Nov. 2008: ArtSlant's editor, Georgia Fee, visited with Daniel Nevers while he was installing his project, Laughing on the Inside, while in residency at Southern Exposure in San Francisco, CA. The following conversation resulted from this meeting.
Georgia Fee: In talking about your process, you mentioned that you want the viewer to be unsettled by your work, both physically and psychologically. Is this element of discomfort key to your practice? What about this state interests you?
Daniel Nevers: I'm very interested in creating objects and spaces that both attract the viewer and make them a little uncomfortable at the same time. I think the formal qualities of the materials are important in drawing people in--whether it's color or texture or shape--but that's contrasted with heavy objects being precariously balanced on top of one another, or a question about whether some materials might be toxic or not, or maybe things are situated in a way that it feels like you might bump into them and make them fall. I want to highlight and exaggerate that sense of awkwardness for the viewer, to shake them out of their comfort zone just a little bit and make them ask, "Why?" There's something elegant about that state to me, the state of not knowing the answer, of not always being able to make sense of everything. It's the place where our perceptions of the world can start to change a little, I think.
GF: Your materials bring a very definite context with them. Everyone recognizes the big orange cords, the giant brooms, the buckets and clamps. Why are you choosing these materials?
DN: I think using recognizable materials is a strategy to seduce the viewer a little bit. These are things that most of us are overly familiar with, things we probably wouldn't take a second glance at in the real world. But when you shift the context, suddenly I think they can become familiar in a good way. They can put you at ease like an old friend. I find that the materials sort of magically anthropomorphize as soon as I bring them into my studio or the gallery. And I hope that that's one of the elements that draws people into the work.
The other thing I'm trying to do, though, is to strip things of their function. That's why the quantities are so important. When you have a large number of a thing, it becomes very formal in a way. You really start to notice it for its color and shape and line. The materials aren't being transformed, but you see them differently. You are being transformed.
Sometimes I still find it to be a peculiar way of art-making. Some days it really can just feel like a pile of cords on the floor, you know. And I wonder why it feels so important to pursue that. But that's where my interest lies. The craft of things just doesn't hold my attention in the same way. It's not really a commentary on craft, just my own way of working. I do think I bring a high quality of craft to making things that are seemingly uncrafted, if that makes sense. I mean, I feel like my decision-making is just as rigorous but in a different direction.
GF: In the handling of your objects, I notice that you draw attention to formal concerns such as pattern, line, color, shape - especially through the use of repetition. And we discussed the painterliness of your practice. Are you a painter at heart? Can you name some of the artists who have influenced you?
DN: I don't think I'm a painter at heart, but, like a lot of artists, I did start out painting. I realized pretty quickly it wasn't for me. There are just so many good painters out there, and I felt like I would never really get it the way they do. But I do think I continue to work in a pretty painterly way, just in 3D. I need to have materials in the room to move around, try next to one another, move them somewhere else. I'm not really the kind of sculptor that makes a drawing of a thing and then builds it.
One of my main influences, obviously, is Jessica Stockholder. She really understands how to transform a space into a three-dimensional painting. Other artists I look at a lot are David Ireland, Tony Feher, Felix Gonzales-Torres. And locally, people like Mitzi Pederson and Zachary Royer Scholz are doing exciting stuff that I find really inspiring.
GF: So are you a Lowe's man or a Home Depot man? You must spend a lot of time in these stores. How does the process of obtaining the materials, transporting them, storing them, etc. inform your work?
DN: Hardware stores have traditionally been a bit of a mysterious place for me. It's not really my world, and even now, I still feel like an outsider when I'm there. Going to one of the big warehouse stores, I can spend hours just roaming the aisles looking at things. I think the people who work there get suspicious of me sometimes because when I ask questions, it's not about how to build something but what colors does it come in. In a lot of ways, the process of collecting all the materials I need sort of mirrors the content. I become hyper-aware of my own defenses when I'm interacting with these macho hardware guys. It definitely informs the work because it's like I purposely want to use things the wrong way just to show them.
Transporting it all and storing it is another huge part of what I do. My practice involves so many logistical details, I wonder why I do it to myself sometimes. For the most part, I like the sense of accomplishment that comes from that side of things. There's something deeply satisfying about checking things off a list. When I'm in the studio, I don't always have that kind of control over what kind of day it's going to be.
GF: Tell us about the project you've recently completed in residency at Southern Exposure in San Francisco.
DN: The installation I've just completed at Southern Exposure is called Laughing on the Inside. It's a room within a room in the front gallery space, and it's framed out in walls made of semi-opaque plastic sheeting. The room inside is pretty close to the size of the actual gallery. There's maybe a foot of space or so between the walls all the way around. I originally was thinking about it in terms of making a space that was also an object, that the thing on display was the room and everything contained in it. I also just wanted to heighten people's awareness that they are entering an interior space and really put them on notice of that right from the start.
The piece actually starts on the street from the storefront windows that face the outside. One of the windows has plungers stuck to them, which have been fashioned into lights. The cords run from the window through the plastic-sheeting wall into the interior of the room. Inside there are a variety of barriers and obstacles that make it difficult to navigate the space. Wheelbarrows are bungeed together in a giant archway on one side of the room. Extension cords are piled in the center and run throughout the space. A pyramid of wooden ladders blends into a wall made from vinyl flooring with a wood-grain pattern.
I usually work pretty intuitively. I came into the residency with a sense of the specific materials I wanted to use, but I didn't have a map of how they would fit together. I wanted to get in there and respond to small details of the space first. One of the first considerations was what to do with the windows. Another was just a decision to use a screw hook that had been left in the ceiling. From there, things just kept growing and evolving as the materials started to relate to each other.
Part of the residency has involved having the gallery open three days a week while I'm working. It's been really fun and interesting to see how people respond. The space was relatively empty for the first few days while I was framing out the room, and a lot of people didn't quite know what to make of it. I would say there was quite a bit of confusion in the beginning. Now that some of the other things are in place, the interaction seems to be growing. People are really responding in a positive way. For me, it's helpful to have people asking questions while I'm still in the middle of the process. It's a good test run to see if the ideas are working or not.
GF: You've discussed your interest in self-help literature and pop psychology, and stated that you are trying to draw a correlation in your work between the DIY movement in home improvement and the self-help movement in therapy. Would you be willing to discuss this a little bit? Are you suggesting that addressing a neurosis is the same as plastering a wall? Or that plastering a wall will alleviate neurosis?
DN: I'm not so much interested in my practice as a reflection of my own experience or lack of experience with self-help psychology. It's more that I've always had an interest in the concept of self-help, of the constant need to improve one's self, of wanting to become something better than what you are right now in order for your life to begin. I'm really fascinated by the notion of somehow becoming "more authentic," as if who you are right now is less than authentic.
I just see a real correlation between that language and the language of construction, of tearing down walls and building new ones, of demarcating exterior from interior space. How do we remodel ourselves over time? When do those barriers reveal more about us than they protect?
Even the parallels between specific materials--of cords being connected, or clamps clamping things down, or plungers plunging. I think there's an overlay of trying to control things, of keeping things in order, of containing messes. We're all doing it all the time as we navigate through the world. We have built and refined a whole series of defenses that protect us and keep us safe. But I think most of us cling to them too tightly. I think we rely on them far longer than we need to until we forget why we ever built them that way in the first place.
Georgia Fee: What 5 words would you select to describe your work?
DN: askew, humorous, playful, unsettling, awkward.
ArtSlant would like to thank Daniel Nevers and Jamie Venci at Southern Exposure for their assistance in making this interview possible.
(All images: Daniel Nevers, Laughing on the Inside, installation views, Southern Exposure, SF, 2008; Courtesy of the artist and Southern Exposure.)