The Science of Abstract Art with Daniel Stuelpnagel
One of the most incredible things about art is how it connects people.
This week we’re talking to Baltimore-based artist Daniel Stuelpnagel. Working abstractly with acrylics, he’s created over 850 pieces and participated in more than 100 exhibitions.
Stuelpnagel studied with Herb Jackson at Davidson College in North Carolina. He now works from a studio near Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Throughout his career, he has practiced philanthropy and donated some of his best works to causes and communities in need.
What led you to decide to be an artist? Was it something you knew from a very young age or did your passion develop over time? Tell us your story.
I decided to become an artist to discover all the things I never learned in school.
What led me to the decision was a combination of frustration with working an office job for eight years, mixed with a vision of a life in art. I’ve been painting for twenty years, and the past ten years with even more technology immersion. I create images in my paintings that evoke a neural network, or a surreal dream space, or an architectural vector space. So my broad interests in the sciences have informed several facets of the artwork I’ve been producing.
“I love being able to create original paintings that enable me to articulate a non-verbal conversation about science, tech, architecture, emotionality, and human psychology.“
I love how these themes relate to the ways in which we humans have adapted our brains to the latest tech toolsets of the new millennium.
Tech is a really new trend in our society that only goes back one century or so. We’re fostering so much change, yet always struggling massively to “keep up” with the intellectual and emotional and even physical challenges of tech.
I think if you’d ask twelve people about tech, you’d get twelve different answers. But all of them would say that they’re immersed in tech and their working lives are characterized by full days of interacting with computer systems.
So in my work as a counterpoint, I actually use kind of quaint, mid-century modern, “traditional” painting techniques and materials. But the hyper-stylized paintings I’ve been sinking my teeth into for the past two years are a synthesis of my own styles driven by influences from contemporary narrative surrealism, street art, and other movements.
So you can see my passion has developed over time. In my mind, the non-verbal nature of abstraction makes it a perfect arena for exploring intricate emotional, psychological and social forces.
Your process is unique. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Can you walk us through how you create your pieces?
I layer acrylic on wood panels and use tape to compose many layers of geometric structure. It delivers a collage-like effect but it’s all thin layers of paint. This sequential process is contemplative and also dynamic, it gives me a lot of room to experiment with color and the psychology of composition.
I’ve been sanding down the surface texture and then painting additional layers to yield some fascinating textural yet subtle effects. An interior designer purchased six paintings from me recently — she was thinking of photographing and enlarging the images, but as soon as she saw the originals, she said that the texture made such an impact, she would only buy the originals.
I usually work in series. Sometimes with a dozen or two squares of various sizes, but more recently a landscape format where the land mass is comprised of geometry implying a built environment. This inevitably shows the implications of climate change and the confrontation between human civilization and the natural world. It means the mood of some of my most recent paintings is joyful but tragic.
I’ve done about 850 artworks now. My artistic eye and decisiveness that I’ve nurtured for twenty years have brought me to a place where I actually trust a lot of my decisions and choices in the studio.
I feel really galvanized into action by the dynamic zeitgeist of the time that we’re living in. There’s no room for complacency and being prolific helps me grind under constant scrutiny without hesitation to turn things upside down when a new idea emerges.
Do you see technology changing the way we appreciate art?
Tech has absolutely redefined art and continues to expand the boundaries. It’s a force to be considered in every facet of the arts now.
For example, with the D Emptyspace app, I was skeptical at first, thinking “What does it do? Oh, it looks kind of simple.”
But after two days of using it to display and curate photos, I was totally hooked, and having a vision of this enormous virtual museum, or San Francisco gallery, or an art fair exhibition hall, or warehouse, or whatever, right?
It’s a kick in the ass for an artist to have access to tech that encourages you to take a fresh look at your photos of art and nature. It’s a great way to reframe a whole conceptual photo shoot, or storyboard, or take any kind of visual documents into a different scale and context.
People often label successful artists as ‘talented’. Do you feel like your art comes from a place of talent or hard work? Or do you see art like your TedX collection, always Under Construction?
Ah, for sure you can see both sides of this. On one hand, you have to consider the continuous nature of practice; some type of hard work intellectually and emotionally to figure out the central design principle to focus on. Building the physical skills, the craft and improv, and the techniques and processes of painting.
On the other hand to compare with talent… where does that come from?
I spent much of my school years daydreaming, so I guess being pensive and in solitude gave me a very vivid imagination. I also inherited a ton of intellectual and analytical talents from both my parents.
But that raw talent had nothing to do with painting until much later when I did decide to pursue it as a way to express myself.
Art really inspired and enabled me to travel more also, so that was super important in expanding my world view. I found it’s mostly persistence and determination. Which they call being stubborn when you’re a kid.
You often mention that you work on collections simultaneously, how does that affect your process? Do you consider if the artworks will fit together or do you let the moment guide you?
I guess it’s just like writing a book and having plenty of blank paper or a proper space to work in.
“We’re products of our choices, and by choosing to be prolific, I’ve certainly made some bad paintings, but I also have given myself room to pursue lots of exciting opportunities and variations.”
Some paintings want to spin off ideas for other new paintings, so there’s plenty of catalysts in the process. But it’s only later on that I look at them together and interpret the themes and implications.
When you work on series, the best work sometimes comes first, sometimes later, but invariably I enjoy the visual conversation and curatorially it gives me a lot to select from, which is helpful.
I would say the D Emptyspace app kind of takes this to a new level because it helps me take a fresh retrospective of some new work in the context of earlier work. The virtual galleries I’ve uploaded have given me a better sense of dynamic interplay, sparked fresh ideas to bring into the studio, and developed my ability to continually think about color and contrast. The app is a great theoretical workspace to analyze the visual characteristics of your photos in a new context.
How do you know when a work (or a collection) is finished? And do you have a favorite work?
Haha! I do have a ton of faves, almost every series happens because I keep working and feel inspired and encouraged by recent paintings that really took off! That’s another great reason to be as prolific as possible — you kind of have to be self-motivating.
I have a favorite painting from a recent show that is called “Nature Teaches Beasts To Know Their Friends.”
It’s a return to a dreamlike landscape with some quirks, beautifully saturated colors, and makes me think of a theatrical stage as the psychological arena of the mind for an AI algorithm or something; but it’s still about climate change, human nature, and the post-Anthropocene moment.
“I’ll say a piece is finished when I think it’s doing what I want it to do. When I feel the continuity between the process of creating it and the act of viewing it.”
It could be an abstract story but my imagination connects and enjoys exploring what’s there… it’s evocative. Also, it needs to be elegant and well-crafted, subtle, effervescent, or alternatively raw and dynamic and painterly.
If it has the “wow” factor I know it’s done, which is one reason I love exhibiting: It’s great to get direct feedback from people.
What happens before you share a new collection or open a new gallery? Is it something you enjoy?
I do enjoy it — it’s partly social immersion, part performance art and part trade show (in addition to all the artistry and business functionality behind the scenes).
I’ve done shows where we have plenty of lead time before the opening and many others where we’re always installing a day before or the day of the opening, so every experience is different. Before it opens there’s an exploration of the work in juxtaposition with the space and that’s an artistic process in itself.
Before any show opens I generally collaborate with a number of people, clarify the concept, and run down lots of checklists to make it happen. But it’s usually pretty improvisational and that keeps it exciting.
I love showing work in Washington, DC where there’s lots of wonderful architecture. Baltimore is famous for having tons of vacant warehouses and lots of room for alternative venues which tend to be really spacious with high ceilings. I install my work for corporate buyers in office spaces as well.
The title of this piece “Most Good Scientists Are Romantics, “ plays into some very deep subcontext. The point at which science and romanticism meet is fascinating, and to some, conflicting. What does it mean to you?
That title was a phrase I saw in a great book by Alanna Mitchell called The Spinning Magnet, it’s about possible shifts in the Earth’s magnetic poles.
It stayed with me, maybe it’s a deep dualism that is part of my world view; I think the age of supercomputing has forced many different scientific disciplines to work together and collaborate as never before and the results have been amazing.
So I think the romanticism is partly this moment of expansion for so many in the sciences that may have invested decades pursuing a particular narrow specialty, so in a sense, I think their optimism has been rewarded and I find that romantic.
This painting is pretty upbeat but still reflects a lot of consideration and discernment.
Navigating the art world can be baffling for artists, how has your time as a TedXJHU artist changed your career?
That particular experience two years ago was me getting to team up with a dozen students at Johns Hopkins University. They had so many great ideas, we did a collab for about two months where I came up with a large banner for the stage, a sculptural display installation for the atrium of the building, another dozen paintings and a wall collage, and four separate installations all for a one-day event. They had to provide, like, three dozen students to help install and load out everything!
I met so many international students, so I think it acquainted me in a fresh and direct way with the kind of energy level that makes a world-class artist.
Almost the greater challenge with navigating the art world is that we actually have to create it ourselves. So if it’s baffling, it takes us back to the studio and back to the process of self-examination, which brings us to create work that is so distinctive that the sentiments behind it are felt as universal.
It helps to discover a unique connection and find out who can really appreciate your work the more distinctive it is.
I find architects, designers, and corporate clients especially appreciate my paintings for the lengths I go to in order to create an aesthetic durability, and a piece that will continue to intrigue the eye for a lifetime, yet also rewards a quick glance with a clear feeling and unified aesthetic.
What advice would you give an aspiring artist who’s just getting started?
I’d say how important it is to find ways to contribute to the community. I’ve been doing philanthropy by choosing to donate some of my best work for charity benefit auctions since day one.
It’s been about fifty or more pieces so far, and it’s connected me to a global community of artists and philanthropists that made me realize I could have an immediate and continuous positive impact in the world.
You’re using D Emptyspace to curate galleries now. What do you think of it?
It’s like an ideal multi-million dollar museum space built in Minecraft. It’s so specific and useful yet so versatile and adaptable as a visualization tool.
It really has great implications and I believe this app could even inspire a whole new generation of curators.
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