this artist paints lisa frank-esque paintings of queer men and dogs in nature
Danny Ferrell wants to change our notion that nature is only for a certain kind of man to enjoy.
Artworks courtesy of Galerie Pact and Danny Ferrell
Queer culture has a particular affinity for fantasy. Many of us find ourselves drawn to the glamorous perfection of pop videos and the subversive, prosthetic-heavy looks of Rupaul Drag’s Race. These sweet escapes can be retreats from the stress of the real world but they also serve this crucial purpose: imagining all-inclusive alternate realities. Pittsburgh-based artist Danny Ferrell dives headfirst into this facet of queerness with his psychedelic portraits. Employing Lisa Frank-esque color palettes, the RISD-graduates’ work features all of our favorite things: queer men, puppies, and flowers.
There is the obvious cute factor to Danny’s work — and a serious amount of intention and social commentary to go behind it. His subjects of color possess an air of regality, posing with Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and staring right at us with confidence. Danny says this approach is his attempt to elevate queer and POC subjects from “second class citizens to royalty.”
Then there are Danny’s gorgeous nature backdrops, which feel like utopic escapes from the hate we relentlessly experience in the real world — all because of how we love. Danny elaborates on his dreamy fields with this: “A natural setting questions notions of manhood by asking, ‘What goes on in nature when men, particularly gay men, find themselves there?’” Danny hopes to remove the assumption that nature is only available for certain kinds of men to enjoy. Not all queer men should feel like they have to move to bustling cities like San Francisco and New York to be themselves. Queer love should just as easily able to manifest in the fields of Kansas or Pittsburgh. “In a contemporary sense, we associate dominance and athleticism with nature, but it is also a place we turn to for solace, to be intimate, to reflect. There is a part of nature that welcomes self-discovery,” Danny elaborates with. For many young queer men, natural enclaves like the bushes behind school are the first places they get to explore their identities.
Danny’s paintings may be rooted in secluded, distinctly Americana settings, but they have managed to connect with an international audience. His latest kaleidoscopic works will be shown at a solo exhibit in Paris this fall. Here, Danny talks to i-D about capturing the tender sides of masculinity and his two dogs.
How did your style come together?
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.
How does queerness play into your artwork?
The 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. With my work, I’d like to reverse that narrative and show positive images of gay men and male vulnerability. The greater purpose of the work, as I see it, is to be a space where people can contemplate their own biases and presuppositions, which will hopefully lead to both normalization and acceptance of people who are LGBT.
Why do dogs so frequently appear in your work? Is there something going on here outside of an amazing ‘cute factor?’
I have two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels — they are my best buddies. Being around them everyday had me thinking about paintings of the bourgeoisie, where a little spaniel would sit by their owner’s side or tug playfully at the hem of a dress. I realized that my dogs had great historical reference so I started incorporating them into the work.
Now, I’m gesturing to the vast canon of European royalty painting, by blending the epic and banal in painted images of gay men and their dogs. The combinations quotes the pageantry of that history — their rich garb and over-the-top landscapes — and in doing so, elevates queer bodies and bodies of color from second class to royal class.
You talked about wanting to show a different kind of love, what is exactly is that love?
I’m looking to make paintings about love outside the traditional nuclear family — love between two men, love between man and dog, love of oneself. I want to quote some of the American familial traditionalism through landscape and setting, and then subvert that by establishing a queer context. 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.
How did you curate your fantastical palette of colors?
Color is incredibly important to me, so much so that I see color asserting itself as a secondary character in the painting — a component with as much life and vitality as the figures I am depicting. Color also allows my work to have a particular sense of mood and creates an indeterminate sense of time and place. I see the paintings emerging from the intersection of emotional content and formalism, so the ways in which color, light, and surface interact with personal identity are all crucial to my practice.
What is it like to be an artist based in Pittsburgh?
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. The art community in Pittsburgh is small, but mighty. Many of my students stay here and get cheap studios, honing in their craft before grad school applications. In the age of social media, I don’t have to be in New York in order for people to see my work — my gallery is in Paris, for example. Pittsburgh is a great place to live and work, I feel really lucky to be here.