Sit down with visual artist Danny Cole as he describes his most recent experience “A Battle for Harmony” and more.
When I connect on our call, I’m greeted by the warm and lively voice of one Danny Cole. After jubilantly sending me a photo of a sun-soaked beach marsh over which he currently presides, Cole explains that he’s decompressing with his team after a taxing, nonetheless rewarding event he hosted in Chelsea, New York the previous Saturday at Studio 525. Titled “A Battle for Harmony,” the experience tasked a team of 15 chefs to serve 208 meals and allow approximately 600 guests to take part in a multi-sensory, encompassing experience at the intersection of artistic medium, featuring Cole’s paintings and performance and head chef Jake Hetnarski’s cuisine.
Currently based in New York, visual artist Danny Cole hasn’t exceeded teenage years but can already boast (he wouldn’t though) a co-sign from Portugal. The Man as creative director, as well as collaboration with Cherry Glazerr. You’re as likely to find the young artist’s work on a main stage at Coachella as an LES sidewalk. His multifaceted talents have lent themselves to comparisons to icon Keith Haring, and deservedly so, gained him an audience in a myriad artistic communities, from fine art to indie rock. His work centers around human connection, self-discovery, and communal understanding. It’s personable and alien, abstract and specific, confusing and relatable. Cole is able to highlight the beautiful weirdness that lives inside each one of us.
Cole, 19 years of age, alongside Hetnarski and the rest of his creative team, have settled in idyllic Cape Cod (Cole spells out the specific locale: “T-R-U-R-O”) for a few days before embarking on the next project. Until then, Cole and I chat about “A Battle for Harmony,” his love for CAN, immaculately organized workspaces, his relationships with musicians, and transporting cacti on the subway.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you describe your most recent event?
The experience we just hosted was called “A Battle for Harmony.” When sharing a painting, I think it can be a very limited medium at times to just share imagery. You don’t always get as much of a voice. On top of that, there’s limitations to the ways people perceive paintings. I always make the comparison of when you hear a song or you go to a concert. Music has the ability to just overtake you. When you hear a song you have no choice but to experience it, but when you have a painting, you have to sit back and consciously think about it, and put a lot of energy into processing it. I wanted to share this story, the story that the painting depicted.
Jake and I met online, like most of my friends in New York. I moved to New York without knowing anyone, and the internet connected me with the whole scene. We started talking and we thought it would be interesting… food has that same power as music. When you taste something, you have no choice but to process that taste and to experience that taste. We took a story and we set off with the mission of “Can we tell this story, in addition to the painting, through taste?”
The turnout was pretty incredible. When you think about a lot of experiences that people go to, like concerts or clubs, a lot of it is more high energy. This was much more a night of sitting back and absorbing. There was a lot of listening that went on, and it wasn’t just people listening to me. You could scan the room and see that a lot of people were crying. We left a lot of time for people to talk amongst themselves, because when people have these really emotional experiences where you get to experience it all together, there’s something that bonds everyone involved. That’s what Welcome Creature is really all about. It’s about getting people together, and promoting and influencing a shared understanding, inducing a shared understanding, giving people the opportunity to consume art and to experience together in a way that has a focus on the self, not just the art that you’re consuming, not just the food that you’re eating. It’s the opportunity to reflect on, “How am I responding to this? How are we responding to this?” Being in it together.
Do you feel that social media and the internet affect the transience of visual art? How do you balance the benefits of the internet with its drawbacks?
We are living in a very surreal internet age. So much of our lives exists on the internet. It’s to the point where you see so many faces on the internet where you don’t even register that a face means a person. The easiest way to describe that for me is that it’s difficult to personalize and to humanize other people online. A focus on understanding the universal nature of the human emotional experience by being face to face with people and understanding, “Okay, I’m in this room with everyone. I’ve just experienced something that has taken me on this emotional rollercoaster. Everyone around me has experienced the same thing.” I think that has a huge humanizing nature to it, and it really ties people together. I think it’s like if you go through a near-death experience with someone else; there’s a bond that ties you together. The story was an emotionally heavy one for me especially. Based on people’s responses, it feels like people really did immerse themselves in that journey, and as a result, they really did get tied together. There’s a unique level of understanding when you have so many people thinking though the same medium. It’s not just everyone thinking—it’s everyone thinking through the Creature. Everybody becomes that same creature for a small amount of time. I believe that really fights against the impersonalization that this internet age fosters.
In a recent Welcome Creature film, you featured musicians Yeek, Raveena, and members of Inner Wave, among others, and you’ve worked closely as a creative director for Portugal. The Man in addition to collaboration with Cherry Glazerr. How do you cultivate relationships with musicians and other artists?
I’ve always felt very closely connected to music. I wish this wasn’t the case, but I have not felt too at home in the world of visual arts. I can’t help but feel like that world is living in the past. The creatives that have become the most supportive and most of a family for myself have primarily been musicians. Even though I feel like my primary medium is visual arts, I almost approach visual art much more like a musician would. I’m not hosting these quiet gallery shows. They’re more like a concert. I’ve met everyone on the internet. It’s safe to assume anyone you’ve around me, I’ve met through the internet.
Are you naturally drawn to musicians?
Music has been much more democratized, and there’s a greater freedom to it. With music, we’re in an age where it’s like, if you want to share something, share something. There are websites instead of distributors often times now. You have the freedom to do what you want—and honestly, social media has played a huge role in that too. Social media is one of the most democratizing things that’s ever happened to the arts. It gives everyone a voice. The freedom that I find in the musicians around me is inspiring, and I feel really understood when I’m around other creatives. When I speak to the musicians around me, I can tell that what they’re showing me is exactly what they want to be showing me, and I’d like to be out here doing the same.
In a recent interview Shia LaBeouf said, “transparency is the new punk rock.” I think that alludes to what you’re saying about musicians.
Hell yeah. I treat every single person the exact same, whether it’s day one meeting you or I’ve known you for a long time. I try to approach every conversation on the most human note I can without freaking out too much myself. You can never really find that common ground with another person unless you’re putting it all out on the table, and I think too often people are forced to transform themselves for their surroundings, and as a result they don’t get to experience their true selves and share their true selves. They don’t get to find that common ground with other people because nobody’s showing their true selves. Transparency is the new punk rock. I fuck with that a lot. I love that.
Talk about the physical space you create in—it seems to be prevalent in your identity and the relationships you have with those you collaborate with.
I live in the space I work in. I keep as few objects in my space as I possibly can. I don’t like too many things laying around me. To talk about my space, I’d have to talk about my routine. Before I go to bed, I do my skincare, I wash my face, I brush my teeth. Then I’ll clean my entire apartment. I’ll tuck the cushions into my couch, fold the blankets, make sure everything’s in place. That way, when I wake up in the morning, take a shower, get out, and walk into my main space, there’s nothing that catches me eye and needs to be handled first. The only thing left for my attention to go to is the stuff that’s in my head. In order to be able to keep everything the way I want it to be, it’s important to me to have as little as possible to handle. I get overwhelmed incredibly easily—not about projects, but about my space in particular. If something is out of space in my place I will not be able to think until that is resolved. I do not keep artwork that I have no made in my space. I listen to music all day, every moment that I’m awake, but to see visual art in my own space that has not been made by me influences me too hard, so I stay far away from the medium of visual arts when it comes to consumption.
What kind of music do you listen to when you’re working?
I listen to a lot of my friends’ music. I listen to a lot of avant-garde jazz, but I love jazz in general. I love Pharoah Sanders. I love Alice Coltrane. I love Inner Wave. I love CAN and I love Cortex. CAN and Cortex are two of my favorite bands. When I was working on this last painting, I was primarily listening to CAN, specifically the Damo Suzuki era, like Ege Bamayasi and Tago Mago. Damo Suzuki is an absolute legend to me. He brought this incredible freedom that seemed to seep out, as if it was trying to crawl out of his voice. It reminded me a lot of the rainbow that I was trying to convey in this painting [for “A Battle for Harmony”]. Damo Suzuki’s voice felt very true to that, so I found myself listening to a lot of CAN when working on this piece.
At one point you posted that you were selling all your paints and transitioning to a new process for your art. What sparked that change and how does your current process differ?
I didn’t actually sell them—I gave them all away. I had a few thousand dollars worth of the one kind of paint I used to use, Montana Liquid Acrylic. I love Montana Liquid Acrylic, but that paint is not opaque. A light color cannot cover a dark color. As a result, it made me rigid a lot of the time. I understood that there was no room to make a mistake. There was no going back. I would have to start the painting all over again. That was horrible. So I switched to an opaque acrylic. I did a painting, and I said, “Okay. This could be better. There are parts of this that could be improved.” Then I painted over the whole thing and started again. There are three paintings that are under the painting that I shared for the show. It felt amazing to be able to change it, to be able to alter aspects of it or even just redo it. I wish I could say, I know exactly how this is gonna look, down to the last bit, but as I’m painting, it’s a process and I’m learning about what I’m making. Sometimes you grow and you know there’s more to it, there’s more that I understand about it, there’s more that I want to convey. To be able to change it, to be able to have room to make mistakes is so important… It’s not even mistakes! It’s to adapt the new information that you’ve learned with the new knowledge that you’ve created.
Is making art what takes you away from the chaos of life, or do you ever find yourself so consumed by what you make that you need an escape from the art itself?
I don’t know what I’d be doing if I didn’t have the art that I’m making. I have a lot of difficulty at times communicating. To be able to process through my art has given me the opportunity to communicate. This is all I have.
Let’s talk about hair. You’ve done the shaved head and now you have longer hair, does your current hairstyle is indicate where you’re at in life?
Definitely. I was driving myself crazy for a while. Like really driving myself crazy. One time, I was trying to paint, and my hair kept falling in my face, and I couldn’t take it, so I just shaved my head. I grabbed buzzers and I shaved my head. My mom was like, “Oh, shit. He’s off the rails.” Next time I blow up and lose my mind, you’ll know. I’ll have a buzz cut.
What’s your preferred mode of transportation?
I carry insane shit on the subway. I carry all my canvases on the subway and they’re big. I brought the painting, which is six feet tall, to the show on the subway. I’ve brought six foot tall cacti on the subway. Everybody kind of looks at you—either they’re annoyed or they’re enjoying it. I’m like, “Listen, it’s gotta get where it’s going somehow!” There’a a subway for a reason! It’s not just for people—it’s for plants, too.
Learn more about Danny Cole and Welcome Creature at dannycole.co.
Cover image courtesy of Ant Soulo, from milk.xyz.