Photos by Landon Yost
Hometown: Watchung, New Jersey
Danny Cole’s canvases are a portal to another world—specifically, the Creature World, a dream-like universe that the young artist created to bring his ideas to life and connect with those around him. His humanoid characters jump from sidewalks to galleries, performance art to paintings, and at just 20 years old, his distinctive style has already established him as a respected name in the New York art scene.
When it came to the enjoyable task of interviewing Danny for Bright Young Things, there was no one more suited for the job than Portugal. the Man bassist, Zach Carothers. The pair struck up a friendship a few years back—Danny was a longtime Portugal. the Man fan, and the band instantly recognised his talent and got him on the tools creating visuals for their live shows. They jumped on Zoom for an enlightening hour-long conversation that traversed dimensions and topics, including mental health, aquatic animals and more of which you’ll get to read a decent chunk of below.
Zach Carothers: How are you buddy?
Danny Cole: The beard looks good.
(Laughs) Get my neckbeard strong. I’m just quarantining up, man. How are you doing out East?
Dude, the world is so crazy right now. I mean, New York just broke out in riots and, like, I don’t even roll with a particular crowd that instigates too much, but five people I know wound up in jail last night.
Yeah, it all moves so fast, like fucking wildfire. But shit, enough is enough when it comes to this shit. But it’s messed up and it’s hard when you have all the consequences with the pandemic.
I was on the phone with my friend last night, who was at the protests, and he was in protective gear, like, a mask and gloves, and he was like, ‘these cops were literally screaming in our faces with no masks on and practically spitting, and we offered them masks to keep everybody safe and they refused to put them on.’ Then they left for a moment, put their masks on, and then started manhandling people for a level of anonymity. And the masks weren’t being used to protect people, the masks were being used to protect the cops from getting held accountable. I know this isn’t what the interview is about, but it’s so on my mind, you know.
Well, honestly dude the interview is about you, so what’s going on in the world and what’s going on in your head, it’s hard to… it’s almost irresponsible to talk about anything else, you know?
I feel like I’m hearing a lot of voices and almost would rather amplify those voices and use my voice to amplify them, which is kind of the first step I’ve taken right now.
This is cool; we can get into the interview and stuff. As an artist interviewing another artist, I want to know what inspires you? Where does your art come from? Your paintings, for me… I really like art that asks questions and makes me wonder what the artist thought, but also what it makes me think and what inspires me.
For me, the way that I even speak about my artwork comes from a place of reflecting and trying to decipher, ‘Why did I do this?’ Because making actual art for me is compulsory, I guess you could say. I get in this like—and not in an unhealthy way—obsessive autopilot mode where I just understand I have the opportunity in anything I make to change the environment around my creation. I make the whole painting bit by bit. It’s not until after the whole thing is done, the whole thing varnished, that I look at it and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s the picture.’ Because I hyper-focus on each little detail, each little curve, and it’s only when the whole thing is done that I’m like, where did this thing come from? It’s almost as if somebody else is making it for me.
I totally know what you’re talking about, and that’s what makes it alive and special—it takes on a life of its own and almost paints itself. Do you learn something about yourself when you look at your paintings?
I think more so when I’m designing a painting. There are two different areas of it. When designing a painting there’s a lot of experimentation involved, regardless of the starting point. It’s as if the creation shapes itself; it has a mind of its own. And I know that it’s my mind that’s projecting onto it, but it’s really as if it’s shaping itself. And that’s the first area of exploration. And then the second area of exploration is—you could say this about any type of art, but I think it’s particularly relevant in mine—where all of the things that I make are very deliberately open-ended. They’ve all been designed to reveal what you project into them. They’re supposed to fit an infinite number of moulds because everything in them, all the components are meant to be universal.
Alright, so, what do you miss? Because in these times connecting face to face with people isn’t super responsible, but I know that you’re very into that. I remember what you did at the gallery opening, like with mushrooms and sitting down and talking with people and connecting. You’ve always got weird shit like that going on. Are you looking forward to getting back together with people or are you figuring out new ways to connect?
I mean, I really needed this. I know, I’m just like most other people if not like everyone else. There are obviously a ton of new challenges that have been introduced by the world being shut down overnight, but I started quarantining like pretty much two or more months before coronavirus because I reached a mental breaking point where I was. I would have a show and the next morning I would get up and start on the next one. It was as if I wouldn’t open my eyes for a month and then I’d open my eyes for the next show and I’d be like, we’re here again. And then I’d go right back to it. And then I hit a point where my eyes were not open outside of when it came to the ultimate ‘this is the final product, this is the moment that I’m waiting for’. Where I threw a show, it was the most elaborate show I’ve ever thrown, it took so much out of me, so much energy; it sucked the life out of me. And the show ended and I had pushed myself so hard and exhausted myself so much that I couldn’t remember the show. I was like, I just worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my whole life and I don’t even know what happened. I don’t know if I was satisfied. I don’t know if I felt what I was working so hard to feel.
Then I just couldn’t remember anything. Like, the day after the show, I remember I went to my friend’s practice performance because he was about to go on tour, and I was having a conversation with somebody. The dude was telling me a story that involved the topic of not wanting to be alive. I brushed my face and realised that I was crying, and that I didn’t even know that I was crying. I really don’t ever cry and I just walked outside and I called my mom and she was like, ‘Are you okay?’ And I was like ‘No, I’m not okay. I need to be put in an institution or something because I have no idea what’s going on and I feel like I hate myself; I don’t want to be alive.’ I want to want to be alive.
It’s crazy because I think it was coming from this place of like… I just couldn’t remember any of what makes life worth living, because I couldn’t remember anything. I felt so upset to be so out of it, that that was the only feeling I could recognise and I wanted to get back to myself so bad. So I would convince myself, ‘You’re back, you’re back, you’re back,’ but what I really needed to do was let go and let myself recover. So I spent a little bit of time letting myself recover. And by the time I came back into myself… I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the fullest version of myself. It was time to quarantine. I was like, what better time? Now I have all this time on my hands, I can be with myself in whatever way I want to be with myself, there’s nobody else. Although quarantine proposes some very unique challenges, I think that it couldn’t have come at a better time for me.
Damn, dude. Thank you for opening up. I’m with that too, man. It’s like recognising the vulnerability in yourself is so inspiring and opening. I’ve been kind of going through some very similar stuff, honestly. Rock on, dude. You’re like, strumming my pain.
Yeah, my heart goes out to you. I have a lot of confidence as well, so I know that you specifically will always arrive at the light at the end of the tunnel.
Oh, for sure, yeah it’s always like that. I’m good, I feel really good. Do you feel better?
Yeah, I’m making art and learning so much for the first time.
Well, that’s like active rest. You know you don’t need to like, take a nap or lay on the beach. It’s for your mind. There’s different kinds of rests. You know we’re sharks, we got to keep swimming, we got to be doing something even when we sleep. It’s so we can be rested so that we can do the shit that we need to do. It’s purposeful.
Yeah, so for me, if I can’t be in the mind that I need to be in to make art that I care about, the only alternative is for me to spend every moment planning for when I’m back in that mindset. So I built a print factory in my apartment and arranged a whole team around me of other kids, which is sick. Yeah, just building a really strong backbone for when I was ready to create anything, and now I’m ready and the backbone exists. I feel good about the fact that it’s easier to execute the things I want to make because I spent my break that way. I always hear how there’s like, some sort of aquatic animals that use one half of their brain, and then use the other half of their brain. They sleep with one half of their brain and they’re always moving, just alternating what half of the brain is sleeping, and that’s kind of what it was like. I flipped on one half and now I get to return to the other half.
I’m excited to just keep riding this wave and I’m going to make a bunch of art during quarantine. I’m designing so much. I’m super excited about getting art to more people than ever, because in the past I painted so slow and was a fucking bad painter, I had a limit to how affordable I could make anything because I had to cover studio space for the amount of time it takes me to make something, and studio space in New York is quite expensive. But now I built a print factory and I can knock out perhaps a hundred versions in the time that I could only previously knock out one. Now what I want to do is put these things in anybody’s home that wants them. Also, I want to ride this crazy, whimsical, odd wave of human connection and be confused about everything that’s going on because I never understand what’s going on in any environment I’ve ever been in. I want to be confused with everybody else.
View this post on Instagram
Yeah, totally. With everything you learn, you have to unlearn something else and it’s a never-ending process. But you’re already in it, you’re already going and you’re cruising.
Thank you. It’s always kind of funny because I forget sometimes… I mean just to be clear, I never forget the impact, but in conversation it’s easy to not understand how crazy it is that I grew up inspired by the stuff that you made. I went to every single show that you did at the Central Park Summer Stage and I would go to New York to see that stuff. I built a recording studio in the room next to my bedroom growing up and the first solo I ever learned on guitar was… [grabs guitar and plays a riff]
Oh yeah, ‘People Say.’
I have clay on my hands, so…
That’s the first solo you ever learned? That’s insane, dude! I learned Nirvana, so that’s wild.
People say to me that I was really inspired by you, and I’m like no, I’m not qualified yet.
I’m not either. Nobody is. Kurt Cobain wasn’t, nobody was ready. They just did something and somebody connected with it. Nobody is ever prepared, nobody is ever ready. They just fucking do something and it’s good.
For me, I think it was really about other people saying I see what you see. I believe in what you’re doing. A huge part of who I am developed because Portugal. the Man believed in me when I was in high school. I was like, I can believe in myself more than I did before. That’s so life-changing. That’s so important.