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PASADENA, California — “I’m a lone wolf,” Dan Douke tells me, when I ask about his friendships with other artists. “No connections whatsoever,” he adds somewhat proudly. We met (pre-pandemic) in Pasadena, California, at Peter Mendenhall Gallery. It is situated among a strip of suburban chain stores, and we find a spot to talk at a local juice bar. It all feels, indeed, very outside-of-the-center, in terms of the art world.
In fact, Douke lived for several years in the Hotel Green in Pasadena: an 1893 building where Marcel Duchamp stayed when he had his retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum, organized by Walter Hopps in 1963. Although Douke’s work is the opposite of a “ready-made” in terms of its devotional painterly illusionism, it too engages the everyday object as subject. As such, Douke’s work can also be related to painters like Vija Celmins and Catherine Murphy, while the meticulously prepared surfaces and his use of airbrush can be compared to Los Angeles “Finish Fetish” artists.
Douke first became known in the 1970s for his photorealist paintings of swimming pools, before turning to trompe l’oeil representations of scrap metal and used sheets of cardboard. Later, he began making dimensional paintings of everyday items — Apple computer boxes, street barricades, wood crates, and mailboxes, among others. The paintings are so thorough in their illusionism that they present, to viewers, as the actual objects. A glimpse of the backs reveals that they are painted canvases built out over wood panels and stretcher bars.
In retrospect, our conversation in a rather banal setting seems fitting. His work sheds light on ordinary consumer culture, the things we discard and overlook, surfaces that get handled, tossed around, and banged up, covered in the dust and fingerprints that accumulate from time and human touch.
Dan Douke was born in Los Angeles in 1943, and received his BA and then his MA from California State University, Los Angeles, in 1971. He was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, in 1971, and at the Luckman Gallery of California State University, Los Angeles, in 2006. He exhibited from the 1970s to the early 2000s with OK Harris Gallery, New York, and is currently represented by Peter Mendenhall Gallery, Los Angeles.
Jennifer Samet: What are some of your early childhood memories that relate to making art, or looking at art?
Dan Douke: I was born and raised in the Pasadena area. I was always good at drawing and I would get attention for it, even in grammar school. But I wanted to be a rock star. I was in a surf rock band, and that was my first passion.
When I was 14 years old, my grandmother, who lived with us, gave me for my birthday what she thought was a fountain pen. It came in an alligator skin box, lined inside with purple velvet. It was gold-plated with a tortoise shell handle. I thought, “What the hell is this thing?” It turned out to be an airbrush. I figured it out and started painting on T-shirts and using it to write. I realized you could do some cool stuff with it.
When I was fresh out of high school in the early 1960s, I would go to the Pasadena Art Museum. I saw a seven-by-ten-foot canvas, covered in images of painted Green Stamps, by Andy Warhol. I was mesmerized. I thought, “Damn, that is the coolest idea I have ever seen.” The subject was very familiar, because my mother used to collect Green Stamps, which you could turn in at the store to get oven mitts or a toaster. I don’t know why I was attracted to the commonplace, but I was. The exotic never seemed quite right to me.
JS: You studied, and then taught, at California State University, Los Angeles. What led you there, and what kind of work were you making as a student?
DD: Cal State is part of a big system. There wasn’t anything about it that was recognizable, in the art world or even in the university world, as a red-hot place to go. But it was convenient to where my parents lived at the time.
At first, I wanted to go to University of California, Davis, because Wayne Thiebaud was teaching there. But I learned a lot from just looking at his paintings. I was drawn in by the color and the simplicity of the imagery, like a fish lying on a platter. It wasn’t trying to be overly intellectualized. That blunt honesty drove my thinking as a young student, and it still does.
The Pasadena Art Museum had a terrific curator named Walter Hopps. He brought in all of the hot New York artists: everyone from Warhol to Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Roy Lichtenstein. They were all here in Pasadena in the early 1960s, at the same time that they were emerging in New York. One work that Hopps brought in was a Stella “Protractor” painting. It was 30 feet long and 10 feet high, with three big arches in vibrant fluorescent colors. That nailed my eyeballs to the wall. At school, I painted a bunch of Stella-influenced geometric abstractions.
I rented a commercial space off campus with two friends, which I used as a studio. Next door was a bakery. I befriended the Italian man there. He told me he had extra loaves of French bread that would go bad. I said, “I’ll take all you want to give me.” I ended up with extra bread myself. I didn’t want to throw it away, so I started making sculpture out of it. I used the bread to make molds, and cast them in metal.
At the time, the Home Savings and Loan Bank in Southern California sponsored a juried art festival called Barnsdall Park Municipal Art Gallery. Hundreds of local artists would enter every year, to try to win their $10,000 highest purchase award. Other works would receive ribbons and selection for exhibition. Around 1968 or ’69, I thought, “I’m going to enter a French bread piece in the show.” I did, and it got accepted.
I went to see the show, and the award winner was Robert Cottingham. I was unaware of him at the time, but he was a local artist living in Los Angeles. His piece was a photorealistic painting of the front of a store. I went home, threw all the French bread out, and started trying to paint in that style.
I was a young single male. What interested me were girls and cars. That became my subject matter; I called it my flesh and metal period.
JS: What did your professors at Cal State think about your use of airbrush?
DD: They said all the time, “If you’re using airbrush, you’re not making art. Your hands never touch the canvas.” It didn’t affect me; that’s what I wanted to work with. When we had a student show and I would hang up my work, I saw the response from the viewers. More people were standing and looking at my stuff than they were at Joe’s next to me. I thought I must be doing something right. It was fresh and it was highly representational. That caught their attention.
However, by the time I got to my graduate thesis, I was bored with it. My teachers said, “Oh no, you’ve got to make six more paintings. They’ve got to look alike. That’s the way a one-man show looks. Consistency, man.” I said, “Okay. But I only have one girlfriend, can I just pose her over and over again? They said, “However you want to do it, man.”
I visited the Hot Rod Magazine offices. I looked around and felt inadequate. I explained to them, “I’m an art student and I’m using California custom cars as part of my imagery. I was wondering if I could look through your photo files so I can either buy or borrow some photos.” They said, “Oh yeah, come on in, man.” They gave me photographs of old hot rods and that’s what I used.
I didn’t see an actual Mel Ramos painting until after I completed my graduate thesis. When I saw some at the David Stuart Gallery in Los Angeles, I realized how similar in spirit my work was, and thought, “Oh shit. He is well known and I’m just a student.” I knew I needed to shift gears.
I had been thinking about other imagery. Coming from Southern California, I thought about water. We are surrounded by water, and everybody here has it in their backyard in a cement tub called a swimming pool. I ended up painting photorealistic paintings of swimming pools.
I started to send slides of that work to Leo Castelli, and it turned out that Ivan Karp, who was the director, was the one receiving them. He would always write back, saying encouraging things, even though I wasn’t being offered a show. He would write, “Things are happening here. Be patient.” I thought, “I don’t have time to be patient; I’ve got to get on with it!” I ended up showing with Ivan Karp’s O.K. Harris Gallery from the late 1970s to the early 2000s.
JS: There is an extraordinary precision and illusionism in your work. What are some of the techniques you’ve developed to represent details so convincingly?
DD: I still have my 1970 copy of Art in America: “Presenting Charles Close.” I was captivated by his method. Maurice Tuchman brought Chuck Close’s work out here in the early 1970s. One thing I learned from Close was to neutralize the texture of the canvas. He would coat it with gesso and then sand it. I tried his method of dry-sanding it. But he didn’t live in Southern California, and he wasn’t a car guy, so he didn’t know there’s a wet-sander for cars, and special sandpaper which you put in water that cuts right through it. I started wet-sanding my canvases. They came out almost like glass; I would have a perfect white canvas and it just looked so cool. It takes the paint so nicely.
JS: Boxes have become an important, recurring subject of your work. You’ve represented wood crates like the type used to ship art, small cardboard boxes, fruit crates, and other containers like mailboxes and safes. I’m curious about your connection to boxes.
DD: I have an early memory relating to my fascination with boxes. My father was a precision machinist. When I was a young kid he would build model airplanes on the dining room table, and I would watch him. One day I asked him if I could do it too. He said, “Yes, but you have to have your own model.” The next day he took me down to Al’s Hobby Shop.
All the model airplanes were in boxes. I was leaning on the counter, looking at the pictures on the boxes. The guy comes up to us and says, “What can I do for you, son?” I said, “I want an airplane in a box.” The box was something that was important. It contained this thing, which, when assembled, would fly. It was more than a box; it was a transformative thing.
In the 1970s, I had a studio in a suburb of Long Beach, called Belmont Shore. It was across the street from a clothing store, and an electronics store. The storekeepers would put their trash in front of my place, because they thought, “This guy’s not using this store.” I was always kicking my way through the boxes, and just like with the French bread, I thought, “How can I put these to use?”
JS: Your dimensional paintings, like the road barricades, at first glance present as sculptures. But when you see the backs of them, it is clear they are paintings. Is this something you consider?
DD: Yes. They are paintings. Some of them are thick and dimensional but they are still paintings: canvases stretched over stretcher bars. I used to tell people: “I make paintings that stand on their own.” You don’t even need a wall.
Normally, no one gets to look at the back of a painting. They are always pressed against the wall. I thought that I could make a painting that stands in the middle of a room. People will think they are seeing what the painting is presenting to them, but if they so desire, they can walk around it, and the truth will be revealed. I like that a lot.
JS: What led you to representing Mac computer boxes, specifically?
DD: In the late 1990s, everybody was talking about the wonder of the computer and what it can do for you. When I’d go to the to the art office of the university, the assistants were just dazzled by it. I thought there could come some problems. It promises you Utopia, but it could bring you hell. I was very skeptical, maybe because I made everything by hand. Here was something where you could just press a button and get an image. That’s too easy.
I started looking at the packaging and how computers are sent out to the world. I noticed that Dell computers came in plain brown or white cardboard boxes. But Apple was totally different. It came in a beautifully illustrated box with a great image.
JS: What inspired the dimensional painting “Outhouse,” (2018)?
DD: My grandmother was an old-world person who lived on a farm in North Dakota most of her life. When I was in the 7th grade, she decided to go back to the farm to visit her sister. She asked if I wanted to go with her.
She didn’t tell me we were taking the Greyhound bus to North Dakota. It was an amazing trip. I can remember the song that was popular at every café we pulled into: “The Wayward Wind” by Gogi Grant. The farmhouse was built in the 19th century and had no indoor plumbing. They had an outhouse, which I did not like. But I certainly studied it from a distance. Then I forgot about it for 50 or 60 years.
More recently, my wife and I were taking a trip to Central California and we stopped in the small town of Los Alamos. We were sitting at the bakery having coffee and a roll, and I was looking across the highway. There was an outhouse. I was looking at the outhouse, not talking to my wife, and she said, “There you go again.” I knew I wanted to paint it.
On the same trip, we went to Sea Ranch. In the 1970s, Sea Ranch was publicized as a cutting-edge community for architecture. I had read about the modern houses when I was a student, and always wanted to see it. But it took me 50 years to get there. The houses are all made of wood which has gotten sun-bleached. They were beyond gray; in some of them, the grain had turned white or metallic silver. So I painted my outhouse with white and metallic silver. I look at things and then cobble them together.
I don’t just go home and paint them, though. I think about it and park the idea for a while. At some point, when I’m sitting in the studio twiddling my thumbs, I think, “Maybe I could paint that.”
For every idea, there are ten ideas that get thrown in the trash. I do models and studies to figure out if it has a chance. The initial painting stage looks like an Ellsworth Kelly painting. Then I make a three-dimensional model out of foam core. After that, I make a painting on canvas of what it could look like. Finally, I make the thing itself. They are very time-consuming, and I don’t want to waste my time making something that I know isn’t going to work.
I used to get impatient. And all of my students were always impatient. They wanted instant gratification. I would say, “My experience is that it doesn’t work like that. All good things take some time. Even babies take nine months.” Laurence Binyon, the poet and art historian, said, “Slowness is beauty.” I knew the quote from Ezra Pound, who used it in one of his Cantos. I wrote it down and kept it on my studio wall. That is my motto.