In this interview, Blake Daniels discusses why awareness is imperative.
What stage in your career do you consider yourself?
Very young and very early. I’ve had the sincerest appreciation that careers are often considered young or emerging beginning in one’s late twenties or early thirties, but this is all quite relative also. If there has been one thing that has kept me committed to exploring my own studio practice further, it is truly the notion that I can continue what I have started in new forms, manners, and spaces until I’m old or my time’s out. I like this because my mind might just start to slip without such a practice, even outside of career-driven goals, and I want to continue to seek.
You attended The Art Institute of Chicago. What was the motivation to be in that city?
So, I actually began my education studying Game Art Design at Ringling in Florida, before transferring to SAIC in Chicago. I love video games and really, they lay at the origin of my interest in art and they were a foundational force in how I taught myself drawing, painting, and sculpture. I still love video games, but another year in Florida, and prospects of endless hours working on minute coding and rendering in dark rooms, caused me to begin to look back to my interest in painting and foundational studies. In my typical illogical way, I chose to transfer to the school that prides itself on interdisciplinary and concept-driven educational practice, which nearly drove me away from painting and into art history and critical theory after my first year, but ultimately found me working with a handful of people across the university that are still fundamental to the shape and form of my practice and career today.
That’s all to say that Chicago always kind of was a planned incident. Growing up in Cincinnati, I had always kind of adored the city as the only accessible metropolis, and as a queer youth, the only space in which some sort of alleviation from southern Ohio’s volatile, conservative social vice on life could be achieved. As a young child from the Midwest, cities like New York and Los Angeles seemed foreign and inaccessible, with most my family having never been and with people loving to spin tales of sin and utter corruption around such coastal lifestyles. The childhood fiction of this became very clear in adulthood, and at an age when Kentucky and Indiana made the borders of my world, with Florida as my next reference, Chicago became a sublime way both in and out.
I don’t know too much about Chicago’s art market, but I’ve always felt that the work that came out of that city was politically driven. Did that influence you or how you promote your work?
I’m probably too far removed from the city now to really have any relevant or current ideas around its state. When I was living there, though, there really existed a tension, both productive and challenging, between the politics and what constituted political acts, ranging from the kind of work made, who made the work, and the spaces in which the work was shown.
But at the same time, at SAIC it was a kind of constant struggle to engage in work or critical dialogue around the politics of identity, equity of urban spaces, pervasive racism within institutions and the city, and complete class exclusions. From my experience, the school tended to make more space for a theoretical and topical approach to both the academic and art projects, favoring work that perpetuated dialogues and theory that to me felt out of touch with our current surroundings. It kind of reminded me of growing up in the church, where one must prescribe to a certain ideological parameter to gain leverage within the community, and that very community protects itself by policing other ideologies that don’t fit, through language and access to space and opportunity. Anyway, where this played a tremendously influential role in my practice and how I promote my work is in its demand to self-organize and collaborate outside of the traditional spaces we were being formed within.
This became a necessity to both grow in our work and find productive spaces and times to realize it, even more so to engage in politics that were more than metaphor or symbolic language and action [to] focus more on ending forms [of] exclusion and its modes of localized violence. More than just promotion, it has influenced both the approach I have while working alone [in] the studio and, more importantly, in the framework and context I both create and seek to position my practice within. That mostly has to do with a lot of honesty.
After college, you relocated to the Savannah area. How did those cities differ?
The differences are probably endless. It may be hard, actually, to find much of anything that the two had in common. Even more, I moved back in with my parents in South Carolina. So what actually brought me to Savannah was work, eventually leading to me being able to set up a studio in the city. I began this routine of sleeping and waking in one place, and participating in work, my studio practice, and my social engagements in another, which really created a distinct disconnect with me and Savannah.
To this day, I have no sentiments for the city beyond some of the amazing people I became friends with during my almost two years there, and the beautiful, tall-ceilinged studio I work out of on 40th. Chicago will always be the first place to become home after leaving Ohio, while Savannah always felt like a means to a next step, a very pragmatic and logistical kind of relationship.
What did it do for your practice to be in Savannah?
More than anything, it gave me time, space, and a kind of quietness. I knew no one in the city when I started working there. I was at my job all day, so I would only be in the studio at nights and on weekends, and I was absolutely out of—and unaware of—all the art circles and cliques within the city. I also, for the first time, had to find the will to continue to make work without the guidance or allure of a university structure, exhibition, or collector waiting to show, exhibit, or buy the work. This really became a time period for me to solidify a kind of working modus, while continuing to explore my own practice and potentials without the pressure and noise that I left behind in Chicago. I also was living with family again and was commuting up to two hours every day, so this had a huge influence in my daily routines and self-reflection within my practice.
Yes, but you did eventually take advantage of Savannah's art scene; I remember going to a show you had with a friend from New York.
In a way I did, and in another, I think I totally missed out, to my own fault. I was granted a two-person show with Fresh Exhibitions in their project space near my studio off of 40th. This was really a nice, low-key project space to finally get some of the works out of the studio, and exhibit with a longtime friend and well-respected painter, Blair Whiteford. We had a nice write-up from Kayla Goggin in the Savannah Art Informer, and a well-received opening, though I wish I would have been keener on programming and connecting the show to some of the other events going on around the city.
Unfortunately, the show happened about a month before I went on residency up north and began my move to Johannesburg, so I wasn’t around long enough to build, in a meaningful way, upon any connections made. These are lessons learned. To be frank, though, some of my biggest gains from Savannah came from observing the runnings of an art museum, art college, and exhibitions department from my job—learning key practical skills that SAIC hadn’t bothered to teach us and establishing how I was going to set up and sustain my painting practice. This consumed so much of me, unbeknownst, that I don’t think I became very aware of the many different spaces within Savannah’s art scene until too late.
You worked for the SCAD Museum of Art. How did that come about?
Very un-fantastically, to be honest. I had been applying to jobs everywhere since graduating earlier in the year—tons of jobs—with none of them panning out. Having made the decision to leave Chicago, I didn’t have the financial means to relocate at the time, so I moved back in with my parents and decided to see what jobs could be available around South Carolina. That was a quick search for me, so I started looking into Savannah. SCAD obviously dominated the working market for art-related jobs there and I applied on the cusp for the art preparator job, got an interview, got hired, and began working full time.
Has working for organizations like SCADMOA or VOLTA done anything for you as an artist?
Completely, in every way. This ranges from learning somewhat practical, yet benign, skills: managing insurance, packaging and shipment of artworks; to the building of essential networks; to an understanding and sharper, more productive critique of where I believe [these] institutions are working and potentially failing, and ideas in how to shift and re-visualize them into different forums, spaces, and times.
I’ve also seen the faces behind a few of these institutions now. Some are wonderful and others quite dreadful, but you come to realize that these spaces, be it a museum, gallery, or art fair, are all run by people with personalities, particularities, and personally-driven interests. To be honest, also, working for these institutions have provided me with the money needed to continue to build my studio practice, make art, and make strategic steps further as an artist. In a way, they also become a more social aspect of myself as an artist, because I quite enjoy the work, and it gets me out of the hermit hole of isolation that can be my studio at times. Finding this social balance for anyone who works in solitary is important, whether having parties, open studios, screenings, or whatever it may be, just to get fresh ideas and people in and around yourself and your work.
And you’ve been working for VOLTA the last few years?
So, VOLTA is a bit more of a nuanced situation. I was writing at the time for a new upstart publication on Caribbean art called ARC Magazine. We were gifted a booth at the VOLTA NY art fair back in 2013, I think by the director, Amanda Coulson. As a publication that ran on little money, we did not have the finances to fly me out to help work with the booth, so I spoke then with the VOLTA team [to see] if I could work with them and then with the ARC booth on off-hours. This ended up being feasible, and since then I have stayed on to work with the fair each year, now focusing on the VOLTA art fair in Basel, Switzerland. They are a small team, and really wonderful to work with, and have really opened up a lot of opportunities over the years. I kind of promise myself that each year may be the last, but end up going back mostly for the team and [the] continued experience of learning that comes with working on and around such a large program and event.
Last year I was in Paris while you were in London for your gallery opening. Because of poor planning on my part, I wasn’t able to attend, but I kept thinking, aside from joy for my friend, How is he doing this so young?
That particular relationship came from an open call I submitted to right out of undergrad to be selected for an upcoming publication and set of exhibitions titled, “100 Painters of Tomorrow.” Kurt Beers, who runs Beers London, was heading up the project and found my work within the pool of applicants, which, beyond my selection to be published in the book, led to a three-person show at the gallery back in 2013. It was [at] this first show in London that I was introduced to fellow painter, Andrew Salgado, who curated the show last year titled, “The Fantasy of Representation,” and asked me to show work in the group show.
This has more often than not been the strange and winding paths that have opened up opportunities, and closed them at times, regarding exhibitions, work, and collaborations. It has very much been a process of putting your work out in various spaces, hoping for response, and developing relationships with the people you are showing with, working with, and ultimately spending a great deal of time around, both in the place you are working out of and beyond. The internet, of course, also becomes critical, especially as a means to connect [to] other spaces and cities beyond the one you are working in. I am really interested in artists now using the internet and digital spaces as studios and spaces of resistance and reclamation. It’s really become a critical aspect of almost all artistic practices and, maybe even more interestingly to myself, people’s lives in more mundane ways.
When I was in New York, I worked for a magazine that also had an exhibition space. I worked there for all of five minutes because it was a scheme. They promoted it to artists (particularly to international artists who wouldn’t be able to come to the show) as a chance to have an exhibition in New York. They would charge the artist to exhibit, have the artist pay for the shipping of the work, and not promote the show, so the openings were empty and work never sold. So, I say all that to ask this: when it comes to exhibition opportunities, how are you finding and vetting them?
It’s funny because I have been contacted three times by a particular space in NYC with the same scheme. It is true, though—and it's not always so easy or a luxury that seems to be readily available—[that] saying no to exhibition opportunities is almost as important [as] saying yes.
With regard to finding, it’s not such a straight path. Some I reach out to and begin to build a relationship with; others I have met through the art fairs, past jobs, or friends; some I apply for; and still others find me through the book, past exhibitions, or my web presence.
Vetting was tricky at first, but has really become much easier over time. One key is understanding that any exhibition is a relationship, a strange one that often mixes business and personal interest. It is fundamental to have a working foundation of your own business principles established and transparent for yourself and any working partner, one that states loan agreements, prices, cuts, insurance, copyrights, ownership, marketing, and credit. This is by all means not an exhaustive list either.
So, for instance, I don’t do the whole “rent a space” scheme. That gets no second thoughts and an immediate no. I also always check the website. It should look clean, updated, and well-designed; bad websites also usually means a quick close down. Also, look at the other artist they are showing. If the work is either straight-up bad, or just not the context you want to see your work in, a red flag goes up. Also, just google the gallery and see reviews and what other people have had to say. These are just a few of the quick processes I go through when observing a potential opportunity or scam.
Also, just know how, what, and where you want your work shown, and the context it may be perceived in. It’s just as much a part of the work as the process and object itself. And always sign legal contracts, even with friends. It gets everyone on the same page, airs intentions early on, and protects you if things do go awry. Even we had a good back and forth before the interview, building a release that had both our interest at heart. Anyone who cares about your work and practice will do this for you.
Now you’re an abstract painter. Do you feel that certain paths have been easier to navigate as a painter? Or perhaps just the opposite: were there paths that were inaccessible to you?
I think, depending on the medium you are working in at a moment, and especially regarding painting, there are paths, people, and spaces that are going to take a much greater interest in what you’re doing, simply by measure of the medium, and others who haven’t a care for it in the world, whether by personal preference or political philosophy. The question of access and [lack of access], of course, goes far beyond just the material one works in, as we continue to see a kind of status quo kept at major museums and institutions or a tokenism of artists, especially in the power dynamics between western institutions and non-western artists. While one can locate spaces and paths that are made more accessible to oneself and specifically seek them as a means forward, I think it is becoming more and more critical that we both continue to challenge the frameworks of spaces that exclude artists for a number of reasons and furthermore continue to organize and develop our own spaces that can begin to look at the concerns of our practices with more nuanced approaches.
The challenge here is to not fall into the trappings of colorblindness or just a non-critical “we are all the same” approach in seeking or building these spaces. There must be a greater awareness and concern, though, for why we include and don’t include, whether in studio, curatorial, [or] administrative practices. For myself, I always keep an almost obsessive self-awareness around the context my work is shown within, and the politics and interest of the people, gallery, or publication [wanting] to work with me. There are times you have to say no to certain opportunities if you can, and other times when you must fight for deserved opportunities that are being withheld. We were actually talking a few weeks back around the need for specialized, union-like organizations for artists to help navigate and combat a lot of the exploitation that happens on many levels within this kind of work.
I did a quick Google search of “Blake Daniels Art” (because just “Blake Daniels” will bring up a gay porn star), and profiles of you on websites like Artsy and Artslant came up. Have those platforms been useful tools for you? Or better yet, how do you use the internet to your advantage?
Oh lord, it always seemed fitting to me that my biggest “competition” of sorts for internet notoriety would be [a] porn star.
But in a serious term, the internet has been an extremely valuable and critical tool in my ability to network and more or less get my work out to other spaces globally. This has been key for [me], having worked out of cities such as Cincinnati, Chicago, Savannah, and Johannesburg, which all have thriving local communities and economies around the arts, but also have limitations in other ways around access to certain audiences and opportunities. Regarding websites such as Artsy and Artslant, I don’t know if they especially or specifically have opened doors or not, though for myself, it’s just important to try to have the work as approachable, accessible, and visible as possible, which they definitely help in doing.
The internet ultimately for myself at the moment is the most critical tool for connection and connecting, both personally and among larger communities. I do probably 90% of my communications over the internet and develop an equal amount of my projects, programs, and exhibitions within it. At this point, it is the most pragmatic tool in the actual business of running my studio. As I mentioned before, I am excited to see more and more artists beginning to use the internet as an actual form of studio practice political space, and as a mode of production.
During undergrad, you did a semester abroad in South Africa and now you’ve returned there for grad school. What aspects of that market or arts culture were new to you?
In a way, everything and nothing at all. Johannesburg has been both an amazing city and an extremely tough city to work and establish a practice within. The community of artists working here, the grassroots and established artist-run spaces and the caliber of the work being made in all mediums here is amazing.
There is an awareness in this city and an accountability to privilege and access around race, gender, sexuality, and class that you will be held accountable to regardless of the conceptual approach your practice takes. It is not enough to just check yourself, you must also continue to reform your relationship with yourself and the spaces you occupy. This goes beyond just the arts. One of the greatest challenges I see, though, comes from access to capital and the legacies of apartheid regarding who still holds most the money and power, especially within higher level institutions that [are] still predominantly white, heterosexual, and male.
Unfortunately, it becomes near impossible to keep a sustainable practice when money is so scarce and the requirements to access it begin to demand sacrifice of dignity in some aspects. These challenges aren’t unique only to South Africa, but they can be quite extreme here. But I do think South Africa is already taking in hand the action to actualize decolonized spaces in education, arts, and the economies around them, which hopefully can lead to a complete rethinking of an “art culture's” relationship to itself and the society it's within altogether.
If I remember correctly, you’re teaching right now as part of your visa requirements?
I have been assistant teaching at the university I am attending [for] my master’s, though it has taken the form much more so as sets of workshops and collaborative projects. This has really been my first time teaching and facilitating in a formal way and, with fear of sounding trite, it has been quite an amazing opportunity to work in collaboration with students, especially in the current context of protesting and seeking free quality decolonized education at universities across South Africa.
These students are really quite brilliant and you learn quickly your own limitations and when you must also back off and just support logistically the projects and programs they seek to build and implement. I have just finished now, but hope I can find ways, even in my own studio practice, to continue to work with the students, both new and past.
I like to open these conversations by asking where one sees oneself and close by asking what's next. What are the next steps, Blake; what's your focus?
In simple form, it’s to take a serious focus in my studio and really begin to unravel and un-code my own paintings. I have a lot of projects that have been hibernating in my studio that are going to start coming out soon. Part of this is a focus on specific and more poignant exhibitions—this means both the spaces I will show, who I show with, and the curatorial framework for the shows I participate in ahead.
I will be opening my first solo show at Room Gallery here in Johannesburg in March. This will be a significant step for myself and for the trajectory of my work. I will also be participating in a number of curatorial projects, along with the development of a project space here in Johannesburg. An undertone to all of this has a lot to do with a healthy degree of honesty, really being more keen and specific on the spaces and people I work with and myself, along with some leaps in my own research and work practice.
I love video games. I spent my first year of undergrad studying game art and design, as I mentioned—they plague my mind all the time while I’m making my work. It would be such a thrill to work with some old friends, and new artists, on game-related content, or begin to really think about my own work through that context. This excites me.
Blake, this has been great. I hope that I can come visit and see the things you're doing over there.
Blake Daniels began his winding path along the Ohio River in Cincinnati, where he grew up. He promptly left the Northwest for the thick humidity of the Southeast to pursue a degree in video game design at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida. Before finishing that program, Daniels traded in the Gulf of Mexico for Lake Michigan, receiving his BFA in Art from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is currently where the rivers flow north, pursuing his MFA in Painting from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
This article has been edited since its original publication.