North by NorthwestAn interview with Dan Attoe

artworks by Dan Attoe
written by Bill Powers


St. Moritz mountainside in snow, 2014


From the mountains of Washington, Dan Attoe makes his New York debut this March with a solo exhibition at Half Gallery.

BP From the front door of your studio, Mount St Helens is off in the distance. Do you think that living in Washington has an impact on your subject matter?

DA Yeah, it’s an influence in a few ways. The physical climate and the landscape seep in and directly influence the fictional landscapes I make. Being able to see long distances, surrounded by mountains, having so many rivers and dramatic geological variety nearby has informed my sensibility in lots of ways. Additionally, the Northwest culture informs the paintings through mood, atmosphere and the characters that show up. I mean, we’re inside a lot of the year up here, and we really know how to get cozy and when we go out, adventure is easy to find.

BP When we think of text paintings – by someone like Ed Ruscha – the words are usually featured quite prominently, but in your work they’re almost a whisper. How does the scale of the words operate for you?

DA I do often think of them as whispers. I think the paintings operate at a few different distances as a result – from a distance a viewer can get a sense of depth and the atmosphere of the work, up closer there’s usually people engaged in some kind of activity, and if you lean in you can read something that unlocks something more in the painting.

BP Most of your recent paintings include a depiction of water, be it a pool or a glacial lake. What is that significance for you?

DA Everywhere that I’ve lived there’s always been bodies of water or rivers – Washington has everything, Idaho has lots of rivers and some mountaintop lakes, Minnesota has tons of lakes, Iowa has rivers. They always influence the people and the structures around them. I think, there’s something that we gravitate to in a very instinctual way when we see water. Some kind of animal in us just wants to go over and interact with it. It may be a source of some kind of security too.

BP Sport is another recurring theme, pictures of people skiing or swimming. Are those escapist fantasies?

DA There’s certainly some unconscious wishing in my work, and a longing for the places I paint. I do love a lot of outdoor sports – kayaking, surfing, snowboarding/skiing and just hiking. I think all of those facilitate that animal need to interact with something that I have strong feelings about. If I see something that fascinates me, or that I think is “beautiful”, I immediately want to explore it more thoroughly.
I put people in the paintings doing things that I’d do if I was there, but also to play with the colors, design and the culture around those sports in the clothing and skis, surfboards and whatnot.

BP Who are some of your art heroes?

DA I have a handful of those who are contemporary and relatively contemporary – H.C. Westermann is high on that list, also Ed Ruscha, John Currin, Chris Johanson, Kara Walker, Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. I also have a few that I really admire that lack the contemporary awareness – Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, Goya, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt and many of the Hudson River school.

BP You mentioned that meditation is part of your daily routine. Is there a nature-is-God component to your paintings akin to what we find in the Hudson River School?

DA I don’t think I look at nature with the same kind of arms-wide-open, mouth-agape kind of admiration that they did. Maybe some of that is tempered by having a forester for a father and understanding some of the science and the fragility of what I’m looking at. Much of my inability to relax into “nature” in that way just comes from growing up in the end of the 20th century though – more awareness of the rest of the world and self awareness too. I meditate in a way that the goal is just to shut off any self-conscious editing and see where my mind wanders – so there’s a lot that floats through. I once read a quote by Frank Lloyd Wright that was pretty influential on my seeing the world: “This thing we call the machine is just the will of nature working irreversibly through the medium of man.”




Surfers on still water 5, 2015



Swimming pool at night 13,2015