The environmental travelogues of Daniel North
—Oli Robbins, Sandoval Signpost Dec. 2012
Daniel North’s thickly layered, dynamic, and heavily abstract compositions have a meditative effect on the viewer, who might be surprised to learn that they are the products of a painter trained in photorealism. These seemingly non-representational paintings, in which color and line dance harmoniously, seem a far cry from the figurative. But to North, his paintings bespeak his relationships with different places and landscapes and bare traces of his early experimentations with realism.
Growing up in the Midwest, North didn’t encounter much abstraction. He paid his way through college making portraits and, after graduating from Southeast Missouri State, trained with photorealist painters in Chicago. But he quickly grew tired of realism, which was becoming so monotonous to North; he no longer needed to focus and harness creativity, and often found himself painting while watching T.V.
Upon moving out West to Glacier National Park in Montana, North began experimenting with abstraction, playing with layers, and examining the ways in which colors and forms transform and build up from one layer to the next. Now, his paintings are comprised of hundreds of layers, and it is in the act of layering that North draws upon his early training. Says North, “Each layer I build is a composition. When the composition is right, I go to the next layer. That’s how you work as a portrait painter—every layer could be a finished painting.” Occasionally, North may still incorporate figurative elements into his paintings, but when he does so, the figure is rearranged, repeated, and turned in on itself. Says North, “I’m keeping a little piece of each layer to create the whole.” North achieves unity and asymmetrical balance by allowing a piece of each layer to come through to the next.
North takes full advantage of the New Mexico sun, which has become an integral part of his painting process. The colors in his paintings will never fade or change because, as North explains, “between each layer of paint, I bake it (the painting) outside in the New Mexico sun so all the fading that’s going to happen happens at that stage.” Rather than working on an easel, North buys 30” x 80” hollow doors, to which he staples his canvas. In between layers, North tosses the door outside and lets it cook in the sun.
Like most painters who live and work in Placitas, North is forever in awe of the landscape. He says that he sees everything as a map, and he’s “either looking up or down.” North notes that painting in Placitas enables him to look out over three hundred miles of mesas, so he doesn’t need to use real maps as visual tools. When asked how and if his work reflects the current time, North replied, “On the one hand, there’s this archeological sense, but there’s also this idea of how, when everything is going digital, there’s still something worth recognizing in the physical world.”
Fifty years from now, it’s quite likely that undergraduate students studying art history will encounter the paintings of North, who cares deeply about his work finding a home in the canon of art history. To help ensure that his work does indeed survive, North creates, and creates, and creates. To call him prolific might be an understatement; North completes around two hundred paintings per year. “I make so much work, and it’s all about the process, so if I work through an issue—say it takes seventy or eighty paintings to work through some issue I’m trying to resolve—when I’m done, I’m done, and I move onto the next thing. But I can always see the transition.”
North’s work is far more textured and dimensional than it appears upon first glance and, as a viewer, I found myself wanting to touch it—much in the same way that I want to reach out and touch Pollock’s drip paintings—to feel the paint and get a better sense of the artist’s process. That the viewer feels physically compelled to the work is important to North, who says, “If the viewer doesn’t want to touch it, I’ve done something wrong.” And while, like Pollock, North often applies his paint with wooden stirring sticks, it’s important to note that North’s application of paint is quite unlike that of his Abstract Expressionist predecessor. “I don’t do any drip painting,” says North. “Everything touches.”
In a sense, North engages in automatic painting. He is passionate about living in the present moment, and explains how once he has found the rhythm, he almost loses himself in the act of painting. “Quite literally,” says North,” I don’t paint. My arm paints.” But because of North’s training in portraiture, he is also always thinking several steps ahead. Perhaps it’s his ability to straddle the automatic/subconscious and logical/technical that makes North’s paintings so successful—they are pure expressions that are at the same time rational, including, for example, golden ratios.
New Mexico, with its sun, sprawling mesas and geological diversity, is one of the only places North can imagine living for longer than a couple of years. For the 12 years prior to moving here, North moved every 18 months, making around four hundred paintings in each location. Says North, “I live very much in the moment. I don’t care about what’s passed. If I decide to move, I move. This is the exact opposite of how I was raised in the Midwest, where nobody moves from their hometown.” North finds the process of moving refreshing and inspiring. “It all goes back to living Zen,” he explains. “All that matters is right here, right now.” After experiencing so many different places, it’s no wonder that North thinks of his paintings as maps or, more specifically, “environmental travelogues.” Says North, “the moment I can’t paint where I am anymore, I’m gone, because that’s the only thing. It’s more than how you eat, it’s why you eat.”