Drowning Barbie, Beauty Queens and Wonder Woman. An Interview with artist Daena Title

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Stockholm Syndrome, Daena Title

This is a blog post that is way overdue.  I met Daena on Facebook in the Fall of 2016 in a group managed by poet, publisher and curator Didi Menendez.  Didi was looking at new ways to get those of us in this space to engage with each other and tossed out a challenge of artists interviewing each other.  A number of us raised our virtual hands, volunteering, which led Didi to assign Daena and me to each other.

We traded contact information and several emails where we laid out a framework of thoughts to guide us.   Daena suggested a Skype video call with an idea that recording that call would be an interesting method of conducting a joint interview.   And we did that.  Sort of.  While not recording, we had an initial videoconference and talked for a long time.  Neither of us was happy with the video quality and decided that while the idea is still worth pursuing, that for the “assignment” given to us by Didi, we’d write up a more typical interview post.

Five months later, I am sitting down to write up that video call, along with the email conversations we had leading up to it.

JN:  I see very strong feminist imagery in your work.  Tell me where that comes from.

DT:  it’s not that I pick Feminist issues and paint them, it’s that I get obsessed with something (perhaps a photograph or the idea of painting underwater reflections) and then 4 paintings in I look at them and go, “Oh.  I get it.  That’s…” and inevitably it’s some Feminist diatribe.

I have been an ardent Feminist since I gave up cheerleading in 1972, and I guess it just permeates my soul and there’s no escaping it.

JN:  How did you get here?  I see that you were very active in theatre early on.

DT: It’s a checkered past.  From theater, to screenplay writing. It wasn’t until I weaned my first son that I wanted to return to art, which I’d loved pre-college.

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Big Doll, Daena Title

I see that my art is semi-narrative and dramatic at times, but otherwise don’t see much of a connection to theater days.  Theater was so social and collaborative.  Things I was happy to trade away for quiet time alone in my studio. How about you?

JN:  Checkered is a good term!  I also have a theater background, and share your viewpoint that the time in the studio is a good trade-off.  I talk about my evolution from theatre to the studio in this blog post.

DT: I recently survived a bout with breast cancer, and I find that’s moving me down a new, as yet unclear, path.  Funny that, two moments where my art is being launched, and both tied to my breasts. Hah! How essentially female of me.

JN:  Ah yes, you mentioned the birth of your first son as a catalyst to returning to art after a long hiatus.  Congratulations on being a survivor!  My wife, Connie, is also among your ranks.  What can you tell us about the shift that is happening for you?

DT: Yes.  It’s a plague. I’m sorry to hear that. For the art, my hope is to be less didactic and more joyful.  I’ve come to the conclusion that the way to contribute as an artist is to bring joy to others.

I loved that old saying from the movie tycoon (Samuel Goldwyn) in the 40’s, “If I wanted to send a message, I’d call Western Union”.  As if anyone even knows what Western Union is today. But hope I can be less didactic somehow in future.  I love my Beauty Queens, but I’d love to paint animals for example.

JN:  Well, your palette sure imparts emotional feeling, I think you experience your own joy in working with color.  I am reminded of the Fauvists.  Tell me about that.

DT: Totally devoted to color, yup, and obviously grew up on the Fauvists and Der Blaue Reiter and early Kandinsky. I just don’t understand neutral colored art. But a high chroma surrounded by neutral support, that’s a piece of heaven that I would love to explore more.

I remember seeing Matisse’s portrait of his wife at MOMA as a child and saying– Oh gosh–that’s how I see. A shock of recognition.

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The Green Line, Matisse, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

JN:  For years, B&W best expressed my responses to the world.  I am not sure why that was, what the drivers were for it.  Today, color is more interesting to me and is increasing as a part of my vocabulary, though when I look into most of my imagery, it seems that the palettes are pretty subdued.  I wonder if there is a connection between that and my earlier preference or self-selection of working in B&W?  It seems that we have a different way of seeing the world of color.

DT: I will sometimes use black or white as a color, but rarely use black to create a value scale. And often, not white.  Also, I usually paint with a full spectrum palette.

JN:  Let’s talk a bit about process.  I plan ahead, doing compositional work in the prep stage with my cameras.  I think the discipline was developed by the relatively high cost of film and dark room time.  Getting everything right before releasing the shutter was critically important to me, and even now with wonderful digital cameras, this process persists.  I am very deliberate.  The process of painting or drawing also has parallels with my photography, the works start to emerge like a photograph in the developer tray in a dark room, layers and time bring them to the point where I feel they are complete.  Tell me about your process.

DT:  I am more impatient and improvisational. Like you I plan out most of the composition ahead of time, but do not set the values or color.  Those are discovered as I work. The painting tells me where it needs to go. It is more a path of happy (or unhappy) accident and discovery.  In fact, I often put in too much, and then have to eliminate and simplify.

Wonder Woman at the Disco

Wonder Woman at the Disco, Daena Title

JN:  So we could say that I see in patterns of value, and you see in color.

DT:  Absolutely. If you look at, for example, at the torso of “Great Britain”, you can see that it’s not so much a study in value as in color.  In places, the only thing that creates the form is the use of warm vs cool, rather than a grey scale of value.

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Great Britain, Daena Title

I’m also experimenting with a more indirect form of painting. Underpainting, planning values and layering.  Interested in seeing if the use of under painted layers will add to my conversation or hurt it.

JN:  I recently completed a studio space that frees me to change my processes from working one-at-a-time to doing a series of works simultaneously, as well as the potential for increasing the scale of individual works.  Being able to move between pieces as drying times dictate is something I’ve not had the liberty to explore.  How that added capacity adds to or changes my processes will remain to be seen.  What about you?

DT: I am trying to work on more than one piece at a time, but inevitably I end up obsessing about one of them until it’s first draft is done.  It’s a battle because I’m very impatient and I hate waiting for paint to dry, even when I know I should.  OCD?

JN:  I guess we’ll learn a lot by trying these experiments!

DT: Your work in the cannery series is very Charles Demuth/Precisionists.  Are you drawn to their work? Whose work do you admire?

JN:  In fact, I co-curated a show with fellow artist and friend Allan Gorman for the Nichole Longnecker Gallery in Houston that ran from  February 27th through April 1st, 2017 called “Industrialism in the 21st Century” where works from this series were on display alongside works of 9 other artists.  Demuth, Sheeler, O’Keefe… all influences, more for their representational painting during a time when Abstract Expressionism ruled than for the specific subject matter, though grain silos and similar imagery resonated for me as a young artist living in rural Nebraska.

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Pressure #1, Jan Anders Nelson

Daena: YEEEESSSS! Love these guys. I’m drawn to their fracturing, almost cubist work. I was recently working on trying to add a temporal element to Precisionism. As well as apply it to Figure painting as seen in my painting “It’s all a Blur”

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It’s all a Blur, Daena Title

Emotional Cubism as Compositional Collage via Precisionism’s fracturing of space:

In “It’s All A Blur”, I continue my experimentation with Compositional Collage, here adding a Temporal Component to my form of Precisionism. I’m trying to capture what I’ve been thinking of as “Emotional Cubism”, that is, instead of showing an object from all sides, showing an emotional event from all sides and through a moment in time. My hope is to convey the inexact way our brains and souls register and remember a highly charged event.

JN: I love how we have these threads of commonality, with visual imagery that is so very different.

Daena:  Though we land at different paces on the scale, both of us have similar challenges:

When is a painting done?  When is there too much detail?  When is too much said?  What should be left out?

JN:  Indeed.  Though my drawing and painting have strong photographic references,  I work to reduce the imagery to become only those details that I find essential.  Determining what not to paint is a part of it.

Daena:  Also interesting that you mentioned living in Nebraska.  I’m wondering what the light is like there. Never been.  I grew up in NY.   Lots of blue light and very yellow-green trees.  But I’ve spent the last 30 years in LA.  Flat yellow light and blue green trees and dusty chaparral.  Really ugly.  To me anyway. Do you find where you’re living effects what you’re making?  Or do you just carry your art inside you?  I find the earlier influences seem to be more important than where I am now. So no Georgia O’Keefe shift for me. It reminds me of what you said earlier, that in some ways your art is memory.  How the shifts from the past and the now blend, how that synthesis affects the aesthetic.

JN:  Yes, I think the light does make a difference.  The intensity of the midday Sun over the Great Plains is very different from the “Bluest skies you’ll ever see” here in the Pacific Northwest.  As I write this, it is raining outside in a typically Washington Spring sort of way.

John Salt said this about light in the United States:  “…the light is much sharper, you get incredibly clear light, much harder, it’s much softer in Britain, it doesn’t quite have that edge – edge in every way, in light and subject matter.”

I do not think John spent any time in this part of the world, but his words resonate with my time in the Midwest.  “Chev” is a slide I shot in the mid 70s while living in Nebraska and (I think) captures that intensity.

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Photoshop mockup for a painting “Chev”, a part of the series “Dirty Picture Show”, Jan Anders Nelson

Daena:  Did I tell you that I remember David Hockney was quoted about that.  He said as a boy in England he saw pictures or movies of America and he couldn’t believe how sharp the shadows were.  I love that story because we take that for granted here, and also because it shows that he was destined to be an artist if he noticed those sorts of things as a child.

JN:  I wonder if introversion might also play a role in how we observe and note the world around us as figurative artists.  I think that is true in my case.

Daena, thanks so much for taking the time to tell me about your life and work, and for your patience in waiting for me to follow-through and write our conversations up.  Recently you told me that our dialog had some value for you, both in process and clarifying your viewpoint.

Daena:  I arranged a monitor in my studio, not as large as yours, but sizable, to work from and am so happy!  Also, I have found that our conversation was deeply helpful to me. Delving into your process helped me understand my own with new and greater clarity. I realized, for me, it wasn’t a weakness, as I believe I was harboring the notion of on some level, that I didn’t plan out my values and colors ahead of time.  Rather, the journey of discovery is where my strength lies. Seeing how beautifully well it worked for you, made me understand it could never work for me.  Funny that.

Jan Anders Nelson, Art Studio

Working on “Pressure #1” for “Industrialism in the 21st Century”, an exhibit at the Nicole Longnecker Gallery, Houston Texas, 2017, Jan Anders Nelson Studio

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Jan Anders Nelson Studio

JN:  Ah yes!  The monitor is such a great tool for me.  With the advent of 4K televisions, the key issue for me was building a little studio computer that would drive that resolution and then finding a deal on a 52” screen and rolling cart to hold them.

I am thrilled that our conversations have played a role in your thinking about your approach and am really looking forward to seeing what comes out of your studio and in continuing our conversations.  And thank you Didi for making us talk to each other!

http://daenatitle.com

Bio:

Raised on Long Island, lifelong Feminist Daena Title received a Bachelor of Arts in Art History and Theatre Studies from Wellesley College, and then lived in Manhattan until 1991 where she worked as an actress and a writer. Title then returned to painting as the best avenue with which to control her artistic message, mine her ongoing fascination/obsession with the relationship between women and society, and indulge her love of color and design. Her work, which focuses on the powerfully seductive force of modern female icons, has been shown in gallery and museum spaces since 1998, including recent group exhibitions at the Carnegie Art Museum, the Long Beach Art Museum, The Oceanside Museum, the Riverside Museum, the Torrance Art Museum and the LA Art Fair. Title has received critical praise for past solo exhibitions from the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, and the Huffington Post among other publications and is proud that her work has been featured in several PoetsArtists shows and publications, is part of the Brooklyn Museum Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art Online Feminist Art base and the Tullman Collection of Chicago. Title currently resides and works in Los Angeles.