A Recent Visit with artist Dana De Ano

By Lara Allison

Department of Art History, Theory and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

On a recent visit to artist Dana De Ano’s studio in Evanston, Illinois, we discussed the peculiar details of our individual lives, but the conversation also delved into the historical and philosophical as we discussed art, technology, illness, and friendship.  Like our conversation, De Ano’s art is an exercise in spanning the near and far; the close and intimate as well as the broad and remote; the personal and the impersonal.  At its best, De Ano’s art simultaneously captures the personal, the interior and the psychological and the vast exterior world; the domestic as well as the impersonal landscape; the intimate and the mass produced. There is a rich dialogue that emerges out of this aspect of her art that urges one to think about the interconnections of human experience.

One aspect of De Ano’s art that must be confronted is that of retrieval in her process.  She does not think of herself as a collage artist, but like many who arrange scattered fragments into compositions, De Ano retrieves and engages with the ruin, with the discarded object or fragment, re-imagining it, transforming its pieces into vast sweeps and rich textures across her landscapes. The landscapes encapsulate both points of familiarity and domesticity as well as the indifferent aspects of ruin, destruction, and empty, vast space. The delicacy of her technique for attaching scraps to the paper and of some of the materials themselves is often in tension with the roughness of burns produced from creating holes in the paper with fire and the black, expressive marks made with pencil and ink. 

In many of De Ano’s works, there seems to be a fear of loss that actually goes beyond silence and reaches into an, at times, violent refusal in what can be perhaps be called a sort of suspended catastrophe.  The small house that appears (although is not always visible) in all of her recent works is never quite rooted, suggesting at once the challenges of domestic life but also the anxiety surrounding the possibility of loss that especially grips one at a particular stage of life once things have been set, situated, found, “rooted.” I kept thinking about Sonali Deraniyagala’s book Wave which details the extraordinary loss the author faced following the Tsunami in Sri Lanka in 2004. In her book, Deraniyagala’s friend, Orlantha tells her while watching her two sons play that “what you guys have is a dream.” The next words Orlantha says is “Oh my God, the seas coming in!” The tensions between the domestic and personal aspects of De Ano’s art (the drawn houses, the delicate laces, curtain and furniture textiles) and the violent aspects in which the textiles are often cut and composed and the rough way that the paper is sometimes treated parallels Deraniyagala’s depiction of the tranquility prior to destruction, the silence before disaster.     De Ano’s work captures moments and sites of calm against an always-present threat of violence and chaos.  It expresses the way that the personal, private, and domestic are intricately bound up with the impersonal in its various forms— natural or otherwise.

De Ano’s art incorporates fragments of objects––upholstery and the interior stuffing from furniture, life vests, gloves, swimming caps, and worn-out and preserved textiles.  While she seems to be mostly interested in these materials for their dimensionality, tactility, colors, and surfaces, her work still entices one to think about their histories, as salvaged fragments that need to be pieces together into memories of something once known. These fragments become key elements of De Ano’s landscapes, bringing together form and color, and often driving other marks on the paper––they recede through holes, they integrate or mirror the contours of the drawn.  The burned holes further add to the materiality of her work, as do the lines of thread that often imitate the drawn line:  they all contribute to the refusal to read transcendence into the work. One is constantly reminded of the inescapable materialism: the paper, the fragments of objects and materials, the threads and stuffing. While any sense of utopia or promise is muted out in De Ano’s art, there are still small moments of delicacy, beauty, and joy situated in a piece of lace, in a soft fabric, in a bright color.  The works also chart the need to go forward from the past, to re-construct fragments of lost objects into new formations to produce fresh meanings while piecing together past memories and lives. In this lies the humanity in De Ano’s art:  it reflects our own conflicted twenty-first century lives in terms of our retreat into our individual spaces and private ideas, our search for meaningful connections and continuities with a past, our concern with the historical object against the backdrop of an excessively consumerist culture that throws so much away, that values nothing, and the constant ecological and nuclear threats that can never be escaped. The shards and remains of materials incorporated into De Ano’s works are reminders of the humanity and histories of quotidian objects that were once loved, worn, touched, and seen. 

The drawn elements in De Ano’s art––ink or pencil––function in different ways. In some cases, large areas of ink operate in a similar way to the burned holes insofar as they eat away at the white space of the paper and are at once positions and negations on the surface. In other places, De Ano’s marks are positive expressive assertions, attempts to figure and render the place of drawing in contemporary practice.  The drawn lines also integrate the various elements of a work and contribute to the understanding of landscape:  ground, horizon, and sky.  Some of her strongest works are the ones in which drawing plays a key role in the composition, defining the way that the viewer experiences the shapes, cuts, and textures of the montaged and sewn elements. De Ano’s titles are worthy of reflection also, moving (as the works do) between the private and the impersonal, suggesting, on the one hand, emotional states (“reeling”) and identity positions (“ranger,” “cotton picker,” “suburban,” “American”) and, on the other hand, the ecological and environmental (“continental,” “tornado”).  Some titles imply stasis and others suggest movement and force.

From a technical standpoint, De Ano’s art skillfully brings together multiple mediums and practices, various shapes and textures into something unified and whole. The way that she accomplishes this is largely through the drawn mark, the application of areas of ink and paint, taut or gently hanging black thread, that all communicate with the attached material elements. The sky engages with the ground, the thin line with the broad strokes of ink, the hole with its burned edges, the composed material elements with the surface of the paper.  This is something that, although basic, is not easy to accomplish for an artist:  to create a composition from disparate elements. De Ano’s art again reflects our human project:  to integrate elements of our own scattered lives–our things, memories, pasts, and emotional states–into a meaningful whole that amounts to our individual selves.  Like De Ano’s art, we all at times must look close and far, confront the ways in which the impersonal impacts our private lives, and pave a path towards finding those moments and places of beauty, delicacy, joy, and calm.

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Negotiating the Lines between Work and Play

By Kate Baldwin

School of Communication Northwestern University

Motherhood has come a long way from the 1960s, when patriarchy seemed like an obvious target of critique for second wave feminists. Rather, today mothers navigate boundaries between “dominant” and “sub” cultures, in loose and relatively fluid social groupings that congeal around different interests—many of which are suggested in the work we present today (for example, knitting, sewing, biking, dreaming, reading, writing, etc.)

In many ways, it’s become more difficult to parent in a socially conscious way because of the slipperiness of the playing field—one mom’s freedom could be another mom’s restraint. Thinking about Dana’s work in the context of the invisibility of motherhood helps us to address this slipperiness.  Her work encourages us to investigate close-up the way contemporary motherhood unsettles the categories of work and play. 

Dana’s most recent work indexes the uncertain place of domesticity--lodged between labor and play. In a world where mother’s “work” is increasingly aestheticized (etsy, houzz, apartment therapy, etc.), and “play” has become downright tyrannical, Dana’s work helps to reorient our gaze. 

Using domestic throwaways, bit and pieces of the everyday, Dana’s work not only acknowledges that aesthetic experience is all around us, but also forces us to confront how our desire for that experience is coupled with a desire for a more simple relationship to things—especially the things of everyday domestic life.  We see this in the way Dana’s work reuses everything from dryer lint to the cuff of a worn-out shirt, suggesting longings for a past that never was, and the impossibility of returning “home.”

In Dana’s art these “fled treasures” speak to the ephemerality of domestic life; the way it is ensnared in objects that then can take on other lives once we are done with them.  Motherhood becomes the site of that working over—at once ephemeral and eternal.  Motherhood is the definition of the phrase “constantly repurposed.” 

Her work could be described as stitching points that suture together (but not into focus) the relatively shapeless and unstructured ways mothers’ lives take form. At the same time, Dana’s work is exquisitely poised—nothing is out of place here—suggesting the mandate of household management, or a way of handling the drudgery of the everyday (the dryer lint, the broken toy, the baby stroller).   

There is no anger, frustration or dirty laundry here, rather those emotions are channeled or aestheticized into beauty.  Everyday refuse, or we might even say “trash,” is refashioned into fantasies of escape.  Clouds billow, flowers beckon, fences suggest roads to be forged, paths to take somewhere else. The lines are soft, and delicate, almost ephemeral--punctuated with a pink bow, or a red sun.  On closer look we see the intricacies at work, the patient eye for detail, handiwork, an homage to women’s close proximity to textiles and stitching the fabric of lives together. 

At the same time, these pieces encourage us to contemplate the necessity of blank space. They encourage us to take a breath.  Setting up some breathing room from the compressed spaces that congeal into mothers’ endless tasks and affective labors.  Seen in this way, these pieces help us to question the demand for a uniform and productive mom subjectivity, and enable us to luxuriate in the interstices between and across woman/worker/artist/mom. There is breathtaking beauty here that speaks to a broad audience, inviting all viewers to partake in this transformative work that constructs a future only a heartbeat away from yesterday’s trash.