Cosmic Roulette: An Interview with Dan Gamble by David Richards

Dan Gamble

“But what if our eyes were designed to see this sea of energy; would it be a continuous bright field? Without substance? Shadowless? Then matter, as it arrives — even what we consider light — would bring darkness, shadow and form. And, perhaps, some measure of consciousness. I like to think of this as a metaphor for painting. An unbroken field — for me a white ground — out of which things appear and disappear.” Dan Gamble

In Dan Gamble’s paintings, spiky radiating forms often line up with spheres and ellipses that can appear to be solid or less substantial, like clouds or shadows. They display harmony, clarity and precision, but gradually reveal ambiguities and provoke questions. What exactly are we looking at? Are the “objects” we see representations of matter, or of energy? Macrocosms or microcosms? Do they even represent anything other than what we see?

Some of his works on paper are displayed on windows, backlit by ever-changing natural light. They are carefully sanded in places so that the thinner areas become translucent. Sometimes they are even sanded through, forming circular or elliptical holes, fusing image and object.

Dan Gamble

Untitled, egg tempera on panel, 11” x 13 ¼”, 2017

Paintings on carefully gessoed wooden panels are often mounted in horizontal or vertical arrays, centered on narrow strips of molding, so that they “float” in front of the wall. These white-painted strips seem to belong to both the paintings and the wall, turning each ensemble of related works into a sort of sculpture. There is an interesting interplay between the illusionistic three-dimensionality of the painted forms, and viewers’ perception of the groups of panels and their mounting strips as objects in space. I believe that his intention is to make us think about different layers of reality, and perhaps even the possibility of the multiple hidden dimensions that physicists have theorized about. It’s not surprising that Gamble is interested in cosmology, quantum physics and Buddhism.

The forms in his work remind me of the nineteenth-century biologist Ernst Haeckel’s illustrations of microscopic creatures, and also textbook illustrations of planets, atoms, lenses and prisms. Gamble’s objects and/or phenomena are painted with great deliberation and superb craftsmanship. They are often lined up so that they appear to be interacting with each other in a purposeful way, almost a narrative.

Dave Richards: Some of your paintings, the ones that have that cross-contour netting, really feel like landscapes to me. In others, it’s really hard to know the scale. They float in a space that’s kind of indefinite. Maybe there’s a wall there or a dense fog. I guess my question is: how do you think about scale?

Dan Gamble: The large paintings did represent a larger space and they were very much in reference to landscape, some of it urban, some of it natural and the smaller ones were always about objects or particles of… but yes, the scale is ambiguous. Are they miniscule things brought to a larger scale or do they exist in that size? I like the idea that you really couldn’t put your finger on that and I like the fact that they are real within their own place, within that frame.

It’s curious, because I was talking to Duncan(Anderson) about his work too and the scale of it. He has these… you don’t call them miniature landscapes, they’re landscapes and there are figures in them, not miniature figures. I asked him, are these scaled down? He said no, they exist in that scale, that is their place, that world. That’s parallel to how I feel about what I’m doing.

Dan Gamble

Cascade, oil on canvas, 72” x 64”, 2011-2016

DR: When you sand through the surface of a painting and make a hole, it becomes more of an object in some way. I’m looking at something you painted that gives the illusion of three-dimensionality, and then I see this void and think, oh yeah it’s also this thing.

Dan Gamble

DG: Yeah, the physicality of the materials becomes apparent and it’s been manipulated and you can see the artist’s hand removing the material so that even though it’s flat, relatively flat, it becomes sculptural in that sense. I guess to a degree you could say that about any painting, but when you do that in contrast to what the other parts of the painting are like, it really draws attention to that fact, the physical nature of it. My paintings are fairly delicately rendered; there’s no impasto or even visible brushstrokes.

DR: The way you have the objects in some of your paintings lined up, I wondered if you think of them as a kind of narrative?

DG: I guess you could look at them that way, as the most stripped down, minimal kind of narrative you could come up with. It’s “cause and effect” basically, one event and then the next and then the next. In a way that’s what narrative is really about.

The idea of a rebus came up a long time ago in some of my work. I was actually using pictures and numbers. I know it’s not something that’s that unusual, but I was fascinated with the idea for a while. Then later it came back to me, but as a more oblique reference to a rebus, just in the fact that the objects are lined up. I started asking, well which one came first and how does this one relate to that one and the next and the next.

This was especially true when I started butting these panels together and lining them up, because a lot of these are components to a larger piece which can be dis-assembled and re-assembled in different configurations and in that way they could be read differently depending on how you put them together.

Dan Gamble

Untitled, egg tempera, graphite and silverpoint on panels, 10” x 29”, 2017

DR: The last time we spoke you said something about the importance to you of a blank canvas. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

DG: I see the artist and the blank canvas as sort of a parallel to our world and how our reality is presented to us. What I see there is a sort of duality. It’s a void in the sense that there’s nothing there, but at the same time, a white surface is actually all colors reflected. I look at that as a sort of metaphor. It’s all there reflected, but it’s also nothing simultaneously, so when you start, you approach it and you basically have everything you need. You have all this accumulated experience and knowledge of materials and even muscle memory of how to paint and how to make a brush stroke. So,you approach it and make that first stroke and then from there it’s a series of events. It’s cause and effect, you react to that stroke and make the next one and the next and it builds and builds until it becomes this whole world.

What I like to do in my work is invent — invention and discovery. There are times when I’ve actually avoided researching topics that people have said I should look into. The idea of fractals is one in particular that comes to mind. They are intriguing, but I wouldn’t want to incorporate them because it would be a system. I don’t want to have pre-determined systems. That would just take the life out of my work. I want to discover; I want to stumble through it, even if I make mistakes and have to scrub things off and start over. I want to find out what I can do with what I have.

Dan Gamble

All untitled, egg tempera on panels, overall approximately 28” x 12”, 2013–2016

Dan Gamble

All untitled, egg tempera, graphite and silverpoint on panels, overall 36” x 10,” 2016

Dan Gamble

Photograph of Dan Gamble by David Richards


Dan Gamble, artist and educator, was born in Beloit, Wisconsin. He studied at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and at the University of New Mexico. He has exhibited at the Chicago Cultural Center, Zg Gallery, Indiana University, the University of New Mexico Art Museum, Roy Boyd Gallery and many other venues. He currently lives and works in Chicago.


David Richards is an artist and writer currently living and working in Chicago.