Conversation with Dan Schank

Conversation with Dan Schank 

By Gabriel Cutrufello, PhD

Visiting artist Dan Schank earned a BFA in Painting and Drawing from the Tyler School of Art and MFA in Painting from UC-San Diego. He has exhibited throughout the United States, most recently at Tiger Strikes Asteroid in Los Angeles and the Erie Art Museum in Erie, PA. He is a longtime friend of York College English Professor Dr. Gabriel Cutrufello and the two discussed Schank’s work in the following conversation.

GC: Can you talk a little bit about your art background (where you went to school, etc.)?

DS: I was an undergraduate at the Tyler School of Art in Philly (Temple University’s art school). I then went directly to graduate school at the University of California in San Diego. During that time, I attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (a great residency in rural Maine) in 2001 as well.

GC: One of the things I find striking about your work is the physical and visual textures you create. Can you talk about the process that you use to create your work?

DS: The easiest way to describe my process is this – I’m building collages out of my own paintings. Typically, I begin with several small sheets of paper, which are painted in great detail with gouache (a medium similar to watercolor, but more opaque). When I have enough components, usually anywhere between a dozen to four dozen pieces of paper, I begin assembling them on wood panels. I’m typically about two-thirds of the way through a painting before I begin adhering the paper to the surface. To “glue” the cut-out scraps to the panel, I take matte gel medium (basically acrylic paint without any pigment in it) and literally paint it on to the back of each sheet. The paint sticks to the surface of the panel.

Since it’s very difficult to remove a scrap of paper once it is adhered, most of my paintings need to be built from the back forward. Once something is stuck to the surface, it’s almost always there permanently.

More recently, I’ve been working on a smaller scale with watercolor and pencil rather than collage. This allows me to burn through ideas more quickly as I try to expand my visual vocabulary. But I haven’t given up on the collage stuff either.

GC: We’ve known each other for a long time, and I’ve seen your work evolve over the years. I feel like I’ve seen this progress towards a kind of fantastic of the mundane in your work. Can you talk about the images that you use and the juxtaposition in some of your work between those mundane objects and the fantastical animal-like creatures that populate some of your pieces?

DS: For about twenty years now, my work has always been about the tension between everyday life and the fantasies that circulate through it via mass media. Over time, the imagery I’ve used to convey that tension has gotten more mundane – less overtly monstrous, but with the same underlying sense of distress.

Presently, I’m fascinated with the idea of the false promise. The way that things appear when someone has promised more than they can deliver. I’m fascinated by attempts to satiate as many desires as possible at once, which can take a variety of forms in contemporary culture. About three years back, I started depicting shopping malls with this idea in mind – spaces that try to accommodate all of your material needs in one brick-and-mortar setting. In a sense, websites like Amazon have taken on this role even more effectively, which is probably one of the reasons why malls appear to be on the decline geographically. So I’m trying to fuse the language of online shopping with the language of retail architecture, while focusing on the degree to which both try to offer us everything at once.

Aesthetically, I’ve been turning to things like conspiracy organizations, religious cults, and psychedelia to establish the right mood. I can remember being a little kid and learning about aliens – the slender, wide-eyed creatures popularized in books like Communion by Whitley Strieber – and being really freaked out by them. On some level, there’s something exciting and unsettling that occurs when an explanation of our world begins to go off the rails. This brings me back to the idea of a false promise; the sense that some extraordinary explanation can remedy all of our anxieties at once. I think these explanations often feel and look a certain way. And I’m trying to make use of that feeling.

GC: Another facet of your work is repetition of images and themes. I think there are two aspects to this that interest me: 1.) The effect of the repetition on the themes of the work; 2.) The physical work that goes into creating some of these repetitions. Can you talk about how you achieve repetition in individual pieces and how you think that adds to your body of work?

DS: When I was in art school, I imagined that I’d be the kind of person who would always be trying new things in my work. That’s a great attitude to have in that setting because it keeps you open and flexible. But that hasn’t honestly been the way it’s turned out.

Coming up with iconography – imagery that is evocative enough to steer my work away from pure formalism, but not literal enough to devalue intuition – is probably my biggest challenge. I try to find visuals that convey a particular sense of place and establish a strong atmosphere, but that can also accommodate social critique to some degree. My work tends to begin with ideas more often than shapes or colors. And once I find images that work, I tend to stick with them for a long time and work with them in a variety of contexts. This can be tedious – a lot of my studio practice is pretty brainless, actually – but it also allows me to really invest in the vocabulary, which hopefully adds weight over time.

GC: As you can tell, I think your process is interesting (maybe because we used to be roommates, and I’ve seen you work). Can you talk about a course you took or a part of the craft of art that you find to be essential in your work, but you didn’t think much of at the time you were first learning it? 

DS: As an undergraduate, I absolutely loathed using gouache, mostly because it was required for my foundation design courses (which I never enjoyed). So it’s kind of funny that I use so much of it now. But the more substantive answer is probably the role that film has played in my understanding of art since my mid-twenties.

I definitely think more logically and methodically about film than painting, probably because I don’t make films myself. And since my late twenties, film has become increasingly important to the way I generate ideas, especially because my paintings often have a strange, non-committal relationship to narrative. More specifically, people like the Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang and the British documentarian Adam Curtis have been highly influential to me in the ways that they assess contemporary culture. It helps that over the past fifteen years or so, an explosion of really interesting international cinema has become available.

Sometimes I think it’s easier for me to draw inspiration from recent movies than from other contemporary painters, because I can set myself apart more easily from the current trends of the art world. My grad program at UCSD was interdisciplinary, and I think I really benefitted from not being exclusively surrounded by other painters.

Typically, if I’m spending a lot of time thinking about something, it will eventually seep into my work. And sometimes the freshest ideas come when I’m not thinking about other painters.

Dan Schank’s exhibition, Open Arms, runs from Friday, April 7 to Saturday, May 6 in the YCP Gallery (formerly PAE) at Marketview Arts in downtown York (37 W Philadelphia St, 17401.) There will be a 
reception for the artist from 5-8pm on Friday, April 7. To see his work, visit

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