When Danny Ferrell envisions his subjects, many of whom are his peers or lovers, the painter sees someone with more power than society allows them to have. As a queer man himself, Ferrell understands how it feels to be wrongly marginalized, and uses his practice to reshape the conversation, appropriating techniques of royal European portraits to depict his friends with grand importance. Using nature as a common backdrop, Ferrell's work is at once euphoric and romantic, drenched in beautiful saturated colors using slick, smooth oil paints. PAPER caught up with Ferrell to talk about his background, influences and self-discovery.
You're Pittsburgh-based. Talk me through your background, and where you were trained as an artist?
I'm from a really small town in central Pennsylvania, a place where conservative, religious traditional family values are placed above all others. If you deviated from those cultural norms, you were treated as a pariah, a herald of immorality. In my hometown, my sexual identity was merely a role which one could "perform." As a young gay boy, I was forced conceal my authentic self from my friends, family and peers, which left me with severe feelings of alienation and guilt. When I entered college at Penn State University, I started questioning why the world was the way that it was, so I began combining larger ideological issues with my natural facility for painting. I then did my graduate work at the Rhode Island School of Design where I received an M.F.A in Painting in 2016.
What perspective do you think you bring to art, given this background?
My formative environment and "othered" personal history in central PA remains the beating heart in all of my work. I think my background provided me with the emotional temperament to make my work, to paint with sensitivity, and desire to celebrate the shared identity of my community. When I am working with my students, I encourage them to mine their own stories and imbue it in their work. I am a staunch individualist and believe in the power of everyone's idiosyncratic approach to painting, which is often informed by our unique and different experiences.
How did you develop your style?
It's taken a long time to hone in a distinct aesthetic perspective, and my visual language will hopefully continue to mature and change as times goes on. In many ways, I still feel like I'm trying to find my voice. I can trace some of my sensibility back to the first experience I had with painting. It hung not in a museum, or in a gallery, but in my late grandmother's house, just above the old rocking chair. It was a painting of my great-aunt Virginia, painted in 1913. It's a simple image: a beautiful woman, cast in a deep red light, looking gently outside the picture-plane. That particular work informed a lot of my aesthetic sensibility and I think about it all the time.
What influences this style?
There are a number of influences at play, but I see myself working within the tradition of the Cadmus Circle, particularly George Tooker, and the Hudson River School of Painting. My favorite artist is the immensely underrated Chicago Imagist Ed Paschke. Initially, my love of Paschke's work was merely formal, but then broadened into an appreciation of the ideas surrounding his work. As someone who feels like he doesn't quite fit in, I respond greatly to the fact that Paschke often affiliated himself with people on the periphery. He sought living and working situations — from factory assistant to psychiatric aide — that would connect him with Chicago's diverse communities, as well as feed his fascination for urban life and human flaws. He developed a distinctive language that fluctuated between personal and aesthetic introspection, and a public confrontation of social, cultural, and aesthetic values of the time.
How important is color in the work you do?
Color is incredibly important to me, so much so that I see color asserting itself as a secondary or tertiary character in the painting — a component with as much life and vitality as the figures I am depicting. Color also allows my work to have a particular sense of mood and creates and indeterminate sense of time and place. I see the paintings emerging from the intersection of emotional content and formalism, so the ways in which color, light, and surface interact with personal identity are all crucial to my practice.
How do you choose your subjects? You depict a lot of queer men and their dogs. Why?
I'm looking to make paintings about love — love between two men, love between man and dog, love of oneself. So, I choose the subjects of my painting based on the level of emotional connection I share with them. Generally, the figures are good friends, my partner or acquaintances that I find interesting. I'm also looking for people that have a specific "look," one that is not co-opted by our accepted rules of beauty, but embody something outside of that convention, which needs to be recognized and valued.
Recently, I have been gesturing to the vast canon of European royalty painting, by blending the epic and banal in painted images of gay men and their dogs. This combination quotes the pageantry of that history — their rich garb and over-the-top landscapes — and in so doing, elevates queer bodies and bodies of color from second class, to royal class.
When you look at your work as a whole, what do you see as its greater message?
There is a canon of creative work that portrays the gay lifestyle as abject. Films such as The Celluloid Closet, Advice and Consent, or Walk on the Wild Side show images of unhappy, suicidal gay men, which magnify the social perception of my community in our culture and fuel a conservative counter-narrative. With my work, I'd like to reverse that narrative and show positive images of gay men and male vulnerability. The greater purpose of the work, as I see it, is to be a space where people can contemplate their own biases and presuppositions, which will hopefully lead to both normalization and acceptance of people who are LGBT.
How does your work reflect your own identity and personal interests?
My sense of self is positioned quite intimately in the paintings, and every choice I make in the work is derived from my tribulations, experiences and interests. I love color and beauty, pop culture and fiction — all aspects that are revealed in the paintings. In virtually all creative fields, the maker is almost always evident in the final outcome.
Beyond my own identity, I want to reveal more about the identities of the subjects I am depicting. One of the most obvious ways of defining individual identity through bodily adornment: the clothes we wear, how we style our hair, tattoos or accessories. This is most aptly defined by Marsden Hartley's Portrait of a German Officer, where there is no body, but symbols that represent the man he loved and his identity.
Tell me about the environments you put your subjects in. There are recurring motifs, like moons, nature.
Nature is a multilayered space — the topography, morphology, and geology is where humans can project quotidian drama. I like to perch my figures on the edge of the quotidian, where lush landscapes, colorful gradients and intricate patterns interact to create a "magic reality" that is both ordinary and extraordinary. A natural setting also questions notions of gender performativity by asking, "What goes on in nature when men, particularly gay men, find themselves there?" In a contemporary sense, we associate dominance and athleticism with nature, but it is also a place we turn to for solace, to be intimate, to reflect. There is a part of nature that welcomes self-discovery, a human quality evident across men, women, and the sexual spectrum.
Photos Courtesy of Galerie Pact and Danny Ferrell