“I sing the endless finalés of things,
I say Nature continues, glory continues,
I praise with electric voice,
For I do not see one imperfection in the universe,
And I do not see one cause or result lamentable at last in the
–Walt Whitman “Song at Sunset”
This week, a clip from the production of Twin Peaks: The Return was resurrected and made the rounds on Twitter, featuring auteur David Lynch losing his proverbial shit over the rapid manner in which directors are expected to work in today’s film and TV industry. Lynch being Lynch, he didn’t care about simple budget concerns or time constraints, eventually yelling in his folksy tone while angrily drawing on a cigarette, “We never get to go dreamy or anything!”
Watching this video, beyond being amused by Lynch’s high-pitched complaints, that line struck me as significant. How often are we allowed to go dreamy? Not very often. With the drive for artists, writers and other creative types to constantly produce, going dreamy has been tossed out for the continual crunch of cultural capitalism. But, what ever happened to languishing in fantasy or existing in escapist ecstasy? And, in particular, who gets to exist in these environments of utopian fantasy? Why do we never get to go dreamy anymore?!
This longing to “dream up all sorts of stuff,” as Lynch would say, is why Pittsburgh-based artist Danny Ferrell’s lush paintings, which are on view in his solo exhibition Honey in its last day at Marinaro Gallery, are so refreshingly intoxicating. With their depictions of men, often with their dogs, in a utopian and even, magical vision of Americana, Ferrell’s paintings allow viewers to glance at and get lost in an elsewhere. Painting mainly his friends, acquaintances and partner, fellow artist Devan Shimoyama, Ferrell renders these figures in tranquil and transcendent environments with a romantic color scheme of oranges, yellows, reds and purples that look like the best Instagram filter imaginable. It’s no mistake that one painting, portraying artist Pacifico Silano with his beloved Boston terrier Iggy bathed in a warm yellow light surrounded by roses, is titled Eden.
Now, I should admit that I have written about (multiple times), curated, and know several of the subjects in these portraits, including Devan and Pacifico, which is a strange and startling viewing experience, particularly with the steady gaze of some of the sitters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s harder to divorce yourself from the voyeuristic experience of looking at a piece of art. When contemplating a portrait of someone you don’t know, you can feel free to stare, but with a familiar face, it’s uncanny, particularly with Ferrell’s precise work on not only their likeness, but even the details of their tattoos.
A lot has been made in other publications of Ferrell’s placement of these men, who are primarily queer and/or people of color, into the storied, stodgy, straight and white history of royal portraiture, with the long legacy of art historical works representing noblemen (and women) and their dogs. Particularly in European portraiture, dogs, whether lapdogs or hunting dogs, are an indicator of a certain social status, as well as personality. As Keith Thomas writes in Man and the Natural World, pets were usually understood as “a symbol of fidelity, domesticity and completeness, though sometimes…as an emblem of mischievous irreverence.”
Here, in Ferrell’s hands, they seem to represent all these things, including a domesticity that is typically not attributed to men, even in art, and a mischievous sense of kitsch that pervades any representation of pups, especially ones as handsomely gargoyle-like as Iggy in Eden. Above all, though, the relationship between Ferrell’s male sitters and their dogs is one of pure kinship, a love beyond what’s typically depicted heteronormative romantic love. This is perhaps observed most clearly in the gestures of Ferrell’s subjects. In Song of the Moon, Devan cradles their Cavalier King Charles Spaniel in a starry nighttime scene, with his head bowed down looking at his dog. In Genuflect, the subject, as indicated by the work’s title, bends over to stroke his dog as a sign of respect or even, worship. Several of the subjects even have tattoos that either resemble or are of their pet as seen in both Eden and Aman.
However, much more than the placement of these queer men and men of color into the history of art, I’m much more taken by Ferrell’s choice to locate these figures in a idealized version of Americana. And this too relates to the inclusion of dogs. I mean, what is more American than an image of a man and his dog? There is a reason it’s one of the most clichéd tropes for political campaigns.
Now, if you had a question if Ferrell’s backgrounds, which are admittedly and purposefully nebulous, allowing for the feeling that these captured scenes are out of time and precise place, were American, look no further than Genuflect, in which the figure and his pup sit on an American flag. However, Ferrell’s scenes of Americana are not the well-manicured lawns of the suburbs or the crunch and anxiety of urban spaces, but a vast, dreamlike environment that is more in line with the romantic imagery seen in Lana Del Rey’s music videos like “Ride” and Orville Peck’s vibrant Western fantasy in “Dead of Night.” Many of his backgrounds even slip into the surreal as in the smaller portrait Mohan, which features a blood-red sun in red, blue and yellow tequila sunrise skies. In this way, Ferrell’s portraits seem to exist in an updated version of the nature unspoiled as rendered by the painters of the Hudson River School. This is made even more significant in 2019 when the potential and possibility of existing in this untouched land is even farther away.
This is not to say all the paintings exist in rural settings, Patrick centers around a mustachio-ed, bespectacled man who I first thought was Casey Spooner with two, what looks to be, apartment buildings in the background. With the clear blue skies, however, most Pittsburgh denizens will realize that this scene still exists in a more fantastical realm since the city’s usual color scheme is grey, grey and more grey.
By locating these works in a utopian America, Ferrell creates a version of America in which it is not only accepted, but safe to enact the alternative version of masculinity witnessed in the paintings. With the tender adoration of their dogs and often surrounded by flowers, Ferrell imbues his subjects with a softer, sensitive yet still sensual form of masculinity that is normally hidden or outright violently rejected by American social norms. Late Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller who appears as the only famous figure in the painting Malcolm, with a daisy and an intimate gaze, is permitted a palpable vulnerability, one that he was probably owed in real life. Going into this idyllic nature, rather than hunting, fishing or other manly activities bros do to bolster their fragile masculinity, in Ferrell’s work, becomes more about finding space and freedom to exist away from dominant pressures to perform as a “real” man.
Not only does Ferrell construct a place for marginalized folks to be, but he also allows for these men to exist in a space of fantasy. Even Mac Miller, as a drug user who publicly struggled with mental illness deserves to reach for a utopia too. And Ferrell lets us, as his audience, go with them too. Ferrell’s paintings are meant to draw you in–whether staring at the star-flecked night in Song of the Moon, imagining tumbling into the roses in Eden, or falling asleep on the American flag next in Genuflect. They allow for a mental wandering, particularly over the utter smoothness of Ferrell’s surfaces, which erase the artist’s hand for a more illusionary flatness. As Ferrell himself says, and is quoted in the show’s press release, “…my work functions like a daydream, where memory and longing shape a personal fiction.”
And this is crucial because, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, dearest readers, real life sucks in 2019, and because of this, romanticism becomes a much-needed release. Escapism can be a radical form of activism too, a pressure-relieving valve from reality. Now, Ferrell’s records of this utopia are momentary, as indicated by his chosen colors that mirror the hue of a perpetual sunset or sunrise. Eventually, night will fall or day will come, and that perfect moment will be over. But, for a minute, it’s captured and that fantasy is preserved–for dreaming.