Carla Danes interviewed by Mario Ybarra, Jr. & Karla Diaz
Tell us about "Tabletop Jungle" how did you start working on this sculpture project?
Well, grad school was very un-object oriented. It was very conceptual. And I got out, got into my studio and really wanted to make objects. I’d been a painter so it took me a while to get off the wall. Somehow sculpture seemed taboo. So inch by inch I started building; first things in relief and then painting them. I still don’t think I’m good at 3D.
As far as the content, I am a woman, a homemaker, I’m a mother and I’m also a serious artist. You’re supposed to write about what you know, so I decided that I would make art about what I really knew about. Because, why do you need another object in the world, unless you’re making something that only you know about? So I started to collect stuff—
Like what? What things specifically did you collect for your sculptures?
I’ve always shopped and bought gifts in cut-rate places. Plus, we have so many things in our lives—I think it’s a sin if you have any creativity at all to waste money when you can get stuff that is just as good and more fun because it’s fifty percent off. So, I’ve always shopped at the 99 Cent stores and Ross Dress for Less. My daughter, who has money, says, “Mom, most people brag when they get things at Barney’s, you brag about buying things at Ross!”. And someone else told me, “Carla, we know it’s called ‘Ross Dress for Less’ but skip the ‘dress for less’ and just say, ‘Ross’”.
So when you walk through a 99 cent store, how do you see it? Do you see it full of possibilities and potential for your projects—like raw material for lumber?
Yeah. I find things I need for my work when I go to shop for things for the house. In school, my friend Mario also told me about Michael’s Crafts and I buy a lot of stuff from there. And my friend Mario told me about this great market when I was going to Mexico City, and I got all sorts of great things there…I was in heaven! And sometimes I’ll buy something even though it’s more expensive than somewhere else. You know, I’ll splurge and spend more money because they are good things, like great beads, or something—‘cause my teacher, Scott Greiger, told me, "Pay attention to what you pay attention to." So if it’s pretty, if it’s colorful, if it’s glittery—you know, whatever I gravitate to, I will.
What things inspire you? What is your source material?
Sometimes I think about the things from my childhood, like there was a carnival at the end of our street that came twice a year. I remember those Cupie Dolls, that came from there. I think she was Betty Boop, but I didn’t know that then. I loved those. For a time I had a baby school in our loft in Soho, where I taught other artists’ babies, so I was always hunting for toys. My studio is downtown in LA’s Fashion District and I look around there when I walk my dog. Sometimes, at Home Depot, I’ll look for things that are pretty, while Chris [husband], shops for things that he needs.
Do you think there’s some kind of critique about consumer culture in your work?
Yes! I see myself as this middle class lady who was taught by my mother and my grandmother and by every magazine in the house about taste and fashion. So I like to play with that; art about what is fashionable, about what’s tasteful and what is art. This goes back to the idea that women have always been allowed to make art at home. Rich women painted ceramic cups and did needle work. Poor women made mittens, hats or quilts. But women have always been allowed to work at home. My work is an extension of that female territory and expanding on it.
I was in my twenties at the height of the Feminist Movement. Now women are allowed to go to college and they are out of the house. Women will buy a couch— big things for the house like bathroom fixtures. But we don’t buy our own jewelry. Sometimes we buy flowers for ourselves, but certainly we don’t collect art—the men do. Our opinion is considered, but we are rarely the art buyers in the family. Ultimately, I’d like to make art for women to feel safe with. I mean it’s a joke. We have more women than men in many art departments. We have curators, teachers, art makers—but we don’t buy art? This is crazy.
Did you make art with your mom or your grandmother?
No. I come from urban people. I learned how to darn socks from Girl Scouts. But my father was a maker. He was an engineer. He built our 36’ sailboat in the backyard. And then we all worked on the boat to get it ready every Spring. I think that’s where “making” came from. He and his friend made a cabin in the woods in New Jersey and as an adult he went back to see it. It was all trashed by kids—the windows were broken, graffiti on the walls—he was heartbroken. He said, “If kids knew how to make things they wouldn’t do that. Nobody makes things anymore”. So he passed on this moral idea to me.
What things did you make as a kid?
I always drew, but I was kind of a ham. In third grade everyday at lunch I would get a chocolate covered ice cream on a stick. It came with a paper envelope over it and I figured out that if I pushed the leftover stick in and out of the back of the paper envelope, I could draw a face on the front and make a puppet, so I did. And I’d entertain the kids. That was the first time I felt I could have power with my art.