Artist of the Week: Danny Giles

Danny Giles is a Chicago-based multidisciplinary artist. His practice addresses the mediation and consumption of cultural mythologies and the permutation of social archetypes. Employing a range of practices including sculpture, drawing and performance, Giles negotiates the spaces, tropes and artifacts of consumer display, public spectacle and political speech. Giles received his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2011 and his MFA from Northwestern University in 2013. He attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2013 and ACRE Residency in 2014. Recent Shows in Chicago include go/figure at Roots and Culture Contemporary Art Center, Clown Flâneur at The Block Museum of Art, Your Implications Have Implications at Slow Gallery, and Community Area One at Roman Susan.

Credit: Jim Dempsey

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do. I think a lot about origin myths and about why fragments of culture look the way they do and what that says about the process of making and re-making culture. In my work I’m often addressing this derivation through repetition and chance operations. I use lots of different materials, objects and actions to metaphorically reenact or think through the evolution or mutation of culture and language. My practice tries to stage intentionally misleading propositions where the question of origin is always subject to doubt. In terms of my specific interests, I most often make work that deals with the construction of a racial self and the attendant phantasms and abstractions necessary for racial identification. I approach history and cultural tropes as raw material to be permuted and maybe rendered unrecognizable.

In my practice and research, I’ve been working increasingly from a personal space of awareness of the cultural fragments that have shaped my experience. I’m trying to look at my location within and outside of certain cultural spaces and what renders my relative access to and awareness of cultural practices and raced and gendered representations and archetypes. I usually do this through employing really loaded objects and materials, trying to find ways to complicate the processes of signifying and identifying an object or body.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the objects that surrounded me growing up and that stuff has formed tendencies as a maker and form-giver. Things like being raised by a lesbian mother in the middle of Missouri, with all of the material culture of alternative and New Age spiritualisms as well as an early awareness of black nationalist philosophies have definitely shaped my bank of references and the way I can conceptualize the world. Along with all that, I am revisiting some of my nostalgia from the 1990s and early 2000. I was definitely shaped by shows like In Living Color, which is a good analogue for my family’s sometimes dark and goofy realness. I’m also starting to be more intentional about thinking through the specific imagery that shaped me early on which included a lot of Japanese animation and shows like The Ninja Turtles and The Power Rangers. Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z in particular are interesting instances in which stereotypical depictions of blackface were reified through characters like “Mr. Popo” and “Jinx”. I’m fascinated by the cycle of re-use and abstraction made evident through these characters. These cartoons are results of a cultural trope that originated in a Eurocentric white supremacist visual rhetoric and ended up being processed through east Asian culture and then fed right back into western markets. In that way, the representations are even more insidious than the original because, although they originate from a violently racist context, they are camouflaged within another envelope of otherness.

I’m working toward work that will allow me to make big connections between disparate aesthetics and regions of thought. Generally though, I’ve been feeling out what pleasure means in the studio. Coming out of a long-term research-based project I presented earlier this year, I’ve been really enjoying doing what feels good again, and waiting to decide what is right and what isn’t. Decoration, doodling, cutting and pasting, stupid humor—these all feel good to me right now.

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How did your interest in art begin? I think when I was in first grade and I drew this picture of a weird bunny figure with a big “X” on it’s belly and I took it home to show my mom. I asked her how I would draw the “X” upside-down. She said it would be the exact same image flipped and that blew my mind. I think that was my first introduction to visual problem solving. Also, like a lot of other babies, early on I took to making drawings on the wall with the contents of my diaper.

Trace the roots of my art practice to that basic impulse to learn about the world through sometimes crude means. So really, art has always just been this thing that I do no matter what. I would draw in my sketch book or on my arm with sharpies at school which brought both the praise from classmates sometimes the scorn from teachers. I think being acknowledged for being a “good drawer” definitely made me realize I could do this for the rest of my life early on. I always took arts and crafts classes and participated in art contests growing up, so yeah, it’s always been my thing.

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What materials do you use in your work and what is your process like? At the moment I’m making collages and sculptural compositions with a collection of fabricated and appropriated material including laser prints, magazine clippings, painted foam objects, and found objects. I’m focussed on developing this body of collage works that are now flowing into more object-based arrangements, so I’m using a lot of different material. Pretty much nothing is off limits at this point but I’m gravitating towards pop cultural imagery and stuff from my own studio archive.

My process is always one of layering, arranging, disassembling and reassembling the little bits and pieces that get stirred up from one piece to another. I always accumulate these little bits of material or imagery that get piled in these unorganized heaps that I think of as sediment or compost. Every now and then I’ll reach into it  and pull out something to try in a new composition. I also cannibalize finished or half-finished works, or make scans and reprint old material to put into something new. I’ve been revisiting these objects I make that I call “nubs”. They’re things made with ureuthane foam sprayed in panty hose and balloons and painted. They’re super bodily and have a goofy kind of grotesqueness to them. I work them as painted objects then photograph them, work them digitally, then print, cut, re-scan them, etc. In the end, an image that has been heavily processed might end up looking like a piece of found material or like an oddly familiar but freaky snapshot. I pay a lot of attention to the kinds of lo-fi advertising you find in the windows of inexpensive restaurants or hairdressers and hand-made fliers that get worn and faded by the elements.

I have also applied a similar approach to process using other materials including acrylic hair extensions in a body of work called “Essence”, after a popular brand of the hair extensions called “Essence: Silky and Jumbo”. I’ve made large wall installations using house paint and applying the hair directly to the wall, as well as using plexiglass to flatten the material to the wall. Recently I’ve been braiding it and weaving it into large nets that can be stand-alone pieces and have begun to incorporate other sculptural objects.

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What was the last exhibition you saw that stuck out to you? Josef Strau’s show at the Renaissance Society resonated with some ways I’m thinking about embedding narratives in objects and got me thinking about the differences between arranging objects and arranging sculptures. Dan Gunn’s solo show at Monique Meloche, Impromptu Airs, is also definitely a sweet one. The show he curated at the gallery last year (My Hands are My Bite), was also great. One show that I only ever saw in photo documentation was Roughneck Constructivists at the ICA in Phillie curated by Kara Walker. I love her statement about the show: “Ruffneck Constructivists are defiant shapers of environments. Whatever their gender affiliation, Ruffnecks go hard when all around them they see weakness, softness, compromise, sermonizing, poverty, and lack; they don’t change the world through conscious actions, instead they build themselves into the world one assault at a time”

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What artists are you interested in right now? I was privileged to have worked with Dave Mckenzie briefly at Northwestern and I feel that at this point in time his work is as on-point and urgent as ever. I saw his performance piece Babel in a talk he presented the year before I started there and knew I needed to meet and work with him. The performance involves Dave wrapping the cable of a microphone around his neck and holding the mic in his mouth as he spells out the phrase “I am talking to you”. He repeats the sign language until he begins to asphyxiate. The piece works on so many levels but when I think of it in the context of current events, there are obvious resonances with the strangling death of Eric Garner by a Staten Island police officer.

Right now, I’m also really into Abraham Cruzvillegas, a Mexican artist who makes these amazing pieces that work with an idea he calls “autoconstrucción” or “autoconstruction”. His work comes out of his experience growing up in Ajusco, Mexico where families made improvisational housing without plans that are always subject to change and reinvention. I’ve also been thinking about Jimmie Durham recently since having seen one of his pieces at the Whitney Biennial last year and another sweet one in the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. I’m really into how he uses charged materials to make these objects that are suggestive but ultimately misleading. I also really want to make it to the New Museum to see Chris Ofili’s retrospective which looks dope. His paintings are so sincerely spiritual and abject at the same time.

Being as I’m currently working my way through Huey Copeland’s new book Bound to Appear: Art Slavery and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America, I’ve been revisiting the practices of Fred Wilson, Lorna Simpson, Glenn Ligon and Renée Green. In the past year, I’ve really enjoyed learning more about the pracitces of Jennie C. Jones and Arthur Jafa, two artists included in the Roughneck Constructivists show.

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What are some recent, upcoming or current projects you are working on? In September I had a two person show along side eliza myrie at Roots and Culture called go/figure. We were both working out of research around two separate cultural artifacts and making process-based work to represent aspects of the their missing histories. My object was a face jug that I encountered in the Folk Art gallery of the Art Institute of Chicago. The craft of the face jug is tied up with a lot of rich cultural history and painful historical baggage, being a practice that was brought to the U.S. by enslaved people from the Congo. The jugs served a practical function as water jugs but also served a ritualistic role as grave markers for slaves. Their ugliness was supposed to ward off evil spirits. I made a project that came out of my encounter and research around these objects that included a series of drawings, performance, a cyanotype print and vinyl wall text. Meg Onli also penned an excellent essay for the show which was one of my favorite parts of the project.

This past fall, I also collaborated with my friend and very talented filmmaker, Andrew Mausert-Mooney, on a video of a site-specific performance piece set in Garfield Park. The piece, Retroreflector, depicts a figure (myself), traversing the often oddly pastoral vacant spaces in that neighborhood while wearing a reflective sandwich board. The piece was shot in a series of long takes and offers a kind of meditation on this particular urban landscape and the simultaneous magnification and dispersal of the body in space. We showed the piece at Roman Susan in a show themed around collaboration across neighborhood boundaries called Community Area One.  We were psyched about how seamlessly the piece seemed to come together and how the installation came out in the space.

I’m excited about upcoming shows I’ll be involved in in Chicago next year including a group show at LVL3. Collaboration will figure into my practice significantly coming into the new year. I’m really excited for a few upcoming projects in Chicago where I’ll be moving into some new territory alongside some other great artists.

What do you do when you’re not working on art? I feel like if most people answered this question honestly, they’d say “Facebook”, right? But seriously, I tend to think of art as the thing I do when I don’t have to do anything else. So when I’m not making art, I’m eating, sleeping, working, hanging out with friends, etc. I also cook quite a bit. Lately I’ve been running a lot, actually mostly in preparation for an upcoming performance piece I’ll be participating in, so I guess that counts as a kind of art practice.

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What are you listening to right now? At the moment of writing this, I’m listening to “Robson Girl” by Mac DeMarco. lately the album “Ontario Gothic” by Foxes in Fiction has been on pretty heavy rotation and the song “Grind” by Les Sins has been on repeat for a while in the studio. I’ve been listening to a lot of Jurassic 5 in the studio too. Whenever I’m feeling tired of my iTunes library, I like to check out the DJ in residence archive by this great online art’s publication called Carets and Sticks run by my friend Lindsay Zappas. Everyone should check them out. Also, I’m really looking forward to catching Ono’s performance at The Chicago Psych Fest this year. If you don’t know about Ono, you should. Ono is transcendent, sometimes scary experimental sound with vocals by Travis who is an brilliant artist in his own right.

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Can you share one of the best or worst reactions you have gotten as a result of your work? One project I return to from time to time is a performative sculptural costume called “MUCKMUCK”. I think of it as an attempt to materialize an archetypal image of abject monstrosity and otherness. It’s made from big amorphous black appendages and shaggy polychromatic hair extensions. “MUCKMUCK” is named for a song of the same title performed by Yaochin along with Sun Ra’s Arkestra. The chorus is “Watch out! For Muck Muck!” The first version of this piece was built on a wooden frame and caster wheels and took nearly the whole span of a sidewalk. I’ve taken the piece for walks on Northwestern campus and another version made appearance on ACRE TV and the online sex site, Cam4. Once, when I was performing in the public streets of Evanston in one of my manifestations of “MUCKMUCK”, I got a lot of great responses from passers by, but I think the best was one woman who kept asking if she could “get inside” of “MUCKMUCK”.

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