The Denver Art Museum features compelling new works by the Colorado artist
Essay by Timothy J. Standring
This story was featured in the June 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art June 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
Daniel Sprick says that he “was shown to draw at an early age.” But his journey to artistic success didn’t begin with some yellow brick road unrolling before his feet at the age of five. Instead, as with most of us, the path to self-discovery took time to emerge and came in circuitous ways. Sprick realized he could make a living as an artist after taking welding classes in 1971 at Mesa College in Grand Junction, Colorado. He also discovered he was equally dexterous with a fistful of brushes as he was with a welding torch. His preternatural abilities sometimes proved to be a burden. You have talent, so make the most of it, he was told, and he did, taking studio classes at Mesa and studying art history at the University of Northern Colorado. And, given his predilection for an academic, “realist” approach to painting, he cut his teeth apprenticing with many individuals, seeking out and benefiting greatly from classes with Ramon Froman in Santa Fe in 1974, sessions with Harvey Dinnerstein at the National Academy of Design in New York City in 1976, plein-air painting sessions around Taos with Rod Goebel in 1977, and critiques from Wilson Hurley in Albuquerque in 1978. Still, the burden was Sprick’s alone. His 10,000 hours spent becoming expert at what he does so well and effortlessly today were mostly just plain hard grind: “working my fingers to the bone, frustration, and persevering in hopes that improvement will slowly arrive.
“Skilled painting requires frequent practice,” Sprick acknowledges. Working eight hours a day for six days a week, he became a highly disciplined draftsman. Along the way, he also mastered sharp memory skills, which are, after all, closely linked with drawing mastery. By observing and then recording, you are in fact strengthening your memory, which is crucial when coordinating the eye and the hand. His acutely honed memory informs not just his draftsmanship, but also his keen ability to establish a palette appropriate for his artistic intentions. Sprick’s ability to mix paints stems from years of practice, and I’m sure that he worked hard to discover the right kind of pigments, solvents, and drying agents. But when it comes to the less quantifiable matter of keying the hues accurately, his visual memory is very much active.
Because Sprick works in the vernacular of realism, viewers look for verisimilitude, as if his paintings were a mirror of reality—a reality you and I might encounter. The more we dwell on his paintings, the more we become aware that they are anything but a part of our world, and are, instead, poetic renditions of his own making. In this sense, “Sprick’s realism is a conceptual activity, a disguised abstraction,” as my friend Eric Aho, an artist working in Vermont, points out to me, adding that “Sprick’s magic compels us to marvel how he constructed the overall image.”
What then, the viewer might ask, is the content of his more recent portraits? Are they portraits in the true sense of the word—a likeness of an individual person? What are we to make of the aura of light that seems to emanate from many of them? Such works exist at least partially in a realm of their own, independent of what (or who) he is depicting. They seem more at home with each other than twinned with their flesh and blood avatars.
Sprick doesn’t intend meaning when he begins a painting. There is an enormous difference between starting out to “make a painting of something” and what Sprick does. His subject matter may be recognizable and representational, but his goal is not to render it simply for what it is. These are not simply still-life paintings that include flowers, carcasses, skulls, eggshells, cigarette butts, insects. They are not simply landscapes. Nor are they simply nudes and portraits. The subjects offer the foundations that enable him to create a world built up from his own language, vocabulary, and syntax. His paintings follow rules established by the artist, not unlike a sonnet.
And yet, by sticking to realism, he opens up the Pandora’s box of criticism that judges art based on standards of accuracy, which requires Sprick to remain hugely disciplined in order to perform flawlessly. Perfecting his craft is not his only goal, but something he uses to service his own artistic intentions, his own underlying rules and standards, his own poetic language. Like a top musician or athlete, he constantly strives to raise the bar by seeking ever more challenging tasks. His search for harmony throughout the entire composition guides his determination to master each work, day after day, hour after hour, as he struggles to balance the opposing instincts of “utter self-effacement and brash ego.”
Regardless of the subject of his paintings, he produces all of them with the same poetic inclinations, keyed to his preference for realistic representation, which leads to a quandary. Sprick’s realistic mode triggers the mind to make corrections. We initially read space, volume, tonalities, and atmospherics as if his images were photographs or simulacra of actual life—but then come to the realization that Sprick manipulated all of these components according to his poetic intentions, something that has been going on in painting since Giotto. In the end, we encounter Sprick’s paintings not so much as statements, but more as experiences, whereby we engage deeply with his creativity.
Timothy J. Standring is the Gates Foundation Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Denver Art Museum. This essay is excerpted and adapted with the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This publication accompanies the exhibition Daniel Sprick’s Fictions: Recent Work, on view at the Denver Art Museum from June 29 through November 2.
“This is the one portrait in this exhibition in which I tried painting the model smiling. Her smile is a genuine expression of her love of life. I admire artwork that is done in earnest, works in which the artist says what he means. The reason I paint at all is that I like the way the subject looks, and what it means to me. I don’t see why you need any more reason than that.” —Daniel Sprick
“In this painting I’m using light as a subject and a symbol. It makes me think of accounts of near-death experiences—those testimonials describing warm bright light, a world between worlds. It’s the same warm light that I’ve used in the portraits. I wish I could summon the enveloping sense of well-being that the people describe. Mirror images are technically challenging. They’re not exactly symmetrical. Linear perspective has to line up—each joint, beak, rib. Part of the working process is evident here because of the charcoal lines that I drew and mostly wiped away to get it to look right.” —Daniel Sprick
“I saw this man around town a number of times. My heart pounded to think of doing a painting of him. I found him kind of scary, even though he could barely move. Actually I think there is little that separates us from the homeless. Just a few neurotransmitters, maybe, and some synapses. I gave him some money. He tolerated my curiosity. I took his photograph. Photography, that tiresome topic, is an excellent tool for artists. Strong artwork is all about passion, invention, energy, and conviction. Good work can be done with or without models in the studio.” —Daniel Sprick
A Few Truths About
When the economic crisis hit the United States in 2008, artist Daniel Sprick embarked on painting a series of portraits that eventually became the centerpiece of his exhibition, Daniel Sprick’s Fictions, which opens at the Denver Art Museum on June 29. “It didn’t matter what you were going to paint, it wasn’t going to sell,” Sprick says of the art market at the time. “I had this idea of painting a few portraits. It kept growing and became a series. I figured I would always have these works, even if there may be no economic future to them.”
Sprick says he particularly liked the way the portraits were evolving—strong figures set against a stark, yellowish-white background. Although the faces in the portraits changed, the backgrounds and similar compositions tied the works together. In terms of models, Sprick says his intent was to remain open to the whole spectrum of human experience and faces—to paint people considered conventionally beautiful, those who might be considered unattractive or with faces that reflected suffering, and “everyone else in between.” The portraits in the exhibition include Sprick’s family, friends, and complete strangers.
There were moments when he felt uncertain about portraying some people, such as the man depicted in MOSES. “Sometimes I feel conflicted about painting a homeless man,” he says. “It is a portrait of real suffering, and I’m not the one doing the suffering. It’s an age-old question, whether or not depicting suffering in art is taking undue advantage of another’s condition. But if so, it’s a compromise that I make. My hope is that all these portraits confer dignity and show some respect and compassion.” —Bonnie Gangelhoff
Featured in the June 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
Southwest Art June 2014 print issue or digital download Or subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
MORE RESOURCES FOR ART COLLECTORS & ENTHUSIASTS
• Subscribe to Southwest Art magazine
• Learn how to paint & how to draw with downloads, books, videos & more from North Light Shop
• Sign up for your Southwest Art email newsletter & download a FREE ebook