Interview With Ken Danby
At 37, Canadian artist Ken Danby has established himself as a master of realist painting, with an international stature that regularly brings his dealer requests from New York, London and European capitals. A 1974 article in the U.S. magazine Arts declared that Danby’s “realism is a triumph of technical virtuosity and clearly reveals his primary interest in utilizing and synthesizing all the formal elements of art." Author-critic Paul Duval of Toronto, in his 1976 book entitled simply Ken Danby, noted that the artist’s work since 1972 has “placed Danby among the leading contemporary realists anywhere.’’ Despite—or perhaps because of—his popularity with the general public, most other Canadian critics have been inclined to dismiss Danby’s work. His paintings have been condemned as “superficial, slick and cloying to the point of nausea.’’ Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Danby by the age of 10 had decided that he wanted to be a painter. Largely selftaught, except for two years at the Ontario College of Art, Danby was only 24 when a painting of his, entered in an exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, won the Jessie Dow Prize. Today, Danby looks older than his years; there are lines of fatigue around his calm, blue eyes. Danby was interviewed by contributing editor Hubert de Santana at the 121 -year old mill near Guelph, Ont., where the artist has lived since 1967 with his wife and three young sons.
Maclean’s: You are an artist with an international reputation, yet with one or two exceptions, Canadian critics and reviewers seem to be impervious to the merit of your work. In a recent review in Books In Canada, y our work is summed up this way: “But somehow it’s all dead. Even the famous goalie At The Crease doesn’t quite come to life. These carefully crafted pictures merely enumerate the icons held dear by Danby’s patrons. ” The suggestion seems to be that you pander to your patrons.
Danby: The only way I can answer that kind of a slur is to say that when I began working as a realist-oriented image maker, I made a very conscious return to rural themes. When, in the early Sixties, my first exhibits evolved around the rural image situation, I was involved in painting the barns, rural fences and rolling hills that so many thousands are doing today. If I had wanted to court the pocket books of the collectors, I’d still be painting old barns, because they are what the marketplace is demanding to a large extent. And I would
have made a lot of money; as it is, I haven’t made a lot of money, because I’ve had the integrity to pursue things on a more intuitive, natural, honest, directly instinctive approach.
Maclean’s: That same review goes on to mention your visit to the retrospective exhibition of paintings by the leading American realist Andrew Wyeth in Buffalo in 1962. There is a popular notion that for you that show was a revelation akin to the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Danby: Would this perhaps be the opportunity to clarify this once and for all? When I came down from Sault Ste. Marie as an 18-year-old to attend the Ontario College of Art, I had been drawing and painting realistically for many years. When I came
Had I wanted to court the pocketbooks of the collectors, I’d still be painting old barns
down to Toronto, I was confronted with what was then the most fashionable approach to art, nonobjective abstraction, and nonobjective expressionism. I had no idea what this was all about, and I was overwhelmed by it.
Maclean’s: Nevertheless, you did produce some good abstract paintings during this period.
Danby: It was not until late into my second year that the teachings of the late Jock Macdonald began to give me an understanding of what it was all about, and I began to appreciate what it had to offer. However, I still didn’t feel that it was what I wanted to do.
Maclean’s: You remained dissatisfied? Danby: Always. I was never, as has been depicted, a flag-waving abstractionist. I was always playing at investigating various elements of abstraction according to the fundamentals that Macdonald had taught me, but never being able to raise the flag. All my natural leanings came back to a realistic approach to art, and coincidentally I saw the Wyeth show, when I had already been convinced that I wasn’t going to make it in that path [abstractionism], Maclean’s: What did the Wyeth show do for you?
Danby: What the Wyeth show did for me was confirm my own suspicions. It confirmed that one could be appreciated, and one could achieve something still in this century in terms of being in the forefront of the directions of art without having to be nonrepresentational.
Maclean’s: The photographic realism of some of your work leads one to ask an obvious question: why labor for hours setting down in paint what a camera can record on film with equal fidelity?
Danby: A camera is a tool used by an artist. A camera can create artistic statements; that is where a fine photographer leaves the shutterbugs behind. But an artist is capable of doing things that the camera is incapable of doing. I may be approaching my work on a basis which allows me as much fidelity as a camera perhaps, but I’m creating the image—I’m not duplicating it. Maclean’s: Your best-known painting, At The Crease, is a highly complex work in which you have created an archetype of Canadian machismo—a monumental, invincible gladiator.
Danby: There was no conscious attempt to create a Canadian kind of representation. It was the thrusting out, the menacing, challenging aspect of the goalie that I wanted to catch.
Maclean’s: There’s something inhuman about that goalie: his mask is like a sheet of bone, which gives his face a skull-like appearance.
Danby: This brings me to the elements which went into the picture, which will help to explain the evolution of the final image. When I played hockey as a youngster, the mask was not used at all. There was a long stretch of time in the Sixties when I didn’t get near a hockey stick or wear any skates, and that’s when the mask became a prominent feature of hockey. We have an outdoor rink across the road here, and the last time I played there, in 1968 or 1969, something kept recurring in my mind after the game, and that was this mask, which my neighbor’s son had worn as he played goal.
Maclean’s: Why should it have been so compelling? Afier all, newspaper photos and television have made the goalie’s mask familiar to all of us.
Danby: It’s a different thing watching a goalie in photographs or on television, and actually skating up to the net and confronting a figure wearing this mask. It was a new experience for me, and I guess that’s why it remained in my mind. Periodically, for weeks on end, that image would keep coming into my mind. I thought that perhaps it was a visual experience worth exploring in my art, but I would consciously dismiss it as a cliché of a sporting theme. But I realized that it went beyond a sporting thing—it was a socially relevant activity and a socially relevant image that hadn’t been looked at in painting.
Maclean’s: At The Crease was painted in 1972, at a time when you had reached a crossroad in your art.
Most art critics in Canada shouldn’t be critics. They’re illinformed, incompetent
Danby: In 1972 I was doing a lot of selfappraisal: Where is my work going? What kind of a response am I going to have? And in the end I came to the conclusion—the logical one of course—that my art should follow an intuitive path, and not be influenced by a digesting of what should be. It was a natural progressive resolve for me to pursue that, and it was a very important step for me.
Maclean’s: Can you explain what motivates you as an artist?
Danby: What is it that motivates anyone to do what they do? What is it that motivates me to spend months on a painting? It certainly isn’t to make a dollar. Paintings like Pancho, and/11 The Crease, took months of seven days a week, 15 to 16 hours a day to resolve. Why? Because for me there are no shortcuts. Hell, I wish sometimes that I could create these images in a few hours, but I can’t. One of my serigraphs [color prints produced by a silk-screen process], took me over a year and a half to resolve. If that’s being done to make a dollar, there are easier ways to do it.
Maclean’s: One of your most attractive paintings is The Boom Hook. What was the inspiration for it?
Danby: What intrigued me about that was simply an old piece of driftwood log in a stream that had no relevance at all to anything of man except for a hook: a little piece of machine part or fabricated metal that represented man in what was quite a pleasant vignette of raw nature. The whole painting was an exercise in creating a representational abstraction of nature. It was a very pleasant, joyful experience working
on that painting in so far as I was able to get rid of so much of the obvious pictorial influences and just play with representing color and shape and design, and still come back into focus with a representational feeling.
Maclean’s: The Sunbather was painted in 1972, the same year in which you produced At The Crease. Yet the two pictures convey opposite extremes of mood: the goalie embodies primitive power; the girl is serene and contemplative.
Danby: I was doing some studies for a serigraph which eventually became Sunning. I was approaching an image which I had conceived of a girl lying on a chaise longue; and in the process of posing for what became Sunning, she would take a rest and reflect, sitting on the grass; and that became The Sunbather. It is simply a straightforward study of a friend, a neighbor, in an intimate, reflective pose. Maclean’s: How do you select the themes and subjects for your paintings?
Danby: I just respond to experiences as they happen, or after they’ve happened. I don’t happen to see a situation and run for my paints. No. I leave myself receptive, and absorb everything around me visually. My mind may lock on to a particular image, and later on I’ll come back to it, months or years later.
Maclean’s: Do you feel that many art critics in Canada are incompetent?
Danby: Most art critics in this country shouldn’t be art critics. They are ill-informed and incompetent. There’s a handful who have the degree of empathy and understanding of what art is all about—a handful. Most critics who attack my work are people I’ve never met. How can they know anything about an artist’s intent if they don’t even take the trouble to meet with an artist and get him to talk about his work? I’ve been around a long time now, but apart from Paul Duval, only one other critic has ever come up to me and asked me about my work.
Maclean’s: Your superlative draughtsmanship sometimes causes you to be dismissed as a mere illustrator.
Danby: The term illustrator has become debased. But look back at the old masters. Rembrandt’s Night Watch was an illustration; Blake’s greatest work was his illustrations of Dante, Milton, and the Book Of Job. But as we progressed from those grand commissioned works to a more commercial marketplace for magazines and the media, the term became tainted because of this commercialism. I think that to use the term in the debasing manner in which it is used in relation to myself and certain others is a slur and a derogatory reference which is unnecessary, because I don’t see any relationship at all except in one superficial aspect, and that is that both illustrators and representational artists are working from nature.
Maclean’s: Not many modern artists would agree with you about the importance of good drawing. '
Danby: Back in the 1800s the Impressionists began to explore all the avenues of art, analyzing and dissecting paint, color, light, structure and so on. The artist was no longer as restricted as he had been. And then the Expressionists carried that to an extreme, and Jackson Pollock, and others like De Kooning and Picasso were able to liberate the artist.
Maclean’s: They also gave a lot of charlatans a flag to hide behind.
Danby: Exactly. It allowed charlatans to get into the game of art: so many show business pretenders, people without any ability other than showmanship. Today anyone can get into the game. A conceptual artist doesn’t even have to wield a brush or a piece of charcoal, and he can still be canonized.
Maclean’s: Are you cynical about the art scene in Canada?
Danby: I’m cynical on a day-to-day basis. But I’m not cynical in the long run, because history always prevails.
Maclean’s: A British critic has written that “the Group of Seven very early deforested a region of national sensibility. ” Would you agree with that statement?
Danby: The Group of Seven was a healthy influence in that it focused on a Canadian heritage; for the first time we had something that we could hold on to as being indigenous to Canada. But I think the Group of Seven suffered to some extent from where their base was, because Canada’s position in the art world and the collection centres of the world was not and never has been of any consequence at all. If they had been pursuing their work in the States, for instance, there’d be a totally different reflection evolved from it. As it is we’re in the boondocks in Canada; a few painters are doing something, finally, indigenous to their home territory. But it’s taken their own country long enough to recognize them, and goodness knows the rest of the world isn’t going to be paying that much attention. Maybe in a few centuries the hi-
As an artist I am not trying to be significant in any way to Canadian art
erarchies of art will have adjusted their position somewhat.
Maclean’s: Do you think of yourself as a Canadian painter in the way that the Group of Seven was deliberately Canadian? Danby: No. I’m proud to be a Canadian; I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else ; but as an artist I’m not trying to be significant in any way to Canadian art. Art is not encompassed by borders. Sure, each artist’s efforts are relative to the environment in which it exists; but art is essentially a universal thing, and has nothing to do with borders. I have no interest in being a parochial painter.
Maclean’s: Apart from the critical barbs and broadsides, what sort of response has your work generated in Canada?
Danby: People who buy my work are collectors with minds of their own. Maclean’s: And art investors?
Danby: Yes, people with an eye for what has happened, and an instinct for the future. But they’re buying for an entirely different reason. I prefer to relate to the people who are willing to respond to things I create on a visual plane rather than a financial one.
Maclean’s: Has financial success meant greater freedom to pursue your investigations into art without having to worry about subsistence?
Danby: I don’t have subsistence worries. My financial worries are compounded by pursuing the ideal facility, the ideal studio, so that I can be less encumbered. We don’t live luxuriously out here. We have a happy, comfortable existence.
Maclean’s: Art is obviously central to your life. But how important is it for society? Danby: Art is an absolute necessity. It is so underplayed—academe always seems to want to shelter art from the general public. It’s always an elitist thing. Art has to be accessible, it has to be taught. I resent and regret that art is taught as a supplementary subject in schools, as if art is for the hobbyist. In this society it’s almost embarrassing for a man to be responsive to art. That is stupid and regressive in itself. In order for a society to be enlightened and civilized, art must play a major role. It’s probably the most potent communicative force we have. It is also a redemptive and civilizing force. Maclean’s: What are your other interests? Danby: Designing: anything and everything; buildings, for instance. I enjoy playing with plans for waterworks; I intend in my river here to employ some kind of energy waterwheel, some kind of turbine to generate my own power if that is at all feasible. I enjoy designing and engineering projects. I’ve actually designed a working model of the mill here, and so forth. Things like that are simply offshoots of visual expression. But as I work and as I learn, so much is being exposed to me, so much is being unveiled, that the vastness of what I’m trying to pursue becomes more and more evident; and with it comes the realization that I will never be able to achieve all of what I’m looking at in the direction in which I’m going. All I can hope for is to achieve enough to make a significant dent in that ambition and pass on perhaps enough exposure to others so that they’ll continue to pursue it in one direction or another.
Maclean’s: Do you always give of your best when you begin a new work?
Danby: Absolutely. The best thing I’m going to do as of right now is the next thing I’m going to do. It will always be that way, and if it’s anything less than my best, then I’ll know it’s time to hang up my brushes.