers a nuanced study of the complexities of individuality within the realms of gender, sexuality and social identity. Traditional research regarding semiotics of identity has focused on clothing as meeting point of individual and society, private and public. What I find interesting in your latest body of work is that It mainly features fur and flannel-covered portraits of man. Basically naked, they seem quite aware of their own identity, feelings, values and beliefs. How do you personally feel about it? What can you tell us about this new, intriguing series of paintings.
I like stripping away obvious contemporary cues, a change from my earlier work. Previously those cues added to the narrative. In the new series, I think that limiting those references opens up the narrative to broader interpretation. For me, I like when an image can pulse from past to present to future. I also love painting skin, so I look for excuses to strip down the figure.
How long did it take you to complete it?
All pieces were done in 2011. The majority of the work was completed between August and December.
Why did you choose to focus on the same two subjects (one, in particular)?
I’ve found when I have a personal connection with my model, the work is richer. I rarely work with models who are strangers. I’ve seen people on the street or the subway who I’d love to paint, but for now I like the investigation that happens as the relationship develops.
There is a quiet stillness in your work, Danny. Every time I look at one of your recent paintings – Repose with Fur Blanket – it reminds me of Jerry by Paul Cadmus. He made this painting of his lover, Jared French, in 1931. It’s almost inconceivable not to feel the strong sense of love and loss the artist was trying to convey. I think it’s possible to look at your paintings in the same way. Does the idea of suffering, love, solitude and abandonment play a central role in the mood of your work?
What a wonderful painting. My earlier work dealt a lot with the homo-social, groups of male figures, fraternity. When I lived in San Francisco I had access to a large group of friends that I could enlist as models. When I moved to Boston, I didn’t have the same social circle so my access to available models diminished. I spent several months doing watercolor paintings of busts from museums. I can see how the themes you mention may have made their way into the work.
Is there anything you would have done differently in your work?
I am very pleased with this series and feel that I can continue to pursue these ideas…see answer next question.
So, what’s next for you. Are you currently working on a new series of works you can tell us about?
I am working on some new variations, inspired by visits to SFMOMA (Richard Serra Drawing) and the DeYoung (Masters of Venice) during my visit to SF for my opening at Ratio 3.