Working from The Lift Studios, a converted biscuit factory in the River Arts District, Daniel McClendon paints wild canvases of wild animals. From alligators to orangutans, his creatures explode off their surfaces in an expressionist riot of raw hues and jagged lines. As he prowls the wooden floors of the gallery, the artist explains that his process mirrors his product.
“I just need to get out of the way and let instinct drive the painting,” McClendon says. “The main reason animals feature in my work is because they’re these totems of intuition.”
It wasn’t always this way. McClendon is formally trained in an exacting realism, with a BFA from Western Michigan University, and he painted in that style full time when he first moved to Asheville in 2008. As he continued to work, however, he begin to feel that his toolkit of conventional representation was more of a hindrance to an authentic voice than a help.
Consumed by this internal conflict, McClendon actually quit painting entirely for a number of months — until March 21, 2011, at 3:59am. “It was like I identified everything I cared about at a garage sale and discarded everything else,” he says about his early-morning breakthrough. “It was a simplification that let me start to build and become more complicated in an entirely different way.”
Each of McClendon’s paintings now begins as a completely abstract canvas, marked by feeling in broad strokes of black on a white background. Once the piece reaches a certain density, the artist steps back and takes a holistic look at the lines, discovering elements that suggest a particular animal. He points to one work in progress featuring a circle with an attached upward swoop: a rhinoceros beetle to be.
Eyes and color and a bewildering array of arrows and zigzags come next, fleshing out the black-and-white backbone into a recognizable beast. “I go back and forth from referencing the animal and painting it as an abstract piece,” McClendon says. “It’s an environment that’s just right for discovery and evolution; there are lots of surprises.”
McClendon points out that the same could be said about Asheville itself. Having occupied The Lift Studios for six years, he’s seen the RAD grow from roughly 75 artists to the more than 220 that now work in the area. That influx of creativity has encouraged him to develop as a painter, and he even finds inspiration in the associated rise of art tourism.
“Unlike a lot of visual artists, I’m constantly interacting with my audience, having people comment and engage and articulate their feelings,” McClendon says. “In the RAD, people are here to see art — they’re not just walking into a gallery or studio to kill time before going to get dinner.”
Daniel McClendon Fine Art, 349 Depot St., River Arts District. For more information, call 269-267-4113 or see danielmcclendon.com.