Danny Ferrell Confronts Traditional Representations of Gay Men

Danny Ferrell’s paintings radiate with energy and emotion – not surprising when Ferrell explains that he aims to capture the fundamental emotion of love. Ferrell tastefully represents various relationships – between two men, between man and dog, and of oneself – in a way that blends old time portraiture with contemporary art practices. Though Ferrell is based out of Pittsburgh, PA, he is making waves throughout the art world. We sat down with Ferrell to learn more about his magnetic practice.

How did art initially enter your life and what was your experience with it growing up?

I can’t remember a moment in my childhood when I said to myself, “my fantasy is to be an artist” – it always just was. Painting really saved me: I’m from a small town in Pennsylvania, where religious and conservative ideals shape the social environment. As a young gay man, I felt very outside of those social norms, often leading to severe feelings of guilt and alienation. I always felt like I was viewed through side-eye glances or talked about in whispers, but my formative environment gave me the emotional temperament to make the kind of work that I’m making now. Beyond that, the physical environment of my hometown is a huge influence — I’m interested in rural, Americana landscapes as sites of pain and beauty, and this manifests in my work.

What is your process like? What are you painting on and what materials to you use to achieve your unique look?

From surface to image, I want to infuse my paintings with an observable sensuality. Usually I stretch canvas over panel, and labor over my supports until their polished, high-gloss surfaces resemble plastic or skin. Once the painting is finished, it is then fossilized in a varnish, illuminated but camouflaged by the viewer’s image in the surface. I hope this illusionism invites the viewer to focus on the relationship between their body and the image.

What other artists more inspire your practice?

A number of artists inspire my work, but I see myself working within the tradition of the Cadmus Circle, particularly George Tooker, and the Hudson River School of painting. Ed Paschke lives in the back of my mind, and more recently, Magritte has become a stronger voice in the studio.

How do you continually challenge yourself?

This is a great question, as a number of paintings have been derived from a set of challenges I set for myself in the studio. For example, in graduate school, I had a hard time with the blue family: I couldn’t recognize cool blues from warm blues, how to activate blue vibrantly in my paintings. Consequently, I spent a whole summer making blue paintings. Beyond that, I decided to challenge myself by making small paintings of tattoos to hone in some of my technical skills. That’s what painting is about: identifying issues and trying to remedy those in subsequent works.

Your paint in a figurative style. How do you decide who you will highlight in your paintings?

I’m looking to make paintings about love — love between two men, love between man and dog, love of oneself. So, I choose the subjects of my painting based on the level of emotional connection I share with them. Generally, the figures are good friends, my partner or acquaintances that I find interesting. I’m also looking for people that have a specific “look,” one that is not co-opted by our accepted rules of beauty, but embody something outside of that convention, which needs to be recognized and valued.

What emotions you trying to capture in your paintings? Do they contain bigger messages than what might be apparent?

I see my work as emerging from the intersection of formalism and emotional content. I’m not overly cerebral about my work and try not to over intellectualize it. However, one of the bigger messages I see in my work is to create normalized universes for gay men. There is a canon of creative work that portrays the gay lifestyle as abject. Films such as The Celluloid Closet, Advice and Consent, or Walk on the Wild Side show images of unhappy, suicidal gay men, which magnify the social perception of my community in our culture and fuel a conservative counter- narrative. With my work, I’d like to reverse that narrative and show positive images of gay men and male vulnerability.

You live and work in Pittsburgh, PA, but have made a name for yourself in the New York art world and beyond. How have you been able to find such widespread success? Do you ever feel disconnected to the larger art scenes?

I’m a small-town boy at heart, but always wanted to live in a city. There is something about Pittsburgh that is both urban and rural at the same time, which is comforting to me, so I feel really lucky to be here. In terms of connecting to the larger art scene, I make sure that I have a robust presence on social media, allowing me to disseminate my work to a larger audience. This allows me to feel connected to the people that make up the art scene both in NYC and elsewhere.You were recently commissioned by the New York Times to create a portrait in remembrance of rapper Mac Miller. What was this moment like?

The commission was exciting to get, despite the tragic circumstances of Mac’s passing. I just wanted to make something that honored Mac the person, the musical legacy he left behind, and immortalize him in paint. Some won’t believe this of course, but during the process of making the painting, he came to me in a dream so vividly, thanking me for making his portrait. He gave me a hug at the end right before I woke up.

What’s next for you? What are you excited for this year?

I’m excited for a lot this year! I’ll have a solo exhibition of my work in New York March of this year with Marinaro Gallery, and a two-person exhibition with Horton Gallery in their brand new space in Dallas this fall. I’ll also be continuing my relationship with Galerie Pact, hopefully participating in some art fairs. It’ll be a busy year!

At the end of every interview, we like to ask the artist to recommend a friend whose work you love for us to interview next. Who would you suggest?

I would be remiss not to mention someone very close to my heart, Shona McAndrew. She was in my graduate school cohort, and is challenging the status quo with her life-size, figurative paper-mache sculptures. Her work repudiates our androcentric culture, and offers an alternative vision of the world, one where women’s bodies and idiosyncrasies are valued rather than criticized.