Joe Danciger, The Per Contra Interview with Miriam N. Kotzin
MK: You said you got very interested in landscape as a vehicle. How do you see it as a vehicle?
JD: Aside from my naturalistic boyhood experience, I learned a lot from looking at art and art history.
By 1970 I had given a fair amount of thought to Greenburg [Clement Greenberg] and New American Painting. I saw landscape as a good place to dig, if you will pardon the metaphor.
MK: You also paint still life. Do you approach painting a still life in a way thatís different from a landscape? How does control enter the comparison?
JD: For me, still life represents tactile space, where binocular depth and solidity is strongest.
I have always relished the ďDa Vinci CodeĒ part of art history, from nature morte to objet trouvťe. Familiarity with this tradition gives me a kind of palette in regard to things I might paint.
I also have an interest in the iconography and eras of painting in the western still life tradition. I do not think iconographic symbolism is art in itself.
A still life may be arranged or found. Most of my still lifes I can reach out and touch. The literal fall of light can be controlled in one, but not the other.
I walk a lot in the landscapes I paint in. I can arrange a landscape by viewpoint.
MK: When you walk around in a landscape looking for a viewpoint, what are some of the elements that you seek?
JD: Part of that has to do with the shape and material that Iím painting on. I usually have one or more supports with me.
Sometimes the way the shapes and angles present themselves or it might be an unexpected appearance, like stone looking almost cerulean from sky reflection. I like to start from a reaction sometimes.
MK: Do you use photography in your landscape work?
JD: Most of my landscapes are painted out doors directly. Some larger work is painted referring to a smaller oil painting. I often take a camera along when I am painting and photograph where I have been. The photograph is like a map with a momentary signature. Photograph catches time in a snap of the shutter. The painting is about the landscape and my presence, over time. I photograph to get a map back to a point when the painting was in flux.
MK: I see that you return to particular places to paint them? Iím thinking of some of the places youíve painted more than once like the Palisades in Pennsylvania, the canal along the Delaware and the Delaware River, Ringing Rocks Park. What draws you to them?
JD: I donít often paint farmland. I often go to places where there is a hint of wildness or where nature has reclaimed a bit.
MK: If you paint in public places like parks, how do you interact with curious passers by?
JD: Back in 1971 kids in Philadelphia would shout lewd things and throw rocks from a safe distance. Now that Iím older most people donít bother me. Now, if a child is interested they will look on and maybe ask a question. Thatís an improvement.
MK: What about wildlife? Youíve mentioned the snakes on your ranch. . .
JD: Once I painted in a valley in West Texas where cougars were active and here the usual deer and mammals are present.
Once I got engulphed by a herd of cattle. Cattle are usually curious. I realized what had gotten into them and waved them away: my oil paint with its linseed, safflower, and walnut oil smelled delicious to them. [Linseed oil is sometimes added to cattle feed.]
MK: What are some of the challenges in painting moving water?
JD: The gestalt has to be seized right away. Itís like this, color, flow lines, the physics of the waves, and its sound (rushing, dripping).
Most of the appearance of water comes from everything around it. It shapes things too.
MK: You have some winter paintings. Besides the cold, what are some of the challenges specific to painting snow and ice, including ice flows?
JD: Itís like painting water; it has all the same qualities but the time element changes. There is usually a viewpoint difference as I am more likely to stand in the snow but not in water. In both cases I try to keep the surface of the paint fresh.
MK: What are some of the common challenges that you face in a landscape and a still life?
JD: In some ways itís all painting, so there are more similarities than differences. In any painting itís essential to stay with the painting and not just Pianola:
Turn out strokes, dots, rocks, or what have you. Neil [Welliver] and I were discussing Redfield [Edward Willard Redfield] in regard to this.
Right now I sometimes do react to them differently.
A still life can be more in danger of becoming a technique exercise than a landscape. A still life is like one of those Arthur Dove paintings of foghorn sounds. Things appear and come to some kind of equilibrium.
I want a landscape to be global or for the eye to get around in it. I want to avoid having a pastiche of elements.
I admit to having endurance limits with wind and rain working outside.
MK: What did you and Neil Welliver say about Redfield?
JD: We both had respect for Redfield. Some painters work up a formula and paint variations thereof. Redfield sometimes is a real responsive eye. He sees and paints landscape masterfully in his late American Impressionist way.
Sometimes though, he will find a pattern and start space filling. Itís kind of like he lost connection with the subject and painting and copied a passage in the painting over again. We both considered this a failing, but it did not always happen.
MK: Have you always used oils rather than acrylics? Why?
JD: I like to work wet in wet for some parts of my easel painting. The way paint is brushed out affects its color and solidity. Oil paint gives me more options there.
I do use gouache and acrylics, also casein for theatre work.
MK: I understand that you have a strong interest in how things are madeÖand youíve experimented with making paint?
JD: I have been around a lot of process and invention. My grandfather, Abe, had all kinds of waxes and chemicals in his closet, pure carnauba wax and things like that he kept to experiment with. I liked to look through his big eighty-year-old book of industrial processes.
I never ground up and washed pigments, but I did keep my eye to the ground to find bits of ochre to draw with. I got some nice pieces in Oklahoma, some looked like someone had scraped the red color long ago.
MK: Youíve also done set design, which utilizes your skills. What is thereabout set design that you like? Does it bother you that you make something that then disappears?
JD: Hopefully you will leave something in the minds of the audience. Sometimes I keep the scale models and always some photographic records.
Lately some producers videotape a show.
When I first started doing live theatre set I was mostly a painter. I would roll out the textures, pictures and signage. Later on I went into platforms and three dimensionality.
Sometimes the collaborative aspects bring invention. You might say there are more compromises in doing a set versus easel or muralistic painting, but it still works for me.
MK: In some ways making a painting can be like an experiment. I understand that you once experimented with a particular green. Would you tell our readers about that painting and what happened to it?
JD: I had this painting where I was looking up at the woodland canopy from a gorge slope. The light and view flattened the canopy and the reflections from the valley floor gave the whole mass a monolithic form. It was one mass supported by many trunks. The better part of this canopy needed largely one predominant color. Then I could pit the other parts of this painting against this and get a bounce and some drama, instead of just another vanishing point. This green was hard to mix. I tried blue green, brownish, chalky, darker. I could not copy the color and get it right. It had to do with the quantity of that color on the canvas.
I stared up at the leaves and saw that the green was more in my mind than in my eye. I thought of all the greens called green that were not strikingly vivid. I had a dollar in my pocket so I looked at that green and found a midway color that had shade but was still green. I had found the right color, and it worked with the valley wall.
What happened to that painting? A bank bought it.
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Note to Readers: Click on any picture below to see a larger version.
Above the Delaware
Peonies in Painted Vase
Woods in June
All Images © Joe Danciger and are used with permission.