In August 2020, Artadia invited Daniel S. Palmer, Curator at Public Art Fund, to conduct virtual studio visits with Houston Artadia Awardees as part of our program Art & Dialogue: Houston. Read a summary of Daniel’s experience below!

“My Artadia studio visits in Houston were particularly unique. Obviously, Covid-19 meant that I was not able to physically travel to that city, but I was grateful to be able to have this excellent group of artists share their time. We had such thoughtful series of conversations, and they all shared such meaningful insights about their artwork, despite the remote connection. This also came at a moment when I was truly missing studio visits and connecting with new artists about their work, which has always given me so much energy.

I was lucky to have traveled to Houston almost a year before these visits, so I was familiar with the city’s thriving art scene and vibrant culture. However, meeting with these artists helped me understand the culture and its nuances even better. I also found it fascinating, and perhaps a sign of the times, that many of the artists that I met with weren’t located in Houston at that moment. Some of them had left the city to study in other cities or were riding out the pandemic elsewhere. Despite this, I still was able to detect a distinctly Houstonian quality to their work and hospitality. Houston’s cosmopolitan, cultured vibrancy attracts a diverse range of artists to live and create there, but it also influences their work even after they’ve left.

I was also lucky to be guided through these Zoom visits by the wonderful Artadia team. We definitely reduced our carbon footprint by avoiding all of those Uber rides between studio buildings in different parts of town as is typical on these kinds of junkets. It was pretty great to be able to go directly from my kitchen to an artist’s studio, and in a strange way I actually think that the format of the digital meeting, with its face-to-face proximity and no other parts of the studio to look at, allows for a type of connection that can span the divide. 

My first visit with Francesca Fuchs mesmerized me for the small scale intimate quality of the artworks that she creates. They really resonated with me because frankly I’m tired of the overwhelming torrent of so much art and popular culture that comes through flattened on social media at this moment. While that junk often screams for our attention, conversely, Francesca’s works are quite understated and offer their deepest meaning to those who are willing to engage with them in close looking and nuanced perception. I found it very poignant how she recreated personal objects or mundane gestures in subtle paintings. It was also quite nice to have a discussion with her about her upcoming public art installation, which will transform an underpass site into an opportunity for heightened perception. I think the world needs more of that right now.

El Franco Lee II and I bonded over the countless cultural references that abound in his spectacular paintings. His prodigious output addresses subjects as wide-ranging as the Houston Hip-Hop scene (with many canvases specifically recounting the life and times of the pioneering artist DJ Screw), as well as others depicting important moments in the lives of icons of sport, and tales of other historic figures. I think I was most proud that he was impressed by my breadth of knowledge about these subjects, but I was even more taken by his tactful interweaving of these narratives in paint with an almost surreal magnetism. More than that, I was particularly moved by the way that El Franco Lee II’s paintings of police brutality and lynchings address the hard truths of this nation. His powerful pictures resonate with an urgent, unfortunate immediacy. 

My studio visit with Nathaniel Donnett continued the themes of music and social justice, with works that also confront hard realities that have been all too present for far too long. I was impressed with the way Nathaniel’s work explored his conception of the term “Dark-Imaginairence” – which he views as the intersection of theoretical and practical ideas of Blackness and Black life. His art ponders questions that examine the empiricism that undergirds our current realities, asking questions about the continuities of our existence in this country and our place in the global landscape. I was most impressed with the ways that he considers how improvisation can be used as an active mode to exist within this system, simultaneously functioning as an act of questioning. He has incorporated this musical concept as a philosophy to guide his artmaking and more – becoming and striving rather than simply existing or being.

I was familiar with Adriana Corral’s work before we met, but I was grateful for the opportunity to discuss it in greater depth with her. Her extremely thoughtful, research-based work brilliantly addresses themes vitally relevant in our current moment. Specifically, her focus on topics related to human rights violations and how accustomed we have become to the dominance of hegemonic culture with its erasures of the human dimension of historical narratives. She makes these rather weighty and esoteric themes distinctly concrete with compelling forms: significant dates carved into sheetrock walls, symbols from Mexico and United States sewn into a tattering white flag at a historic site of migrant labor, soil and ash set against each other to signal a hard, unjust border. I admire her deep commitment to archival work and her extensive dialogue with experts including civil rights lawyers. These endeavors demonstrated to me the profound commitment that she has to the subjects she addresses in her work. This could be enough for any artist to make successful work, but Adriana also does so in ways that are intellectually and formally nuanced as well as beautiful. 

Doing a studio visit with Vincent Valdez remotely made me really miss the opportunity to experience an embodied experience of his large-scale, massive format paintings. Though, their superbly rendered content still had the same power and energy, especially thanks to the close up details he shared of works in progress. The marginalized stories that his paintings share lend the paintings even more profound meaning beyond their photo-realistically striking appeal. A portrait is always a proposition about agency and importance. Why has this person been memorialized and why has the artist dedicated time and effort to sharing their likeness? Vincent’s works aren’t about asserting glamor or authority for those who mainstream culture typically celebrates. Rather, they convey the humanity and value in the individuals we tend to overlook because we aren’t willing or able to get outside of our bubbles. His paintings help us see the incredibly meaningful, honest work that is being done by those who have higher concerns than seeking the spotlight. Vincent and I both share a deep interest in the democratization of art that occurred in the 1930s, and especially appreciate the resolve that artists of that era had to insist in the significance of their art as a tool for social justice. Vincent’s portraits of these heroes feel like exactly the kind of work that we need today.  

I love that Lily Cox-Richards has focused her practice on 19th Century American sculpture — a subject that I think is fascinating, but which is so completely uncool by mainstream standards. The kinds of museums and collections where she has been granted carte blanche are the ones that are the most fertile for reexamining, and which are often the most thoughtful and welcoming of these opportunities. Lily knows and fully acknowledges this, and has fruitfully mined Victorian culture in ways that demonstrate its complexities and show what can be learned from this deep engagement with our past. In particular, I admire how her work demonstrates that something problematic can be analyzed to work through its issues, rather than just rejected outright. That would be the easier path, but it misses the opportunity to learn and potential for growth. Our culture’s assumptions about whiteness of marble sculpture, ideas about the bodies that are depicted in figurative work, and the intentions of artists like Hiram Powers can be scrutinized most meaningfully with thoughtful interventions like those by Lily.

Regina Agu’s work explores the Black landscapes of the Gulf South through the historical form of the panorama. In the mid-19th century, these became popular spectacles and typically showed landscapes or historical events. Their illusion and the immersive experience was part of their allure to awed audiences, but as we know, the technology constructed realities and left out crucial facts. By bringing this traditional representational technology back into the present and addressing its erasures, she is able to make “visible the unseen,” specifically of the plantation economies of the region. I was particularly interested in the ways that her work addresses the shifts in perception that happen as cultures change, since we’ve undergone so many so quickly recently. Things are seen or obscured by technologies, language, and decisions about which voices are granted a platform. The historical landscape paintings that Regina references depict idyllic representations of natural settings. Of course, these obscured realities and entire populations who were inconvenient or troublesome for authorities looking to assert their dominance. These power dynamics and their relevance to our time makes her ambitious works all the more meaningful for their frankness in depicting these “Black Geographies” and subtly suggesting what our world might look like if we were able to see in ways that were more honest and complete.

Eileen Maxson’s work is witty and humorous, but in a way that also simultaneously makes me realize that we’re all pretty much doomed and that maybe there isn’t very much we can do about it. After we finished speaking, I thought about how I needed to update an odd truth about television that has always troubled me; TV shows and other programming are just there to fill the time between advertisements. What happens to that sad reality when we can’t switch off the program because it has come to permeate every aspect of our lives? The internet has become a platform to consume content or share asinine things about ourselves, but it has also become something we can’t escape from and which controls and mediates nearly every aspect of our existence. Eileen’s art confronts that by working within the system, using its language and even its platforms to highlight and analyze its functions and operations. Rather than simply do this in a nihilistic way, her art gives us an opportunity to laugh a little while we are shown the dark inner workings. She demonstrates how the concept of progress through accumulation has been exacerbated by the algorithmic targeting of the internet, but also doesn’t shy away from using its vernacular and admitting its control over her too. I’m particularly intrigued by her experiments with targeting audiences on social media platforms, which I think have the potential to be a real breakthrough in how we conceive of an experience of art. I think they will also lead to an artwork that produces a feeling that I can’t exactly articulate, but I’m sure german has a word for – something between humor, shame, and enlightenment.

And then I closed my laptop. It’s a quick re-entry to go from a mind-meld with these great artists back to my kitchen, but their words and works have stuck with me. Writing this from a distance of over 1500 miles away from Houston, and no idea when I’ll be able to be there again, it doesn’t feel particularly physically close, but it’s brilliant art scene also doesn’t feel so far.”

Daniel S. Palmer is currently Curator at Public Art Fund, New York where he has organized exhibitions including Carmen Herrera’s Estructuras Monumentales (2019), Harold Ancart’s Subliminal Standard (2019), Tony Oursler’s Tear of the Cloud (2018), B. Wurtz’s Kitchen Trees (2018), Erwin Wurm’s Hot Dog Bus (2018), Liz Glynn’s Open House (2017), and Commercial Break (2017), an exhibition of digital video and photography by 23 artists exhibited on advertising screens in all five boroughs. Palmer also assisted Director and Chief Curator Nicholas Baume on Ai Weiwei’s citywide exhibition Good Fences Make Good Neighbors (2017), a 300+ work exhibition that responded to the global migration crisis.

He is a contributor to numerous exhibition catalogues and publications, among them The Whitney Museum of American Art’s Hopper Drawing an exhibition for which he also conducted research (2013); the Kunstmuseum Bonn’s New York Painting (2015); as well as numerous media outlets including ARTnewsMousseKaleidoscopethe Exhibitionist, and Guernica, among others. He has taught the history of art at a Rutgers University program in Paris; York College in Queens, NY; as well as at the Spitzer School of Architecture at City College, NY. He undertook doctoral studies in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he earned his M.Phil in 2012, and also holds a BA with Highest Honors in Art History and English from Rutgers University.