Danny McDonald

"You know that story about the Monkey Paw?"
Interview by Asher Penn
Photography by Rosalie Knox

Danny With Troll & Rev Jen Trading Cards, 199?. Photo: Rosalie Knox

Since moving to New York in 1989, Danny McDonald has functioned in a spectrum of ways within the Art World: From joining Art Club 2000, his position managing the influential gallery American Fine Arts until it's close, his mysterious jewelry line Mended Veil, and his recent dioramic sculptures which were featured in 2010's Whitney Biennale. Through these overlapping career transitions, McDonald's creative labor has quietly maintained an honesty and integrity on a social and economic scale: a true anomaly within the unregulated market of the Art World.

Where are you from?
I’m from LA.
You moved to New York for Cooper Union?
I moved here in 1989.
What was Cooper Union like?
It was really great. The school is based on the Bauhaus model, so the first year you have to do basic things that everybody has to take. There’s no majors declared. It’s almost like a de-programming process. It was really good for me because by the time I had graduated from high school, this arts high school, I had developed a particular style of working. I had done a lot of work and shown my work and won awards and sold a bunch of stuff.
Were you a teen art star?
Not an art star by any means but I had done a real body of work. At Cooper it was good for me to break that down and get re-educated.
What was the work you were doing in LA like?
The work was assemblage a with the French pronunciation. In a way its very mechanical, like the work I do now.
Remind me what assemblage is?
It’s found object art, when all the parts are subsumed into the whole. Like Joseph Cornell or George Herms.
Were your parents involved in the arts at all?
No, but I lived with my brother when I was in high school. I lived in this old house with a bunch of arts center students and then I went to LA county college for the arts which was like a college campus. There were great teachers there. I guess my early development as an artist was that I had really good opportunities to study with good people. 
So you were going to art school and hanging out with art students, right? That sounds cool.
I was a major nerd. I also didn’t know how to drive, which basically made me a shut in. I would make art on the floor in my place. At the time I lived with my brother in an old house in Pasadena.

McDonald's Studio, 2009. Photo: Rosalie Knox

Did going to the art school help you get into Cooper?
I don’t think that it was a foregone conclusion. I got an early admission because one of the portfolio reviewers had come by from Cooper and I didn’t apply to any other schools. It was incredibly cocky. I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t get into Cooper because I had no other plan and no money.
How did you get involved in Art Club 2000?
Art Club 2000 had started before I graduated from college. Two of my friends Patterson Beckwith and Craig Wadlin were interning at AFA (American Fine Arts.) At this point in the history of AFA a lot of artists had left the gallery, the economy had collapsed, galleries were closing…
How many years into AFA was this?
Well Colin would say “Whenever you start counting,” but some iteration of AFA had been around since 1986. He had a lot of success in ’89 and ‘90 to but Colin’s idea of what should happen and where a lot of artists wanted to go with their art wasn’t the same. I think he was looking to do something different. On some level Art Club 2000 was like a “fuck you” to what he saw as careerism.He wanted to see what would happen if he took some young people who didn’t have much to lose and put them in the position of “lets make a show and lets talk about it.” He got the idea to give Craig and Patterson a show, but then thought it might be interesting if more people were involved. So he said “why don’t you guys bring some friends,” the limit being seven people. Craig and Patterson chose some friends which included myself and other people.
Did Art Club 2000 have a model at the beginning? Reference points?
I think we started with an idea of other collaboratives that existed but there was certainly no serious attempt to be like “we wanna be like this or that.” We were involved to some degree with parody on every level.The main thing with Colin was that he didn’t want to see our work. He wanted to create a discursive project where we would talk about stuff for almost a year before we would figure out what the show would be about. We had weekly meetings and we would talk about things we’d seen and shows, there would be speakers that would come in. Colin was using the Socratic method: “Why make an exhibition, what is this place, what is a gallery, how can this be?”

Art Club 2000, Untitled (Sears Portrait Center #2), 1992

It sounds exhausting.
It was. I think for Colin it was a chance to give us some information that we wouldn’t have had or would have take us longer to get... How the art world functions, and art doesn’t function and how exhibitions are made and why they’re made and how the works are collected. How media reception of an artwork can change its meaning. All this stuff that most kids getting out of school... it would take them a while to figure out. He wanted to see what would happen if that information was brought to the table earlier... and to do it in a way where in the end it was a collaborative work. It wasn’t like you had everything to lose if it completely failed. There was also no expectation of ever selling anything. We certainly toyed with the idea of “lets make a work that will sell,” that was a subject of conversation and how to do that. Mostly it was about trying to frustrate whatever normal impulses there were for making art and figure out what was maybe latent or hidden, just under the surface.I know that colin had his work cut out with us. Everybody had the same background. We were all just out of school or still in school so we had read certain things and had a certain knowledge of our own, but Colin was a fucking encyclopedia. He knew a lot and he had to bring the class up to speed. It wasn’t pedagogical. It was definitely torture though, he would definitely steer us away from certain impulses.
What would be a typical meeting?
There was this one memorable meeting where Colin was like “this is going to be a working meeting” and we helped to move the gallery from the next gallery space from 40 Wooster to 22 Wooster. At night. Rolling copy machines down the street.
Why at night?
Because he was escaping from the lease.

Art Club 2000, Untitled (Individuals of Style Portrait Center/ Artforum CDL Gap Ad),1993. Image courtesy The Estate of Colin de Land

What was Art Club 2000’s first show about?
It was about The Gap. At the time The Gap had an advertising campaign called The Individuals of Style, which used a lot of artists and actors and musicians. Annie Leibowitz was one of the photographers, and Cindy Sherman eventually did one. They were these beautiful black and white photos that were billboard size and on the bus shelters.
When Uniqlo got started they did a similar campaign with Kim Gordon, Ryan Mcginley…
It was just like that. The type of clothes that were so anonymous they would let your individuality shine through: you wear your old leather with a gap t-shirt. At that point we saw The Gap like Starbucks, it was everywhere, we wanted to show it as a symbol of conformity. That was the subject of our critique... But it was also this thing beneath the realm of what most institutional critique would focus on. We started borrowing or buying clothes from The Gap, doing photo projects with them and then returning them. And then later The Gap came out with these ads that were just like that . Everyone’s wearing the same clothes and everyone is doing synchronized dance routines. A lot of people seem to think our photos were parodying that campaign but that was way after what we did.
So you did a show of the photo prints?
No, the photos were something that had emerged from documenting our meetings and eventually became this sort of side project the group was doing. Colin was very reluctant to show the photos because he understood or suspected that the photos would become the focus of any attention that was paid to the project, and that is exactly what ended up happening. He made us print them 8 x 10 and they were in the second room of the show. Despite that, our first show became the most recognizable show that we did and got a lot of media attention. That had a lot to do with the emergence of “Gen-X” and the media blitz that surrounded it. We became sort of grouped in with Sean Landers and Rita Ackerman: Gen-X artists. Those photos replayed in print than more than in the context of the exhibition.
How did you guys respond to that?
We basically didn’t do another self portrait.

Art Club 2000, Untitled (Paramount Hotel/ Nude I), 1992-93

What were the other elements of The Gap show?
A lot of the art club was involved in different forms of research. We did ad hoc research projects about whatever we were looking at. With The Gap we went through their garbage, found a lot of information that we eventually generated into content for the show like employee handbooks and their logs. One manager would write a log to the next, what celebrities had been in, notes on how to prevent shoplifters.
It sounds a bit like Mark Dion, who showed at AFA too. His work involved a lot of research.
That bears mentioning that Mark Dion was one teacher that all of us had and we came to American Fine arts to look at some slides of his work. That was how we became introduced to the gallery.
The Soho So Long show was also research based, right?
Yes. Everyone at that time was talking about Chelsea. Colin’s girlfriend had moved to Chelsea, and there were basically 3 or 4 galleries there. It was clear a lot of people were moving there and we wanted to find out why people thought they were moving there, and for the people that weren’t moving why they were staying. We interviewed critics, gallerists, and collectors.
It was done with a sense of humor though, right?
Yeah, I mean all of our stuff was done with a degree of lightheartedness and fun. That was something that Colin insisted on. Although a lot of times it wasn’t fun. The point was to be self-implicating in the critique and to not take ourselves too seriously and to take everything with a grain of salt.
Was that a theme that ran through AFA?
That would be hard to say. A lot of serious artists showed at AFA but there was a lot of funny stuff that went down. I mean, when you talk about somebody like Andrea Fraser, there is great humor in that work, but its pretty serious stuff. With Art Club there was a degree of amateur-ness and that was part of the fun. Alongside us people were doing their own work in a totally different tone. There was always some element of parody and parodying the act of making an exhibition, which at that point we saw as a project; the idea of doing an exhibition and trying to change the world with it was a somewhat dubious and hilarious prospect but we were actually trying to do that.

From Sex Magazine #1 Fall 2012
Labelled Art