Melanie Daniel: No Man's Land
June 24, 2021
In her 5th solo exhibition at Asya Geisberg Gallery, Daniel is making her process visible, not necessarily in the translucency of the painting but with the repetition of her idiosyncrasies. This exhibition is a conversation about the gentrification of nature, the all-encompassing effect of man’s hand (our footprint). The pathos of climate change and regeneration of life and society in the aftermath.
"Melanie Daniel's "No Man's Land" is also a parable of women's primacy in bearing the toll of forced interiority and powering through with urgent resilience. Daniel's small paintings of women in glass bottles, started before the pandemic began, are prescient. A combination of confinement and protection, the hermetic glass spheres surround each vulnerable tube-socked woman as they gamely carry on their daily tasks." - Asya Geisberg Press Release
There is a purposeful tension within these aesthetically vibrant paintings as these prominent political themes remain unanswered and unchanged. What is our role and our part in all of this? "We can’t go back and looking back, romanticizing the past is a form of senility," Daniel says. So we look to the future. We crave education and power and truth! After the year we've all had, standing together and being more empathetic towards one another is an important outcome that needs to happen.
See the full interview below...
TUSSLE: Why you chose the title “No Man’s Land” for your 5th solo at Asya Geisberg Gallery?
Melanie Daniel: Finding a name for the show was tough this time. Normally, I have a title in mind while I’m making the paintings for a show. It helps to set the tone or parameters because I tend to stray or extrapolate while working in the studio. This past year was extraordinary and totally insane and that trickled down into my practice. Even after I shipped the works to NY, I was stumped for a title for the longest time and kept coming up with things that were poetic or felt too enigmatic; names that I thought needed to carry the strangeness of the paintings. And then it hit me – throughout the pandemic, each person on this planet has been initiated to this indeterminate zone where rules are undefined, unknown, a no man’s land. Incidentally, tongue in cheek, mostly women inhabit the paintings, few men.
T: You’ve spent most of your time in B.C. and Israel and some time in Brooklyn during Hurricane Sandy. How have these experiences changed your practice?
MD: I grew up in British Columbia and lived in Israel for about 25 years.
Growing up in western Canada with its vast forests and glacial rivers has left a deep impression on me. I’m never happier than when I’m outside. As a university student, I earned money during the summers as a tree planter. I was part of a team that was hired to replant clear-cut forests which were hours away and sometimes we had to be air-lifted into our work zones. From 2017 to 2021, I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I was a visiting professor at GVSU. The years in Michigan opened my eyes to something I was exposed to in Canada but hadn’t experienced with as much intensity: consumerism. We like to buy stuff. Everything is cheaper and more readily available here than in other countries I’ve lived in or visited.
I also lived in Brooklyn for a while and will never forget Hurricane Sandy. It was a tiny precursor to the present pandemic. People in my neighborhood were frenzy-buying generators, bottled water and canned food was gone from shelves (toilet paper would get its day in the sun nine years later). Mobile networks collapsed, and the subway was flooded. At the time, I had a show at Asya Geisberg Gallery, called Echo Shield which was dark and looked at the way political demarcations drive historical causality. Basically, it was about the violence and oppression I have witnessed in that part of the world.
T: In a recent article you said: “We have completely forgotten the role we are supposed to play in the natural world.” This being our own fault and with recent devastating news about the destruction of what we as humans once were only to selfishly capitalize on nature and human nature is sickening. Our education system failed us, and the next generations, based on lies. More organizations and galleries are coming out of the woodwork, showing artists who focus on the truth are helping but are they being taken seriously? How do we find our role and how do you maintain your role against all the people who will probably never believe the truth?
MD: Education is fundamental to ensuring the next generation understands why climate change is happening and that they have a powerful voice. They just need to use it. While much of the world has acknowledged that we are all in the same boat and we must act collectively to prevent our own extinction, Americans as well as my fellow Canadians generally still feel a deep sense of entitlement to use natural resources as a way of maintaining an insanely high standard of living. This is a dangerous and outdated philosophy, and one which is deeply and historically ingrained in our culture. Compare this dominant attitude in contrast to those of Native Americans, or First Nations. There is a common saying among the Native Americans that we must always consider the results of our deeds on the seventh generation after our own. We’ve drifted very far from this.
By the way, a great read about this topic is Naomi Klein’s, On Fire: The Green New Deal, or Mark Jerome Walters’, Six Modern Plagues.
As for art galleries showing artists talking about things like sustainable cultures or racial justice, there has been a surge in the last years. I think we are mostly preaching to the choir, and that deep change must be fought with fire. Take for instance, the BLM movement, whose goal is ending the racial oppression on which the United States was founded. Without the use of social media, massive protests and demonstrations, this movement would not have gained momentum. Art galleries only reflect what’s out there and in my opinion, don’t really risk much. They make the bitter pill more palatable.
T: Can we go back, is looking back futile at this point? Do we just need to maintain what we have (if possible) and discover new solutions to the major environmental crises at hand…?
MD: No, we can’t go back. And looking back, romanticizing the past is a form of senility. The only way to protect what we have is through education as you mentioned, and understanding that as individuals, we can accomplish very little. That is a typical North American attitude, that we can somehow sway public opinion by standing alone, shouting from the rooftop. Acting as a group however, works. There is tremendous strength in numbers, and voting really, really matters.
T: One consistent reference being made about your work is “doomsday” imagery, and I am wondering how that makes you feel?
MD: I guess I’ve figured out how to make death and chaos sexy. I stop short at zombie apocalypse, but just. Painting doom so directly would fall flat. It’s got to linger.
T: Can you share the story and/or process behind the painting “Twins” currently in the exhibition?
MD: I’ve returned over and over again to this image of a doppelganger or alter ego over the years. This is the one time such an image of mine has made it into a show. I don’t have an explanation for it. I like the idea that we may all have a double or twin; or one face we show the world, but another we keep secret. It’s not necessarily duplicity, but more like, we don’t know ourselves that well and can’t see all our thoughts and feelings at once.
T: How do you balance your, in person and online life/self? Especially now that we are coming out of the pandemic where we were all turned to our devices and online selves to get social satisfaction, I feel changed as a person and am not sure what that means yet, how do you feel changed?
MD: Ha! My generation can look back and recall a time when we weren’t “connected” and personally, I’m still able to go out places without my phone in my pocket. If I’m hiking or outdoors, I turn it off. I’m an oddity that way and it makes my friends mad, but they can bite me (they know I love them). This year was an essential year for being connected and without it, I think I would have fallen through the cracks.
T: There are similarities in your figures and landscapes to Cezanne and Doig and fellow Canadian, Kim Dorland. Are there any other artists that you are pulling from?
MD: The artists you talk about above are amazing! I’m always looking at new art (thank you Instagram!) and dumbfounded by our sheer numbers, and really good ones too.
If I was pressed to the wall, and had to place myself within a more rigid category of art making, I think I could say that what I do is a cross between landscape painting, largely figurative with abstract tendencies (as you can see in the act of mark-making) but with a narrative slant: I like to tell stories and always have.
Some of the contemporary artists I look to include: Dana Schutz, Lisa Sanditz, Laura Owens, Daniel Richter, Peter Doig, Neo Rauch, Jules de Balincourt, the list is long. They are just some of the painters who have influenced me, and they all use landscape to some degree as a stage for examining contemporary, personal, political or historical issues.
Images by Etienne Frossard #@etienne_fro courtesy of the artist and Asya Geisberg Gallery