One of Dan Lam's "Drip" paintings. Photo by Catherine Downes.

Visual Arts

Dan Lam’s Squishes, Drips, and Blobs

A Q&A with the Dallas artist, whose strange and colorful work is featured in a local exhibition, Miley Cyrus' house, and soon, galleries around the world.

In the last couple years, Dallas artist Dan Lam’s strange and beautiful sculptures have taken the art world by storm, landing everywhere from Miley Cyrus’ home gallery to the Public Trust, where Lam’s work is on view through the 25th. After that, she has a show in a new locale every month — from New York to Germany to San Francisco to Seattle — until the fall. We caught up with Lam in the calm before the storm to learn a bit more about the artist and her fascinating work.

Do you make your sculptures with the intention that people could be able to touch and interact with them?

The thing that interests me about that is that since I started working with this material, people have always asked: ‘Can I touch it?’ That’s been a common thread for the work the past few years. Now that I’m presenting them to the world — they’re not just in my studio anymore, they’re in galleries — seeing people’s reactions only confirms that there’s something about these that make people have to touch them. And I love that, because it’s in an art gallery, you can’t.

And what’s the best is actually seeing parents with their kids and the kids are automatically like, ‘Let me touch!’ and the parents have to be like, ‘No, no, no, we’re in an art gallery.’ So there’s something in that interaction-experience that I find super interesting. I’m aiming at trying to play that up more, playing with that idea more. Lately I’ve been working with thermochromic color changing, heat sensitive paints. The idea is that if people were allowed to touch them then the piece would react from your touch. Or, the idea that people would know that they would react, but then they can’t touch.

To answer your question, it’s kind of both. I want them to touch, but I also don’t.

How did the Drip sculptures come about? It almost seems like they grew out of your earlier paintings.

The way I work is very organic in how things develop, so when people ask what’s next, it depends on the process for me…The forms themselves, it’s like they’re things, and they’re growing, and I’m there to help them along. My work with the polyurethane material started in grad school. I was making really large works, focusing on the materiality of the polyurethane foam and what I could to do manipulate the foam. It didn’t make sense to take something so large I was working on and try to make it small, so I had to work through ‘What can I do to make this make sense?’

Then, right before we moved to Dallas, the first drip happened. It was super exciting. ‘Like, oh my gosh, I think this is…’ When I first made it, I could feel it. This is the next direction. 

A new work in progress. Photo by Natalie Gempel.
A new work in progress. Photo by Natalie Gempel.

The drip sculptures are very lifelike, almost like little creatures or characters. Do you think of them in that way when you create them?

While I’m making them I don’t think, ‘This is a little creature,’ but after I make them they definitely take on those qualities. Especially when I put a show together and I see them all together, that’s when I’m like ‘Oh, this one has this personality and it relates to this one.’ That’s more of an after thing. I think if I thought about that too much when I made them they would look pretty different.

Some of your latest sculptures are covered in crystals–what was the inspiration behind that?

I think of them as how they relate to the human body, when it comes to ideas of beauty and what that means. The spikes started as a way of enhancing this form. The form itself can be kind of ugly and gross — it looks like it’s melting and slimy — so the spikes act as this colorful, beautiful thing that attracts you to the piece. It either highlights or hides or emphasizes, much like how makeup and clothing and jewelry hide or emphasize features on our own bodies. So, I thought ‘What else do we do?’ The rhinestones just clicked.

I think of pageantry, like beauty pageants or bodybuilding competitions, or even prom. Any time anyone wants to be noticed, it’s sparkles. Rhinestones and sparkles and glitter. So that’s how those started.

Do you like being an artist in Dallas?

I do. People ask me all the time when I go other places, ‘Why are you in Dallas?’ I think Dallas, especially where it’s at right now with its arts scene, is a really good place to be. I can be part of the community more, because it’s growing and because it’s a little bit smaller. It’s not New York, it’s not LA. I can interact with a lot more artists.

I think Dallas has been very supportive. I’ve had a lot of people who are proud that I’m from here, and that I’m an artist who’s successful and repping Dallas. Other artists have been very supportive. I haven’t felt any animosity. There’s a lot of good shows here, too. It’s not like there’s a lack of art shows. The museums are great, the galleries are great, there’s the Dallas Art Fair, which is super cool.

What are a few things that inspire you?

I love hiking and nature. That’s probably my most direct source of inspiration. When I lived in Arizona we would hike in Arizona, and Utah, and New Mexico. In those parts of the country there’s not a lot of foliage, so you can see the earth. And one thing I like about that is that you can see, ‘that’s where water eroded away that wall,’ and that shows me how things have changed, and how things have built up naturally. So I take that, and I bring it into the studio, and do my process in a similar way. I can help guide things, I can help make things happen, but things happen on their own. There’s this balance of nature and this organic-ness, and this quality that I take into the studio and it informs my work.

Looking at art and definitely talking to other artists–just the energy that’s there, that’s inspiring. That makes me excited to be in the studio and to know that other artists are doing the same thing and we’re kind of doing it together, but alone.