Organic and Plastic: Dana Lynn Harper in the StudioApril 29, 2016
In the Ceramics Studio, Dana Lynn Harper creates an ecosystem. Porous, skeletal forms modeled after single-celled algae called diatoms gather and crowd around the hand-building table. Dull spikes rise up like crowns on some, while others have thick coils that wrap around their stomachs like belts. Each biomorphic sculpture is individually crafted, and together they form a growing, living alien landscape.
“I want everything that I make to feel alive,” says Dana. “I want it to feel like you’re walking into another world.”
A multimedia sculptural artist, Dana makes curious objects and installations that combine the abstract sculpture pioneered by artists like Lynda Benglis and Yayoi Kusama with the bright, unnatural colors and assemblage sensibility of those like Jessica Stockholder. Dana has worked with diatom imagery before; using polymer clay, resin, and found materials, she created hundreds of tiny creatures. As a recipient of our NEA Studio Residency Grant, she came to WSW to scale up these familiar forms using an unfamiliar medium: stoneware clay. At first, Dana struggled to make these static ceramic objects, each about a foot tall, feel active. But their veiny, porous bodies give the illusion of growth, and with four pointed legs attached to their bodies, the creatures suggest movement, like they could run away if someone got too close.
“I’m interested in potential,” says Dana, who hides the materiality of her objects under thick layers of acrylic and resin. “I’ve found the work to be less about celebrating a certain material, and more about discovering what a material can do for me.”
The materials Dana works with across her practice—previously including flagging tape, found wood, glitter, puffy paint, and plaster—present a personal challenge to see how far she can push things away from their intended purpose. With her clay creatures, Dana doesn’t want viewers to bring their own preconceived notions about ceramics to the work, but rather to discover something completely new.
To that end, Dana doesn’t glaze her sculptures after firing them, but instead paints them with acrylics. Once the sculptures are painted, Dana will coat her creatures in resin to add an unnatural sheen, giving them the look of hard candy or tinker toys. Though she didn’t add color to her pieces during her residency, she’ll soon make her ceramic organisms feel even more surreal with hues from her signature palette of bright pastels and neons. There’s only one exception: “I stay away from the color green because it makes them too real, too natural, too of this world,” says Dana. “Green isn’t far enough from reality.”
After spending time with each of Dana’s pieces, they begin to feel less like sculptures and more like pets—pets that are both alien and familiar, organic and plastic, natural and unnatural. In this way, Dana’s sculptures evoke a sense of childhood wonder and curiosity. She is inspired heavily by the playfulness of the 1980s, particularly the Italian design and architecture firm Memphis Group, known for their clashing colors, blocky shapes, and loud patterns.
“I’m interested in pure play,” she says. “I want the viewer to feel like they’re in a constant state of discovery, trying to figure out what these objects are, where they came from, and why they’re here.”
And like several emerging young artists—such as Dan Lam and Louise Zhang, whose globby, dripping, vibrant sculptures are both alluring and repellent—Dana’s work operates in the space between sweet and strange. “Every time I make something, I wonder if my mom would think it’s crazy. If the answer is yes, I know I’m on the right track,” Dana says, smiling. “I hope my work will help people appreciate the weirdness in the world around them.”
Dana Lynn Harper is a multimedia sculptural artist living and working in Columbus, OH. She has a BFA from Ohio State University and an MFA in Sculpture from Penn State University. You can find more of Dana’s work by visiting her website danalynnharper.com and check out more images from her residency on our Flickr.