Constructed Wilderness: Cecilia Danell

Painter Cecilia Dannell, Photo by Conor Horgan

Cecilia Danell is a Swedish painter based in Galway. Cecilia graduated from the same Honours Degree in Fine Art (Painting) in GMIT that I studied just before I started there. That is important to me because Cecilia was one of the first artists that I was aware of that had taken a similar education path to myself and was making a name for herself. Seeing her succeed was hugely motivating to me because I felt it reinforced and validated some of the choices I had made. Much like when I discover an artist has a connection to Sligo or Braintree, I get a rush when I discover an artist has studied the same course as me! Cecilia was so generous in this interview, so much so that it was extremely hard to narrow down the final text. There was a lot of deliberation of what to keep and what to take out! I have gained such insight into her practice, and I hope you find it equally illuminating

I feel the best place to start is with is a term that I have seen you use when describing your work: “Constructed wilderness.”

Yeah, because I am very interested in this idea of the romanticist trope of the wilderness as being something that we all strive for. You know? The original context of where we are from. But nowadays, what we might perceive as wilderness in a photograph or in a painting is actually just someone’s back yard! Basically, a lot of times when I am painting, I’m just searching for the different things in the landscape that can disrupt that notion, like remnants of human activity and hunters’ blinds, or just bits and pieces that can disrupt that whole idea of wilderness.

I remember I was in Norway for a residency, and I was painting the Norwegian scenery. The paintings looked as if they were right out in the wilderness, with their mountains and valleys and all that kind of stuff, but they were actually just the view from directly behind the residency centre where I was staying. It was right at the back of a little town, so it wasn’t really the wilderness, it was managed forestry. Still, depending on how you framed it or how you took the picture you worked from, you could stage it so that it looked like the wilderness. If you took the picture from the opposite direction you would have a view of the town, so I was very interested in how we construct narratives. For me, painting is not like a documentary. A painting depends on how the painter decides to frame it or how it’s presented, so I think a lot of my work is drawing on inspiration from theatre sets and constructed things in landscape and stuff like that.

This Blue is Sky Wide, (2016), oil and acrylics on canvas, 137×188 cm

I heard that you make journals as research for your paintings. Could you talk about that?

Basically, my research journal is for when I go over to Sweden. When I do research in nature that leads to the paintings, I often go on walks. While I am doing that, I make maps and write notes on how I felt that day and what the walk was like. Some painters do little studies in preparation for painting, but I don’t usually do that. I find it doesn’t help me. My preference is to work stuff out on the canvas. Because my painting scale is so big, the marks I make in the sketchbook would be a completely different gesture to what I do on the canvas anyway. My journal is mainly little thoughts, and notes. Every few months I tend to write a journal entry about how a particular work is going and concerns I have, so it’s more collecting little ideas.

Have you thought about presenting the journals with the paintings?

Because my work is so staged, I’ve always felt that I don’t think it’s that important to pinpoint exactly where something was made, because it’s not documentary. In the journal, I might have all these maps that pinpoint my walks, and different locations paintings are based on. I don’t feel that it adds that much to the viewing experience. If they have never been there and they don’t know the place, is it essential to see exactly where I was when it was made? If they don’t have the full understanding of that place and they only see the abstract map or snippets of text, are they going to get the understanding of that place? I don’t think they would. In that sense, it’s more for myself, but I tend to show it to people who might be writing about my work. Sarah Searson wrote a text about my most recent exhibition. I showed her snippets of the diary, the process, stuff like that. She referenced some of that in her text. I often talk about it, but I don’t really feel that it is necessary to show the whole thing because again, I don’t see my painting as documentary.

Example of Cecilia Danell Journal

Your paintings are predominantly of Scandinavian landscape. How did that come about?

It’s funny actually you bring that up, I had a conversation about this when I was in Paris on residency. Each morning, most of us had breakfast together, and I was talking to Olwen Fouéré, the actor/director. We were talking about the idea of landscape and place and how people can identify with different kinds of terrain, and I think what it boils down to for me is that I grew up in the countryside in Sweden and spent a lot of time in its forest landscape. I think depending on where you grew up, that place can kind of resonate with you, because when I was talking about this with Olwen, she said that she is from Connemara, and her childhood would have consisted of vast open spaces; when she is in a forest she gets claustrophobic, because she needs that space and to have a clear view of the area around her. Whereas when I am in an area that is too open, I feel put upon, I almost feel like I need that shelter of the woods. For me, forests are almost enveloping or nurturing because I have grown up with that kind of landscape. Even though it is strange in some ways, given that I have lived in Ireland for 16 years. I think it is also the fact that I live in Galway City that I don’t really get out and into the Irish landscape, and I don’t drive, so I don’t go into Irish nature that much other than what is in close proximity to Galway City. It’s like something from the forest landscape has imprinted in me somehow. It was most interesting hearing Olwen say something similar about open spaces.

I Seek the Gold of Time. (2019), Oil and acrylics on canvas, 160×130 cm

When I return to Sweden, I try to not get trapped in the idea of nostalgia because I don’t want my paintings to be nostalgic renderings. The paintings are what I walk and experience now. I’m not looking back at childhood photos and trying to paint them now. I am very aware of the fact that I am translating an experience that I am having now, but it is in a place that I am very familiar with.

Now would be a good time to talk about your approach to painting in the studio.

Cecilia Danell in the studio, Working on Make the Darkness Shine

I work with a large canvas, in the studio with a printout of a photograph that I have taken myself, of places I have been. I refer to that, but I print it relatively small, so you can’t really get the minute details. I never do grid systems or projections or anything like that. I always draw the image quite loosely, entirely freehand on the canvas first. When I paint, I allow for drips and the looseness of acrylic to create a framework for the oil paint. Even though a photograph is referenced, it is never a complete rendering. It’s not like I draw it up like a complete drawing and refer to it.

Studio July 2020. Working on Make the Darkness Shine

What do you want the viewer to get out of the work?

I set a Bait for the Unknown Installation shot Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, 2020

I think where the viewer is in a space is something that I am always conscious of when I am painting. I am standing when I work, ‘cos the paintings are so large. I’m always moving back and forth within the studio when I am painting. I always make sure that I step back to see if something properly works from a distance, making sure that I still have something I feel is exciting, both from a distance and up close. I suppose it is the same when I go to a gallery myself as a painter; I always go and scrutinize details in a painting, but I also step back and look properly, so I want people to have a similar kind of experience. Sometimes I can get disappointed by a painting I’ve previously seen online. It is great when you see it on Instagram, but when you go check it out in a gallery it is really flat or doesn’t do anything when you see it in real life. I always think a painting should work on multiple levels. There should be something interesting to see if people go up really close or step back. That is what I try and achieve, anyway.

Hinterland, (2019), oil and acrylics on canvas, 110×140 cm
Hinterland, detail

So scale ties into that?

I think for myself when I am painting in a large scale, it is interesting to me because it is almost like I am there in real life, it’s like I can step into the painting in my mind. I am interested in specific areas within the work where interesting things happen. If you look at them zoomed-in, you see something that is abstract. The painting that you see when you take a step back, it seems more almost photorealistic compared to what you see when you look up close. I like that push and pull, because a lot of people who don’t see my paintings in real life, when they see a really small photograph it can look like it is way more photorealistic than it really is. And when they come up to see it, they notice that it is quite abstracted in parts. I love being able to play with paint and not just be rendering a photo perfectly, but rather going with the different aspects of oil paint. Oil paint has distinct qualities, so that makes it interesting for me.

You don’t make many small-scale landscapes. Why is that?

I suppose I’m not someone who enjoys too much teeny, tiny detail. I love working in such a way that I have to use my whole body when painting. And being gestural, and I suppose when I’m doing the drippy kind of acrylic, because of the velocity of the acrylic paint, a drip will always be kind of the same width; even if you were doing drips on a tiny canvas, it would be really, really large in comparison to everything else. In contrast, if I work on a large canvas, I can play around a bit more with different types of paint application. Stuff like that is why the most interesting format is working large.  I find most of the time when I am working on oil paintings, specifically when I am making small works, I don’t make the landscapes. I usually make kind of close-ups of various things in the landscape.

Birch, (2018), oil on canvas, 27×35 cm

I always find with oil paints specifically that it becomes very finicky and minute for me when I try and work too small. It is an entirely different method of applying the paint, and it feels relatively restrained. I still want to make painterly gestures even on a small scale, and for that it is better to work with more zoomed-in areas. Still, they would be different now. I have been doing landscapes as the tiniest watercolours during the lockdown when I couldn’t get into the studio. It’s a different medium, with another way of painting, but I like to be able to use gestures and things like that when possible.

Notebook watercolour 10th May 2020
Giant Hogweed, (2019), mix-media

Sculptures are something I make quite continuously. Not all the time, as they tend to be made to have conversations with the paintings. They are meant to be paired with the paintings in the vicinity that are dealing with similar scope and subject matter, but the sculptures are always a bit more abstracted in a sense. They’re not made to be overly realistic. They are more like theatre props, stylized kind of gestures. To be honest, I don’t consider myself a sculptor. At least not in the typical tradition. All sculptures I make are out of very mundane materials; some of them are fabrics, dowels and bits and pieces I find in DIY shops. So, the sculptures are more ephemeral. I would say painting will always be the main thing; the other practices complement my work.

I set a Bait for the Unknown Installation shot Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, 2020

In other interviews you have mentioned that you want to draw attention to the process of creating. Could you talk a bit about that?

Yeah, it has been something I’ve been interested in. I can trace it back to third year in college. I’ve always been very interested in the process and the layering of experience and how one work leads to the next. And I often don’t know what I’m making from the get-go, but one piece informs the next. I always think in my work I’ve been trying to reference the process when I’m painting; you can often trace the process of the painting by looking at the edges. You can see the layering on the canvas, so I’ve always been interested in leaving those clues in the work.

I often use complementary colours and colours that aren’t actually there. I try and find a balance so nothing stands out too much unduly, and I think a lot of times when I work from photographs, I’m very interested in aspects of the photographic print that you don’t have in real life. For example, sometimes when you take a photo of the shadow area, that shadow can look purple almost, because of the way the camera translates it, or if you look at tree branches against sky, you might get a blue border between the branches and the sky itself, and those kinds of things only happen because of the way the photograph renders it. Those are the things that I draw inspiration from, another source for me, looking at the unreality of the photographic image while I work. I’m still always very concerned that I want them to be finished pieces, and I don’t want to show work that isn’t completed. I like the process of making to show through a completed piece.

I always like my work to function on different levels, depending on the viewer’s own experience. I think that someone should be able to come in and see my work and just take it on face value and enjoy looking at it. You can also have someone who is a little bit more clued in, who wants to go up close to the paintings and understand them more. Because I tend to read quite a lot, there is a certain theoretical underpinning to some of my work, but I don’t necessarily feel that every viewer needs to know all of that. Whereas if someone does, it adds an extra layer. I always find it interesting that people of all ages have different knowledge bases; they can take many different things from the work.

You can find out more about Cecilia Danell’s work through her Instagram page, artist page on the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery website and Cecilia’s own website, links below

thank you, Anne James for your work editing

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