Contributed by Sharon Butler / Although some artists spend time homesteading in the Catskills, or tending their vegetable gardens in Maine and other rural outposts, Two Coats of Paint is focusing on summer in the city. It’s a delightful time, relatively quiet, and ideal for exchanging studio visits. I recently stopped by Daniel Wiener’s studio, a warren of rooms in the basement of his Boerum Hill brownstone that opens onto a lovely backyard garden, to see what he’s been working on. We talked mainly about his striking Apoxie-Sculpt head series, which combines a 1960s psychedelic sensibility, California color, and collective angst by way of an idiosyncratic process.
Sharon Butler: Can we start with an overview of your process? Ever since I first saw your work at Lesley Heller, I’ve wondered how you make these strange and compelling object-paintings.
Daniel Wiener: Sure. (We walk over to his work table.) The first step is to carve reliefs on plasticine tablets, then cast them in rubber to make molds. Plasticine an oil-based medium that never hardens and has been around since the Renaissance It’s great because I can make multiple pieces from a single mold once it’s been created. For the next step I push Apoxie-Sculpt, pigmented self-hardening clay, into the molds to make the final pieces. My pieces are like hybrids—half sculpture and half painting. The process is very intuitive, there’s not much pre-planning at any step of the way. I’ve been using molds for a long time, and the 3D sculpture and tables incorporate a combination of mold and handwork. I’m drawing with my material as well as filling in the mold, doing the painter’s equivalent of freehand coloring and drawing. On this one I added another layer on top of the molded object. In the other room you’ll see variations made from the same mold.
SB: How did you develop this unusual process? It seems so idiosyncratic.
DW: I’ve always been a sculptor, for over 40 years now, and I’ve developed a lot of ways of working with Apoxie-Sculpt. One of the reasons I started using molds is that unlike clay, Apoxie-Sculpt sags while modeling, it doesn’t hold its position all that well. So if you want anything with detail, either you have to let it harden, and then keep adding tiny bits or make a mold. I do both. One of the nice things sculpture-wise is that the color is in the material. You can make a shape with multiple colors and then rip it open so you can see color on the surface, inside, and then underneath it.
SB: So how the color will look is a bit of a mystery during the process. Do you have any ideas about color that inform your choices?
Growing up in California was a very different color experience than living in New York, where the winters are brick red, grey, black. During my first few color-deprived winters in NY, I would go back to California and see flowers blooming in winter. It was such a relief and a revelation. That is when I started using vibrant color in my work.
Black and white are easily categorized into mental categories. Color is much more irrational and hard to fit consistently into specific categories. If you read theories of the meaning of color they often contradict each other in preposterous ways. When I was younger, people in the art world didn’t take color in sculpture seriously, because it seemed frivolous. I couldn’t disagree more. Bring on the color.
SB: I couldn’t imagine these without the color. It’s not as though you’ve made the pieces and then added color on top. The pieces are the color, if that makes any sense. (We walk into the next room where several 3 x 4 foot pieces lean agains the walls.) You’re scaling up, but the rough edges look even more fragile.
DW: Yeah, I guess they look pretty big in comparison to the rest of the work here, but in a gallery, in terms of the scale of painting, they look small. But they are heavy! Each weigh 20 or 30 pounds, which means I often need somebody to help me to lift them. Sometimes the edges are delicate, but I’m careful and usually reinforce them in some way. One of the things I like is that I can get a really thin edge. Then I hang the finished pieces on cleats so they jut out, looming in front of the wall, which makes the irregular edges more pronounced.
SB: (Looking at some shirts draped across the back of a chair that have images of Wiener’s objects on them) Are these embroidered? Silkscreened? A decal? They look fantastic.
DW: From the beginning of the pandemic, while I worked on carving the plasticine tablets, I also worked on what I call sidelines, digressions from the predominant direction of my work. I’ve been designing embroidery from the facial images of the wall pieces and also making candles, chocolate, and marzipan from the molds. I work as a web designer as my day job, and since 1994 I’ve worked for a guy who sells software to make embroidered monograms. He owed me some digitizing time, so I decided to digitize these images and have them embroidered. I don’t know if they are just going to be something for me personally, or for gifts, or if these projects will turn into something bigger, part of my art practice. I don’t understand why I’m doing it yet, but at some point I will.
SB: I’m wondering if you were trained as a painter or a sculptor, or something else, because your work is so eccentric and crosses into so many different territories.
DW: I didn’t go to graduate school, but I studied sculpture in the art department at Berkeley. In my last year I made fiber-related minimalist pieces, mostly grey, black, natural color and then changed styles every six months until I was about 30. The work I make now has a lot more painting-like qualities, but I make them in a totally sculptural way. Because it’s a sculptural process, I’m surprised sometimes how color works. Just that little combination of three-d with two-d really changes things. The color might look good in one of my studies done in Photoshop but when applied in a face that has a bit of relief, it doesn’t quite work, so I need to shift and modify.
This group of work began because of my incredible residency at Dieu Donne, making pieces from paper pulp. Right before that, my pieces were about six to nine inches deep, as well as in the round. In trying to come up with a way to translate my work convincingly into paper, I came up with this process. I really, really liked it with the paper pulp and tried it with the self-hardening clay and then the work took off.
One of the things that really gets me going is the idea of variations. I use a mold which is intended to recreate the same thing again and again. By paying attention, careful choice of color, re-envisioning the relationship between the shapes, by working through multiple iterations I can come up with a piece substantially different in look, emotion, and meaning from the piece before it. I am always pointing out to viewers that two different pieces come from the same mold. Usually people don’t recognize that they are from the same source. The creation of difference from the same origin is central to my work and one of its subjects. I think I am saying something about creativity.
For quite a while, at least since Duchamp, there has been an argument against creativity among the arts cognoscenti. At the moment the prime spokesman against creativity is Kenneth Goldsmith. He writes on in the middle of his 39th year, “When I reach 40, I hope to have cleansed myself of all creativity.” He calls on writers to use appropriation techniques popularized by visual arts avant-garde. And in another vein Alan McCollum develops a set of arithmetical rules to create variations on a theme. He is more interested in foregrounding the rule based mechanics of his art making than in the meanings and emotions embodied in the individual pieces. I feel like one of the things I have been doing with my work all along is making an argument for creativity. Argument, of course, is not quite the right word. I am not writing an essay, but lurking underneath there is an impassioned embrace of the imagination, the imagination which is both affliction and a joy. For my entire life as an artist, imagination has been one of the subjects of my work, even when my work was more abstract.
SB: The faces have a compelling psychological component. At first they seem funny, cartoonish, but they are also disturbing, like you’re releasing a crazy, uscreaming id into the universe. Do you think of these pieces with faces as characters—individuals—or are they more iconic?
DW: The face has been a fertile subject for me. Perhaps they are self-portraits. Maybe they depict the emotions we never share. Variation in the human face works in much the same way as the variety I get out of my molds. It’s kind of like DNA. Our faces all have the same set of features, more or less same proportions, the differences are really very slight and yet it is so easy for most of us to recognize different faces, to recognize their individuality. I think I am playing off of that with these more phantasmagoric faces.
When I started making the faces, it took me a while to realize that they’re characters, and I’ve gotten interested in that. I want to delve into that more. Up until the present each face is a single individual facing out towards you, the audience. I’m thinking of putting more than than one face in a piece. If another character is added, the relationship with the viewer changes. And their relationship changes too. Right now they’re very much about singleness. And I’m wondering what will happen if I have two of them together or two of them facing each other, or in a crowd. However I just remembered I did a piece with about 150 faces that were hanging from the ceiling so that was more about faces within a crowd. I installed that piece at Studio 10.
SB: What’s the future look like for you?
DW: I’m older now, and since Lesley Heller closed during the pandemic, I am without a gallery. When I’m not working, I feel insecure and wonder about my work’s place in the wider world. But when I’m making things in the studio, I’m just as engrossed as I ever was, if not more so. I will be trying to resolve how one shape interacts with another shape and all that seems totally important to me in the moment. My creative vision continues to move forward. You know what I mean? My involvement with my work has only grown, so I focus less on the “big bad art world.” I’m fortunate to be part of a group of artists who support each other. I think creativity is ultimately communal. It’s something we do together, even if most of the time we are alone in our studios. Also I’d love to make some public work, something on a larger scale. I like the idea of making a climbing wall. But in the meantime I’ll continue making faces and meandering through my digressive projects – chocolate bars, embroidered shirts, head candles and wherever my imagination leads me.
About the artist: Daniel Wiener grew up in Los Angeles and has lived in NYC for thirty-nine years. His first solo show was at the Stephen Wirtz gallery in San Francisco and, after an unusually long stay at Yaddo, he decided to move to the East Coast. In 2012, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and his work has been shown at Bravin/Post Lee Gallery in New York, Acme Gallery in LA, Studio 10 in Bushwick, and the BRIC Biennial in Brooklyn. In 2019 he had a solo show, Wide-eyed & Open-mouthed, at Lesley Heller Gallery on the Lower East Side. Wiener is a co-founder of the blog Romanov Grave and lives and works in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. Follow him on Instagram at @danieljwiener.