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Q&A: Meet the Texas-Based Contemporary Artist Dan Lam
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WL Designers of the Year judge Dan Lam wants you to love colour as much as she does. With her bold and beautiful sculptures, it’s pretty easy to come on board.
Contemporary artist Dan Lam joined our judging panel in the Maker category this year for our Designers of the Year awards (check out the results here!) The Texas-based artist’s playful three-dimensional sculptures—made from unconventional materials like polyurethane foam, resins, acrylics and polymers in bold neons—are gaining a celebrity following and have appeared in Architectural Digest. We caught up with Lam at her studio in Dallas, where we chatted about her love of colour and unusual materials and the necessary role of art in a post-pandemic world.
* Interview has been edited for clarity and length
Q: Tell us a little about the evolution of your work, and how sculpture became your focus.
A: I went to undergrad and grad school for painting and drawing. In undergrad, I started getting interested in non-traditional materials. There was a little light-bulb moment when I was taking art history and we were talking about the Impressionists. They were not accepted by the public—everyone knows them now, but at the time they were rebels with what they were doing. One of their main things was how they used paint. Prior to that moment, you were using paint to paint things that existed, or objects that existed, or portraits. But the Impressionists were interested in time, and in capturing a moment in time. And that was really beautiful to me—how they freed paint up.
So that got me thinking, can you paint without using paint? Is it still a painting? That was the beginning. And I started using whatever I could get my hands on. Anything. I would go to Home Depot or Lowes and just look around to see what looked interesting. I started using resins, and around that time I used a lot of encaustic wax. Plasters… and it kind of just snowballed from there.
When I got to grad school in 2011, that’s when I started using polyurethane foam. I knew of the work of Lynda Benglis, and I had seen these large-scale installations she had done at a museum. It was these beautiful flowing pieces that were just jutting out of the wall, and I love that she had created them on site. And they were very gestural, too. Again, it was this thing where she was capturing a moment. The material is so interesting, and just like with resin, you have a very limited amount of time for working with it, so you can’t spend a lot of time controlling and nitpicking and manipulating material. I loved the quality of it.
At the time I could only find it through boatmaking or boat-repair sites—it was a more industrial material. I found some online and just started playing with it. I started using it as a way to build up texture on a panel—just build up the surface and get it really thick, so that it started coming off of the wall even more. That was the beginning of where I’m at now.
Q: How challenging is it as a material to work with?
It’s a two-part liquid that you mix together, and there is a learning curve with it. So if you’re really used to a material, just like with paint, there’s levels to it. There are a lot of environmental factors that play into what it does—for example, in the summer, the foam sets quicker. You have a shorter amount of time to work with it. If it’s colder, it sets a little slower. How quickly you pour it or use it will affect how it looks.
And then, of course, there are different densities of the foam. So it does get very particular and detailed. But if you were just a person who wanted to play with the material, it’s also accessible in that way.
Q: Some of your designs are inspired by human shapes and gestures. How does that show up in your work?
I reference the body a lot more because of how I use the material. In its raw form, when you mix it, it’s this tan colour—it looks skin or like fat, and when you look at it up close it has little bubbles in it that are like cells. But in the beginning, when I was learning, I was working with it in a more basic way. I would pour it and let it do its thing, and I would get it extra thick. I didn’t know the material as well, so in that way, I felt it looked more like the body. Now, I would say my influence is still natural, but it comes more from the biological, like flora, fungi. It’s still within the natural world, but it’s shifted.
Q: You work with some pretty bold, almost neon-like colour palettes. What draws you to that?
I love colour. I can’t stay away from colour. And so I think it’s a natural impulse to want to go bright, bold, neon. In a gallery show, with their white walls, there’s just something about that contrast with something bright pulling you in. From across the room, even something small could still catch your eye. And I think that comes from more nature-based inspiration—thinking about mating birds, and how the male is bright in its plumage, and it’s attracting the female with how it looks.
Q: People are often afraid of working bold colour into a space—how do you get homeowners to embrace it?
I do know about the tendency to stick with neutrals. But I’ve never actually shied away from colour. I just make the things that I make and people are drawn to them. I have had people who collect, and sometimes they’ll send me pictures of what the piece looks like in their home. Such a bright piece in a more neutral setting can become a statement piece, like wearing a big, bright piece of jewellery. It’s going to be a topic of conversation when they have guests over.
Q: You mentioned collectors—you have some pretty famous ones who have picked up some of your pieces.
Yeah, Miley Cyrus is one of them. She’s had a few pieces prior, but I think she lost them during the Malibu fires. So in 2020 she reached out when she was building a new home, and I spoke with her interior designer. And Demi Lovato also has a few pieces. My favourite part is seeing how it all comes together. Usually collectors are private, so they don’t share their homes, and I don’t see it often. But in those cases both Demi and Miley did Architectural Digest, and I was able to see the pieces in there.
Q: How do you see the role of art and design in a somewhat post-pandemic world?
There was this big emphasis on art during 2020, and it was nice—it was this kind of recognition moment for all of the artists. And then people got into art-making, too. When I was in school around 10 years ago, there was this big push toward more digital art. And I remember thinking that, just like with anything else, there’s going to be a pendulum swing back. And now in the past few years, I’ve noticed a lot more fibres and materials that are very hands-on, very tactile. And now, with AI, while all of this technology is moving with this exponential growth, there’s still going to be this desire for us to have things that we can touch and feel and hold. I think there will still be an emphasis on the designer, the artist, and there will still be a place for it. Post-pandemic, people have realized how important art is—and how much joy it brings to their lives.
Originally published in the 2023 July/August Issue of Western Living Magazine Print.
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