About the Artist
Daniel Zeese is an artist, designer, and educator practicing in Boston. His latest work explores populations, belonging, and identity within an urban environment.
His work investigates what it means to be within civilization while on the edge of the wilderness. Outnumbered, on the fringe of what is accepted in the city, celebrated from a distance, and threatened to exile by the powers of the majority. Daniel reacts to the continuing history of violence within cities against the people who, while defining the cultural identity of a place, are often misunderstood, attacked and objectified. Later we experience the outcome, the resulting martyrdom, through the master cultural narrative.
Common themes in his work include the animal, a recognizable and glorified icon that is feared and controlled by force when its actions are misunderstood in the urban environment, and the textile, a shield that, for the observer, like clothes signifies the animal as removing itself from nature and abiding by the rules of the city. The tactile qualities of the textile help us imagine what it is to be a celebrated and feared member of society.
Daniel received a Bachelors of Fine Arts, Sculpture, from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2010 and a Masters in Architecture from Boston Architectural College in 2016. He has worked internationally directing the design of major installations in the public realm for the art studio of Janet Echelman since 2012.
Questions by Sarah Potter, December 2018
Who or what are some of your artistic inspirations?
My work relies on honest conversation within a dishonest scenario. I have always been inspired by interactions with people who can start a conversation in reality and end in some improved, shared false reality. When it comes to artistic inspirations, I think that I am way more inspired by someone's practice than their work. And my friend Ruthie had this idea once that we should be inspired by future versions of ourselves. I love that. It’s definitely not how I think at the moment, but I should start. I feel like I know how future Daniel makes art, so maybe the inspiration is getting to that. I don’t know how he will feel about that answer. He will let you know.
Your work is very tactile. Does your inspiration come from different materials or do the materials dictate the final piece?
I like to say that my process is about abusing materials; a lot of my process is about tinkering with materials without knowing what the outcome is. Currently the material is this industrial nylon twine. Over the course of making something, I learn new ways that the material reacts to different processes that then become exploited in future work.
Processes become a toolset for creating a form that keeps the material honest. The making becomes intuitive. A series of actions altering the material into a form. Making the bound sculpture is a super physical and reactionary process. There are very few moments once I start that I can really step back and look at what I am doing. The physical requirement to not be able to step back has also become part of that process.
When I dye the twine, it looks like one thing — usually some psychedelic ombre. Once it starts wrapping around the deconstructed fiber, it develops a rhythm of blocks of color. It’s hard to predict what that will actually look like. Once I am wrapping the work never leaves my hands because if I let go it starts to fall apart.
We develop relationships with tools. It is hard to use a tool without that object having your complete focus. I wish I could come up with a more poetic way of saying it, but it's like our eyes must be glued to this object while our mind instructs your body on how to effect whatever it is that the tool is effecting. We are aware of their parts and how our body responds to them. This body of work has a physical relationship to my body while I am making transfers to the final objects. At its root, though, the work is a series of process that transform a single material.
I am drawn to your thought process of posing imaginative questions and then answering them through your work. The project you have been working on here in Wassaic concerning the moon reimagined as a cube is an excellent example of this. Tell me more about the genesis of this idea.
It all started with this question about “ownership” of the moon. If I am remembering correctly, the question was originally posed as to the moon being this feminine icon and that I lacked an ability to stake a claim to it because of that lens. This became a much longer conversation, bringing me to think about how much control the moon has had on society throughout time. Not only as this gendered icon, but as this thing that defines time, religion, and ritual. The moon is part of this shared landscape that everyone has in common. That is a pretty special realization if you let it be.
So what would happen if it were owned? Or what happens when it changes to an object? Do we change our perspectives of things we have taken as truths, like time, religion, and ritual?
So yeah, I decided to imagine if the moon just became a cube one day. The idea became visible once I modeled a moon phase calendar. It ended up with eight days of darkness and eight of illumination and a series of unique geometries. This immediately changed the list of “taken as truths” to include ideas of fullness, emptiness, fulfillment, the idea of what a “phase” is, proportion, and geometry. This list keeps growing as time goes on I question reality through this constructed lens.
That is when you and I met. I had ideas of how this could take form, but what really came through in our conversations was the establishment of the narrative how the moon became a cube. I wanted to tell this story of these humanist explorers whose life work was to change the moon so that we, back on earth, could re-calibrate the “truths” of our ancestors.
After building upon this Cube Moon series through different media and varying angles, what is next for this project?
I am thinking of getting this work back to earth. What is the narrative right before the astronauts go up? Maybe to realize the design planning that could go into this type of project? That might get insane, but I want to make this feel more real. The work will probably also go into the future of the moon as a cube. It is important for us all to make our own decisions on what this illuminated form is doing. Putting it into scenarios we recognize, in understood environments, allows me to frame explicit questions.
Your work with different plaids executed in the digital realm are made up of patterns that could never be executed in the physical realm on a loom. How does the impossibility of creating these patterns affect the works' meaning?
We talked about imaginary landscapes like the Cube Moon. It’s something we recognize and therefore can accept as real, but there is something we also recognize as being off. That off-ness opens up the potential for us to ask questions about it that otherwise would seem ridiculous. That same process of questioning is seen in the plaids you’re talking about. They are pretty unimpressive drawings at a glance because we understand that material. It is simple to look at a plaid and see the repeating threads creating the gridded colored pattern. A regular plaid has a warp and a weft, but these plaids introduce a third orientation of threads. The pattern then changes dramatically. The shapes change from a rectangle to a hexagon that is not necessarily regular. I don’t need them to be anything more than pretty drawings, though. They don't become about the impossibility of making them as a physical material, but more about what the abstracted geometry would mean to fabric. If cloth were no longer rectangular, would we change how we use it? How we make things for our body and home? How we think about organization and waste?
You have created a lot of work during this residency. How do you move through creative blocks?
The whole process usually takes weeks. I start by feeling trapped/anxious/depressed. Then I usually tell myself I need some very specific material in order to start making something, like a metallic sheepskin. Once I have that thing I usually think I actually needed a lot of them (I have a lot of eccentric animal skins and vintage fur). That eventually leads to making something (I have a huge collection of underwear made from animal hides), but it is rare that I ever want to show it to anyone or talk about. I used to just plan on spending an amount of time in my studio every week doing nothing. But I have realized the best ways for me to break through it is to just skip to the making something out of what I have. This becomes a meditative act that allows me to think to myself. Eventually something sticks and then I start iterating.
You work in a wide range of somewhat experimental, sometimes practically challenging media (dye on nylon, melted crayons, etc). Have you ever experienced unforeseen challenges with a material, and how did you work through it?
I guess I’m going to not really answer your question. You say experimental and really that’s exactly what it is. Often we end up using what we have instead of figuring out the right way to do things. When I was doing my Fringe sculptures or the Deer in Headdresses, the challenge was the physical act of finishing the material — making it not fray and come apart. I would make these long dyed fringes and then trim them, and immediately the twine would start unraveling. This is not interesting to continue talking about. What was interesting was the scraps on the ground after my failure. Deconstructing twine strips it down to fibers. Long strands of fiber are what I use as a base for most of my bound objects. It becomes this really luxurious unknown stuff which came out of a frustrating process of trying to make something completely different. So to answer your question, I worked through it by realizing the material was introducing how it wants to perform, and that taking it apart is a method of making something out of it.
The crayons were just the right size to shove into a hot glue gun. The challenge was that I broke a lot of hot glue gun.
How has the landscape or essence of Wassaic affected your work (if at all) during your time in this residency?
I don’t know if I wanted it to. That's a lie. I mean, obviously I wanted to interact with people and those conversations had an impact. One of our best days as a group majority (some of the group left for Christmas) was spent doing nothing except moving from building to building, following people doing laundry, cooking together, going to the kilns. The landscape became a facilitator for us to spend time together outside of our studios.
The Project’s spaces inspired me to make work, but I think while I was there it was more about the lack of landscape that I was trying to take in. I kept remarking on how little I was walking around and experiencing the landscape. Within five minutes I could wake up and be in the studio. But that's what I was looking for at that time.
It's such a strange place. Being in that valley I remember going to sleep thinking, “I don’t know if I saw the sky today.” Driving to New York City I remember having a conversation with Sean about not having seen the moon the whole time I was there. That was striking because my work was about editing the moon, but it also was striking because Wassaic became more about not being anywhere than being somewhere specific.
What is next for your work after your residency at the Wassaic Project?
[Groans] I guess going back to the real world for a bit. I want to be part of the real world and have ownership of my time for a bit. Find that grey area between having obligations and trying to commit to nothing. I have a fellowship in Vermont that I am starting to think about and few shows on the horizon. As far as what I am making next, I don’t know. Hopefully some Cube Moon things. I have been thinking a lot about units of measurements without using the Earth as a reference point.
Studio photos by Jeff Barnett-Winsby.
Installation photos by Daniel Zeese.