Dan Cimmermann
Chaos and calm, the fast with the slow, the old with the new - it was this carefully balanced dichotomy that drew British artist Dan Cimmermann, known for his bold fusion of contemporary street art with classical techniques and cultural figures, time and time again to Japan. We spoke with Dan, whose Noh mask paintings feature in Volume Two, The Islands Issue, about his time in Tokyo, the Japanese contemporary art scene, and how the country left such a lasting influence on his approach to both art and life.

Tell me about your background. Where did you grow up and when did you first become interested in art?

I grew up in Middlesbrough, an industrial town in the north east of England. I loved drawing when I was younger and this continued at school. My art teacher at sixth form college introduced me to Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, and David Hockney - I remember seeing Hockney’s drawing retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts, and I was hooked. I then went on to study Fine Art at Leeds Met University (now Leeds Beck University) where I produced massive, figurative oil paintings.

How would you describe yourself as an artist?

I’m a spontaneous artist. I work with figurative subject matter, mainly human heads, but I wouldn’t call myself a portrait artist. I’m interested in mark making and building up layers of paint. I often work with historical and cultural subject matter, and I see the layers of paint like layers of history. Rarely do I plan anything, and if I do, I never stick religiously to the plan. I work quickly, making marks and adding detail where I feel I need it. Gradually, a composition and finished piece emerges.

Your work has such a distinctive style, seamlessly blending elements of classic techniques and cultural figures with a street art influence and an often colourful contemporary flair. How has your style developed over the years, and what are the main influences driving your creative expression?

I have always worked on a big scale from my days at university, so the street art element of my work was a natural development. Artists like Conor Harrington, Aryz, and ROA fuelled this further, alongside the colossal scale of Jenny Saville and Lucian Freud’s works and the large paintings of the American abstract expressionists. I have always wanted my work to be bold and powerful. Andy Warhol was another great influence early on.

I particularly like artists who made their work available, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring on the streets of New York for example. I like how street art is available to all - it really annoys me that art galleries can be elitist and intimidating to some people. I work quickly, so my style is suited to street painting. I love the buzz of creating a piece quickly, seeing the reaction of the public, and then going for a beer. Drawing a line under the work and not returning to it over and over again is really liberating.

What is your process like? How long does each piece take and do you work on multiple works at once?

I work extremely quickly in bursts of energy. No plan, all the experimenting happens on the canvas. Opportunism is very important - if something looks exciting, it stays. I build up layers over time in my studio practice. I will often rework a piece that hasn’t sold, change it from portrait to landscape or vice versa, add new details and figures. I have an idea in my head, a face I want to paint, but this changes and mutates as the process progresses. I often see my work as a series of abstract elements that I’m trying to balance on the canvas. Like placing the rocks in a Japanese garden, the work is complete when it feels balanced - a mixture of calm and chaos.

I work on several pieces at one time – 15 to 20 – I also have lots of drawings on the go where I will do studies of paintings, photographs, or play around with colour.

When did you come to Japan, and what brought you here?

I first visited Japan shortly after university when I travelled in Asia with a friend. I saw a cheap flight from Bangkok to Tokyo and booked it, desperate to hunt for the neon city nightscapes that I’d seen in Akira, a Japanese animated cyberpunk film. I found them as soon as I arrived, and it felt so alien and exciting to me. I spent two weeks in Tokyo, where I blew the rest of my travelling budget and fell in love with the city. I then returned in 2004 to work, teaching English part-time, and stayed for nearly two years. I’ve since been back on three occasions, travelling more widely throughout Japan.

What was your impression of the Japanese contemporary art scene?

Coming from London, where I lived before moving to Japan, I was initially shocked at the lack and size of the galleries in Tokyo. Apart from the big museums such as the Mori Art Museum and The National Art Centre Tokyo, you really had to dig to find great art work. Even now it feels a little behind cities like New York, London, and Paris for contemporary art. But like anything in Japan, the deeper you dig the greater the rewards. There’s so much exciting stuff going on hidden out of view. I’ve always been a big fan of artist Yoshitomo Nara, and currently I find the works of Taku Obata, Kenichi Hoshine, Keiichi Tanaami, and Keita Morimoto really exciting. Galleries like NANZUKA UNDERGROUND and Kaikai Kiki are also pushing things forward in the contemporary art scene.

How has your experience in Japan influenced you as a person and an artist?

I think that balancing chaos with calm, fast with slow, old with new, is something that Japan does particularly well, and has influenced my work considerably. Not only in my application of paint and approach to composition, but in my approach to life. Spending time in Japan really helped me to realise that taking a break from work is essential, as is stepping back from a series of work to reevaluate. I tended to rush things when I was younger, desperate to move on to the next ‘perfect’ painting.

Japan has really enhanced my appreciation of nature and the use of natural materials, and I’ve found that experiencing the level of detail and devotion found in many aspects of Japanese life can't not change your mindset somehow. It’s fascinating to me, and something that I try to emulate in my own approach to work.

Tell me about a piece that you created while in Japan, or inspired by your residency, that you are particularly proud of.

I worked on a series of small paintings inspired by a journey into Shinjuku from Kuramae, a more traditional area of Tokyo where Almost Perfect, an artist residence, is situated in a converted 100 year old rice shop. I wanted to capture how the train gets busier and things get more frantic as the journey progresses, concluding with a portrait of Godzilla. It felt very special to work in the studio space run by Luis and Yuka Mendo whilst hearing the rain on the roof, and seeing the light breaking through the traditional screens. It’s such a beautiful space!

Equally, it was so exciting to create live collaborative paintings at BRICK & MORTAR in Nakameguro alongside owner Amane Murakami. He works mainly with screen printing, and it was interesting to marry our styles together and see the reaction of the viewers passing by. We did some large scale pieces that were packed with layers and interesting marks.

You have a series of oil paintings dedicated to geisha that captures their aura of serene elegance, and also expresses your vivid and playful style. What drew you to them as a subject?

I find geisha fascinating. It feels cliché to paint geisha after being to Japan, I totally get that - but it feels so incredible to see them in the streets of Kyoto. I can’t think of a parallel in England. The starkness of white face paint contrasted with black hair, the highly decorative kimono, and adornments, are incredibly compelling to look at.

I’ve always been interested in how the face can be hidden as a way to represent a group of people. Face paint on football fans; ritualistic masks worn by indigenous tribes across the globe; people wearing Union Jack hats, glasses, and flags at a VE (Victory in Europe) street party to commemorate the end of World War II, for example. I’m also aware of culturally insensitive paintings you see of geisha in many high street galleries around the U.K., so I wanted to make the subject a little cooler and more contemporary - hopefully.

Do you have any upcoming shows, fairs, or other projects you'd like to share?

I’m currently developing a body of work based on the concepts of ‘wanderlust’ and ‘disguise’ for a solo show. Other than that, I have some big street art projects that are in the early planning stages, and look out for more paintings inspired by geisha and Noh masks too. I’d also love to head back to Japan sometime soon.

We are pleased to announce that this series of both originals and exclusive limited edition prints are now available to purchase in our online shop. Click here to order.

Instagram: @dancimmermann

Editor’s Note:

We collaborated with Dan on a series of four original Noh Mask paintings that appear in Volume Two, The Islands Issue. Inspired by the masks of Noh, their ‘human likeness… the painted eyes, and the fixed expressions’, Dan produced these scintillating pieces motivated by the pandemic and subsequent world view of mask-wearing.

Signed originals and exclusive limited edition prints now available, but be quick, we only a very small number and once they're gone, they're gone.

Rachel E T Davies