Dani Tull: Rivers of Color, Memory and Language

Dani Tull, Photo Credit Gary Brewer

Dani Tull: Rivers of Color, Memory and Language

…he often leans back and closes his eyes over a line he is reading, and its meaning spreads through his blood.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Written by Gary Brewer
We live our lives in a vast river of phenomena, a shifting sequence of moments that change and adapt through time. Artists seek to create new forms of language to capture a fleeting image of our collective experience- a reflection of this moment in time. Language is a metaphysical medium that links us together: our stories, myths and symbolic forms expressed in word, sound, song, images, and dance. Our cultural values are defined and reflected in these art forms.

“Life is short, and art long” and in the deep currents of our collective memory, from the swirling eddy of one’s imagination, each artist adds to the river of metaphors: the history of consciousness that art contains.

When I visited the studio of Dani Tull, I asked him what he was doing: what was the ethos behind his work? “My primary interests are in the direct experience of making the work. I love to paint and I have a strong work ethos, so I have decidedly set myself up to make paintings that require my time and attention. I am also interested in the process of problem solving and finding unexpected solutions to interesting questions… although not the ‘perfect’ solutions- more like the practice of balancing stones. As a painter, I do not think of my work as ‘my work’, rather this is ‘our work’; this is a shared experience we are having as artists. I’m always aware that I am in conversation with the art that was made before me, the work of my contemporaries and the artists after my time.”

Indeed, his family is filled with its own history of creativity, one that introduced Tull to painting while he was still an infant. “I come from a family of painters and writers. Throughout my childhood there was always a studio or corner of the house with easels, brushes, paint and art supplies, so I began painting at a very young age.”

Tull’s grandparents were pre-beat generation “Bohemians”; his uncle Neeli Cherkovski- a Bay Area beat poet; his great-uncle, painter Herman Cherry, opened an artist-run gallery in the small mezzanine of the Stanley Rose bookshop near Hollywood and Vine where he exhibited friends Fletcher Martin, Lorser Feitelson, Helen Lundeberg, Reuben Kadish and Philip Guston (then Philip Goldstein). 

The range of interests and art forms that Tull explores are in part a reflection of this rich legacy of generations of creativity in his family. Some of these elements became aspects of his current works. A roll of old canvas that his grandfather gave him, which he rolled up and stored for many years like a precious object, is used in one of his current paintings. The raw canvas is a layer in the pentimento of his family history. On one passage of colors: a fluid movement of pen-stripped lines; he uses the hues from a painting by his father from the 1970’s. It is as though memories are embedded in objects and in colors, which Tull then uses in his paintings to add another subjective layer to the work.

We spoke for a long time about the many different modalities that he works in: writing, music, painting, drawing, sculpture, and installation. All are a part of his search for novel experiences, experiences that touch upon the spiritual nature of art as a practice grounded in the phenomenology of deeply experiencing one’s feelings and emotions.

His current paintings use several different approaches to create the work. He begins with drawing. In a sketchbook he works out hundreds of variations of the compositions that inhabit his paintings. In these drawings the interplay is a dramatic balance between the forms; supporting each other, pushing against each other, navigating their shared space in a search for equilibrium. They respond to gravity, and the weight of their presence in the frame is a key player in these subtle compositions. Once a design is resolved, he then works on the canvas, laying it on the floor and employing pouring techniques to create fields of spontaneous abstraction. Some are random; a few were first used as drop clothes capturing a record of his work in the spills and splashes of paint from earlier pieces. On others, Tull is more intentional, working like a Japanese Sansui or Sumi ink painter seeking to create fluid passages of paint that suggest a landscape. On top of these, he then uses gesso to cover the areas where the brilliant rivers and ribbons of pinstriped color will appear. But before he lays down the colors he writes words by hand: lines from poems that he loves or that he has written. Some are quotes that are important to him or personal thoughts that he has collected; for example a small painting on an easel that he is working on has a recent poem by a Ukrainian poet (Serhyi Zhadan). The flow of words follow the path the stripes of color will take. They are hidden, tucked away like a talisman, but they resonate in Tull’s imagination, and the intention itself is enough to add another layer of meaning to the paintings.

The works are beautiful; the rivers of color bend and curve, finding their balance and purpose through an intuitive sensitivity to their chromatic interplay. The backgrounds alternate between poured fields of paint on raw linen, to flat even areas of color, whose weight and hue delicately interact with the radiant color lines. Each band of color creates a musical interplay of chromatic notes. They exude a vibrant beauty that creates a synesthesia-like response, the color energy feeling like musical chords.

These works echo off of many different cultural expressions. There is a connection to the color field painters such as Gene Davis, whose striped paintings are suggested in Tull’s stripes of radiant color, or the poured fields of paint that bring Helen Frankenthaler to mind. One can also feel a connection to psychedelic art of the 1960’s as well as Huichol Yarn paintings of Northern Mexico, where the designs and patterns and the radiant use of colors, are deeply connected to their use of Peyote to induce visions in their religious rituals.

We spoke about this and Tull said, “At first glance, my paintings might be seen as ‘Abstract Paintings’, but I like to think of my paintings as ‘narrative abstraction’- something is occurring and being played out. Some of the colors I use are colors that are from personal recollections, memories that I don’t have a photo of. For example, in this painting here, there is a band of radiant reds, oranges and magentas; these are the colors from a particular sunset that I remembered from a trip years ago. And this band of colors are from when my daughter dyed her hair these hues of brilliant pink fading to blond and deep brown… and this stream uses all of the colors from a recent still life painting my mother made combined with the colors of her father’s/ my grandfather’s flannel shirt. I think of the passages of paint as streams and rivers, and each one like a figure engaging in life’s drama and natural processes- interacting with each other while always striving for balance and arching against collapse.”

These are fearless paintings. Tull is not afraid to express sincerity and to expose vulnerable emotions; to acknowledge the sacredness of life and the power that we have to continually grow and change through living deeply. His paintings exude a playful warmth and an Epicurean sense of curiosity and pleasure in his pursuit of exploring the mystery of our consciousness.  

Dani Tull embarks on a journey, following the path of his intuition and the web-like constellation of histories and memories that have shaped his life. He is in search of novel experiences that open the door to new language forms, synthesizing his many forms of expression to find a dynamic equilibrium within our world.

There is an energy to these paintings that radiate a deep spiritual desire: they are poetic and seductive: each one a personal epiphany where histories merge into streams of thought and emotion, expressed in musical chords shimmering in fields of possibility.

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