Monday 30 September 2013

10 Questions Column: American Artist Dan Witz

Artist Dan Witz in front of his 'Fighting Dogs' diptych on the eve of the opening of his new exhibition in Rome. Photograph by Andreas Romagnoli

American artist Dan Witz’s exhibition has just opened as part of the Public and Confidential project at Wunderkammern Gallery in Rome. Renowned as a pioneer of Street Art, the artist answers Jeanne-Marie Cilento’s ten questions and sits for a photo shoot with Andreas Romagnoli during the installation of his new show in the Italian capital

UNSETTLING images of doors and grates offering a view of  people suffering behind bars are evocative works that form part of Dan Witz's latest exhibition. These pieces are an extension of the Wailing Walls and Dark Doings projects begun in 2012.  His powerful and effective Prisoner and Free Pussy (riot) series reflects Witz's meditations on freedom of thought and the expression of the individual, created in collaboration with Amnesty International.

Witz's new series called Natural History continues to explore the metaphor of doors that suggest the intersection of public and private spheres in repressive societies. The Wunderkammern show also presents his celebrated Animal Mosh Pits paintings that depict  instinctual savagery plus his portraits of girls with cell phones where personal feelings move from the private into the public realm.

Based in New York, Dan Witz began his career in 1979 and was at the forefront of the emerging Street Art movement. His objective was to challenge traditional canons of art, choosing to focus on urban art, creating installations on the streets of cities around the world. At the beginning of his career, the artist concentrated on hyper realistic paintings which developed into street installations using digital images which he painted over. 

Witz has had extensive formal training including studying fine art and design and has won many scholarships and prizes. Along with recognition from American institiutions such as the New York Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts,  the artist has had exhibitions in galleries worldwide. 

1. What are you currently working on?
Before I move on to the easel for the winter, I hope to do a few more NYC installations from the street series, Natural History, that I premiered in Rome.

2. What inspires you for your creative work now?
Usually something simple from my daily life. The natural history pieces come from all the time I spend at zoos and aquariums with my two year old son.

3. How did you choose  painting, street art and installations as your creative metier?
Street art was my post adolescent rebellion against what I feared would be a limited future as a gallery artist. At some point in art school, it dawned on me that being a self supporting artist pretty much meant making objects to sell to rich people. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have anything against art collectors, or artists who work expressly in that system; I just thought I would like more variety and adventure out of my art life.

4. Can you describe the experience, person or training that has had the greatest impact on your artistic career?
Without a doubt, the grafiteed subway trains in New York City in the late 1970’s. And the Clash. There’s some kind of dissonant alchemy between those two experiences that cracked my suburban mind wide open. I’ve been working off this ever since.

5. What do you find the most challenging aspect of your work?
Definitely these trips to European cities to do street art. It’s always an incredibly demanding and physical process. Usually I get off the plane and hit the street headlong, completely jet lagged, lost, overwhelmed, fulminating within some sort of surreal urban fever dream, and with absolutely no idea how or where I’m going to get my work up. To succeed I need to let myself into the moment and push past my limitations ~ like an athlete. I love it.

6. Where do you like to draw or create your initial ideas for your artwork?
I keep my sketchbook on the couch in my studio where I rest between painting sessions. And for some reason whenever I get on an airplane to go on a street art trip, my mind loosens and gets weirdly free and some surprises can happen in my sketchbook.

7. Do you have a set schedule of working creatively everyday or is the process more fluid?
Depends on where I am. If I’m home, yes, I’m in the studio every week day from 9am-4pm. Even though my studio’s upstairs in my house, I kiss my wife and kid goodbye like I’m some sort of commuter dad. If I’m traveling my schedule is more improvised.

8. What part of painting and/or creating street art and installations gives you the most happiness? Do you find your creative process is more rational or instinctive?
I like the description of successful creative people as having a “mind on fire, and a heart of ice.” I naturally have the mind on fire ~ the inspiration-part going ~ but I’ve had to develop and nurture the rational, scientific mind of ice thing. This has been a life long struggle and unfortunately (or fortunately) the more I master my production process, the more complicated it seems to keep getting.  I’m not sure if I should admit this but I honestly don’t think I could do the large complicated pieces I’m doing these days if it wasn’t for my brilliant studio assistant, Mika Kitamori. I mean this as a compliment when I say she has a, “mind of ice”.

9. Is there a town or place in the world you find inspiring?
I’m really loving Rome now. So many sustained contradictions—one of the few places besides NYC I could see myself living and working.

10. In this digital age what do street art and installations give us as contemporary art?
Just because I’ve been at it for a long time, this doesn’t necessarily make me a reliable spokesperson for Street Art. But with that, I can say that I like this art form because it’s not for sale, no one can own it, so it can exist independently of the compromises of consumer capitalism. It’s free. And in my opinion, an art form that’s not dependent on the market place for its bona fides is a real game changer in today’s art world. If I wanted to sound fancy I’d call it a “paradigm shift”. But, that said, when people find out I've been doing street art for 35 years , almost universally the reaction is something like, “Wow, that’s cool—but how do you make money?”

Dan Witz: Public and Confidential runs from 28th September until November 17th 2013 at Wunderkammern Gallery at Via Gabrio Serbelloni 124 Rome, Italy. Open from Wednesday to Saturday 5-8pm:

Click on photographs for full-screen slideshow
Dan Witz takes a break from installing his new exhibition at the Wunderkammern Gallery in Rome

 Dogs Fighting (diptych) 2004. Oil and digital media on canvas, 122x122cm (x2)
Pussy Riot. London Grate. From the Free Pussy riot series 2013. Fine art Inkjet print on paper. Edition of 36, signed and numbered. 56x43cm
Pigeon Tower (diptych) 2002. Oil and digital media on canvas, 4 pieces, 111.5x111.5x0.3cm (x4)
Detail of Sleeping King Baby-Bedlam 2012. Oil and digital media on PVC. Edition of three. 158.3x58x1.1cm
Sleeping King Baby-Bedlam 2012. Oil and digital media on PVC. Edition of three. 158.3x58x1.1cm
Mika Bust Grate 2012. Oil and digital media on PVC, wood frame. Edition of six. 43x49.5x2.3cm 
Monica N.O grate 2013. Oil and digital media on PVC, wood frame. 34.5x48x3cm
Ruth Gagged Horizontal Bars 2013. Oil and digital media on PVC, wood frame. Edition of three. 186.5x70.5x1.5cm 
Sarah F Yellow Window 2011. Oil and digital media on PVC, wood frame. Edition of three. 91x97.5x1cm
Melissa 2007. Oil and digital media on canvas. 43.5x64x4.5cm
Laura 2008. Oil and digital media on canvas. 41.5x56.5x4cm 
Necropolis Door: Two Prisoners 2013. Oil and digital media on PVC., wood frame. 123.5x228.5x2.5cm
Running Dogs 2007. Oil and digital media on canvas, 106.5x81.5xx6.5cm
Add Necropolis Door: Natasha 2013. Oil and digital media on PVC, wood frame. 115.5x221x3cm

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