This past summer I was able to meet Tara Daly, an artist from the AIR Database who was celebrating her first solo exhibition at Applied Contemporary in Oakland, CA. What started out as a broken conversation over a choppy zoom call, turned into an in-person walk and talk-through of Daly’s dynamic practice, showcased in her exhibition Fragile Failing Found.
Daly is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and works within different modes of contemporary craft; primarily ceramics, woven works, and paintings. Each technique has its own approach to physically translating her conceptions of existential, cultural, and ecocidal theories. “I think the figurative sculptures are cerebral, the craft-based works are emotional, and the paintings are aspirational,” Daly said as she glanced self-critically around the gallery. This statement guided my visual experience of Fragile Failing Found, as well as the following inquiries into Daly’s practice.
This exhibition really shows how your practice almost has different species of work within a shared conceptual genus. Do you work on multiple pieces at once or do you focus on a ceramic series then move on to painting, for example?
I’m typically working on several pieces and in divergent directions at the same time. Even within a single material - like clay - I traverse from figurative to abstract, from building solid to hollow coil or slab structure, to altered wheel-thrown forms. When I get curious about trying something new, I jump in blind. I am always branching out, pressing into new areas, trying to push the boundaries of what I did last, stretching my comfort zones. We’re meant to be multilingual and multi-skilled, engaged in lifetimes of learning across activities that are seasonal. The idea of the specialist is really kinda capitalistic and anti-utilitarian, very much tied to the conceits of “civilization.” Conceits I am questioning in the face of the sixth mass extinction caused by globalized markets, “civilization.” Healthy systems are diverse, redundant, and variable. Monocultures, on the other hand, are vulnerable and invite pestilence. That’s a permaculture worldview I try to adopt in my art-making practice where I can.
Unlike the majority of abstract work in this exhibition, your larger sculptural pieces are very referential. Could you talk a bit about what’s going on in Diana of Ephesus and the She-Wolf? Yes, I’d love to, although it’s a little challenging to answer this question without going into a rant. I titled the installation of the diptych ("Dianna of Ephesus" and "The She-Wolf and Her Fratricidal Pups") “The Holocene is Over, ” which is a quote from my friend and mentor Joe Brewer who wrote a book titled “The Design Pathway for Regenerating Earth.” As a pair, the sculptures tell a story of empire and extraction causing the ecocidal collapse of Earth’s life systems on a massive geological scale. The piece is intended as what Tyson Yunkaporta would call a “counter curse,” a term he coined for something which corrects the curses that result from “wrong story,” or bad thinking polluting our capacities for sensemaking. I thought, initially, that I was making an eco-feminist critique about how ecocide is made possible by subjugating and denying the “sacred feminine,” but that critique has expanded a little the more I play with it.
The Dianna of Ephesus' abundant breasts, like a cluster of grapes around her torso, make her an especially intriguing figure. She is nature's generosity and abundance embodied. In the way that trees produce far more fruit than needed to ensure their line survives, her fruits become gifts that create a community of birds, mushrooms, soil microbes and insects, local mammals, and other trees. This is what I understand Vandana Shiva to mean when she says “without gifts, there can be no society.” It is this wild way life expresses itself and supports the expression of more life that is so well symbolized by a cluster of breasts. There is also a theory by Gerard Seiterle, that suggests that since some versions of this Dianna of Ephesus have breasts without nipples, that they might be testicles instead. Interesting to consider. Context is always important, but be they mammary glands or castrated testicles, in all her iterations Dianna's gown is adorned by penned bulls and her head is often crowned with a tower. These symbolize the wealth of civilization: grains, defenses, domesticated livestock, amassed hoards of wealth, etc. I wanted to literally tie Dianna, and all she has come to mean to me, to the iconic sculpture of Romulus and Remus, the twin abandoned princes, suckling at the many breasts of the She-wolf. The sculpture that signifies the founding of the Roman Empire. Civilizations are dependent on nature’s wild generosity but are cursed to destroy it when engaging in systems of extraction. All roads may lead to Rome, but songlines and ley lines go elsewhere. There are alternatives. The delusion of superiority, progress, and inevitability is breaking down along with ecology.
I can definitely see that line of thinking in this piece, especially in considering the title, “The Holocene is Over.” I noticed that each object in this show is titled, many titles being quotes. What effect, if any, does that have on the object itself?
There is a part of me that just wants to go with “untitled” for everything, but a title is a great opportunity for gospel and I don’t want to waste it. There is such a dearth of political and social imagination in our conversations. We’re inundated with talking points and premade perspectives on ourselves, our politics, whose team we’re on. We all like to imagine ourselves as clever, but I know I’ve rarely if ever, had an original take in my life. Semantics can be a real trap, especially for monolingual people. People who are at least bi-lingual have at least two ways of understanding something, and multi-linguists get even more perspective. When I come across people whose thinking is outside of the box, or resonant with a kind of truth, I want to get that into the aggregate. Vandana Shiva is one of the most powerful of these types of thinkers. I learn so much from the way she lives and shares her life. Her stories reorient me toward a place of beauty and power. When people like her say something that stirs what feels like a resonant truth within me, I write it down and save the quotes as titles for my work. What began as a convenient replacement for an “untitled,” became odes to thoughts that can lead us into a livable future. We desperately need wisdom from life-renewing cultures and practices. We are connected to everything that is, was, and will be. If we are mature, we are responsible for all of life and it is responsible to us. When I hear people express that well, I want to share that in the same way, I want to share what I can express with my art.
Your figurative sculptures in conjunction with the abstract paintings, I think, really convey that idea of multiple ways of learning, understanding. What is your process for painting? How does your approach differ conceptually from your sculptural works?
When sculpting, I tend to have a plan or shape in mind before I start. When painting, I let the compositions emerge over time and through layers. My paintings are teaching me about being present and responding to what emerges with joy, patience, devotion, and faith. I know painters that think of painting as a dance with demons, for me it’s play. The compositions may look very controlled and strategic, but they’re not. The abstraction results in a mystic or spiritual feel. I appreciate that aspect about them and have been playing it up by adding moon shapes. I have some obvious devices: layers, drips, geometric shapes, and metal leaf as a final touch. I love the way the metal foils interact with different kinds of light. That variation in the kinds of light lends itself to a temporal connection to the painting's surroundings.
Your woven tapestries, like “‘Metaphors are the Language of Spirit’- Tyson Yunkaporta”, seem to attempt the same compositional elements as your paintings, but they almost have the opposite effect of the serene, meditative paintings. Can you unpack why you think that may be?
Well, that tapestry, in particular, is super unchill. It’s almost impossible to read as an entire composition. It's full of clashing color and energy. It’s almost hostile to look at, but it draws people right close to it, and once you’re within a foot or two of it, it starts to reveal areas of interest. Like the paintings, I began without a composition in mind. There is a cacophony of color sometimes within each work, and two cacophonies next to one another can almost cancel each other out. When there is too much of a thing, when it’s out of balance, it acts like pollution. When that happens within a painting, it’s super easy to change the composition entirely at any point. Not so with weaving, so the discord stays.
Can you talk about some of your biggest challenges as an artist? Either from your practice and/or from your professional career? Time, space, and materials. Getting all three at once can be nearly impossible in a culture that really does not value labor or creativity, let alone expression or craft. I sometimes struggle to allow myself to just be in the studio if I’m not working towards a deadline. It’s not that I lack discipline, it’s that I lack conviction in artmaking having listened too many times in my life to the “but what is your real job” kind of questioning. On the other hand, it feels like such a privilege to have a studio. I still think I need to earn it, and not waste it, or be more deserving of it. I have been at this thing, to the best of my ability, all my life, and I wasted a lot of time waiting for permission. You have to make your own way as an artist, and there is so little support for the majority of us. I have been working in the arts and arts services for almost three decades and I have seen and known, all kinds of artists and careers. No one gets anything without believing it’s for them, loving art, and making the decision to center art-making in their life. That for me has been the most radical and challenging thing; to re-center art-making in my life. It may not be self-sustaining in the ways I expected it to be, but I do believe that the support I’ve received comes from my decision to devote myself to my practice. Artmaking can be incredibly thankless work. I think every artist has been demoralized a time or two. We used to joke after graduating art school that if we could get an art lobotomy and find another way to live we’d do it. The greater challenge is to continue to make work, even when it feels pointless. And, it’s part of the gig to get the work out into the world. That requires good relationships. Sometimes it requires asking for help, and that is really hard for me to do.
How have the residencies you’ve attended affect you and your work? Residencies solve the time, space materials, and faith equation - at least for the time you’re there. And, importantly, there is the recognition that you may be onto something worth exploring in a supportive environment where you’re not treated not as a “student” but expected to be great, to know what you’re about. When we expect and look for greatness in one another, the world can receive our best. I might bring my mental/personal baggage to a residency, but the circumstantial baggage stays behind. Residencies are incredibly fertile places, time functions differently in residence. Concentration and connection expand in good ways. Each residency I’ve had the pleasure of attending has generated different bodies of work. The setting, the facilities, the pace, the timing, the vibe of a residency all affect the works made there. I get excited about making at least one new connection, staying in touch, and supporting one another’s practice. So, the positive effects are multiple: new work, sometimes breakthrough or experimental work, new relationships, and validation.