INTERVIEWS

LOUISE BAK POSTED ON: OCTOBER 23, 2008

Dan Witz is an active mixed-media artist with a longstanding love affair with the spaces of New York and its illuminated nightscapes. He's developed a store of sexual figurative painting that also shine with light. In his most recent painting series, Witz's figures are transfixed by the beams of their cellphones and suggestive of what possible intimacies are radiated in the depths of night.

Q: You've been working with street art since the late '70s. How did you approach working with figurative forms?

A: I've always been what they call a realist. Early in my education I discovered that disciplined figurative study was the common starting point for artists I admired – even modernist or avant garde ones like Picasso and [Marcel] Duchamp. The usual path is to use this classical education as a jumping-off point to more expressive or less literal approaches to making art. I stuck with the realism though. I've never gotten over how cool it is to make space and light and time occur on a flat surface.

These days, my jumping-off point is about trying to make my stuff even more realistic – past the point of what's been possible in the past. I mean isn't this what we're supposed to be doing – pushing on to new forms? To this end, I experiment with various digital and photographic aids; I employ new technologies and blend them with old master techniques. In fact a lot of my street works are more Photoshop than paint. To me this isn't heresy or a contradiction (although it's definitely contrarian). Different times demand different approaches. Q: I'm curious about about the mosh pit images.

A: A lot of my themes come from my early experiences living in downtown NYC and playing in art-punk bands. The group figure paintings definitely come out of that and a lifelong interest in baroque forms – how astonishing it is that a flat composition of shapes and colours can evoke such noise and chaos, even danger. The baroque painter I admire most is Jackson Pollock.

Q: What led you to depict dogs as a moshing group?

A: I love dogs.

Q: I'm curious about some of your sexualized paintings and your depictions of young females. There's a playfulness it seems in an image like girls putting on makeup.

A: Yes. Watching a girl paint her face has always held multiple fascinations for me.

Q: There's a striking image titled Old man and young girl. What inspired this?

A: Another lifelong fascination for me has been how oil paint can describe flesh. Not just the colour and texture, but the actual sensual presence of it. The contrast between the two figures seemed a good way to play with this.

Q: There's a social emphasis on the beauty of young bodies. How do you see your images of girls?

A: To me these girls' poses are awkward and almost ridiculous. They're caricatures of how the media fetishizes them. Innocence exploited. Also, I love the idea of a painting flirting with us.

Q: There are qualities of portraiture in some of your work, specifically the figures with their cellphones where there is a subtle intimacy.

A: They're friends of mine. When I was doing the painting I imagined I was the one calling (or texting). While the idea for the cellphone paintings was gestating, I happened to be looking at some 17th century Dutch interior paintings by [Gerard] ter Borch. In these tiny interior pieces the light source was emanating from us, the viewer, as if we'd opened a door onto the scene. I love the idea of the observer's presence actually bringing illumination – an apt role for the painter (me) and the person looking at the painting (you).

Q: It would seem you've developed relationships with various areas of New York. I'm curious how you developed your night paintings of illuminated spaces. Are they spaces that you are acquainted with?

A: Definitely. Most of my work is about New York City, my never-ending love for this place.

Q: Do you feel some emotion or some conceptual revelation with your street images that differs from your figurative work?

A: They serve different functions for me. It's too complicated and layered to go into but I will say that the two disciplines balance me. I wouldn't feel right doing just one and not the other.

Q: I find it interesting when some figurative elements enter your street work. There's an image of a sensuous female leg in your ongoing work. Do you find there are sculptural qualities of the female leg that are interesting?

A: Not especially. Hands, I find interesting. They're very sculptural, and gestural, and expressive of personal narratives. I think hands resemble their owners in a profound way. Once I did a series of portraits of my friends' hands. The likeness to their owners was eerie. Even gloves that have been worn-in can assume the personality of the wearer. Shoes too.

Q: How do you see the streetscapes of New York now? You've experienced street dynamics and spatial ecologies over time as the city has become so commodified and sterile in some ways.

A: In most neighbourhoods there's an area or two that, because of location, neglect, and some mysterious village social dynamic, attracts the graffiti. These were my walls. Actually, it was after seeing the black-and-white hoody pictures that I realized how bizarrely beautiful these walls were – especially the really old surfaces with long, uninterrupted accumulations of tagging. Maybe because the hoody photos were in black and white, I could really see the graffiti; I didn't take it for granted like I usually do. I was amazed by how much energy there was in it, how fresh it seemed. The gestural confidence, the swooping bravery of the writing, the way the spray paint fizzes, it's like a flare or a sparkler – it actually glows! And the drips! Such gravity – like a force of nature.

And, incredibly, this is going on everywhere in the city – it's in our faces every day, shouting. But even me, a street artist, I hardly noticed it. Until I started integrating my trompe l'oeils with it. Then things really started acting up. The walls came alive. Layers of tagging became weirdly spatial, the walls transformed, became six feet deep.

“When I was a little kid, there was a stream that came down from the hill at our place and would have cut across our yard, but years before, somebody went out there and covered this stream with stone, mortared the stone together so that it left a hump down through the middle of the yard, as if it were left there by a seven hundred pound mole. And when the stream dried up, my brother and I—he was in the third grade and I was in the fifth—we went down to the end of that tunnel and walked through it, lighting our way with torches. We found an old accordion under there. It was a great find, and we brought it home and tried to play it. But it wouldn't play, and we found we could get into it by opening and opening this screw and lifting the top off. We got into all the valves and bellows and everything, and there, stuck in a corner, we found a piece of paper, a sign, and it said WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU LOOKING IN HERE FOR, DAISY MAE?”

Ken Kesey interviewed by Chip Brown. Esquire September 1992