Daina Mattis – Brooklyn-based Artist and Educator


Daina Mattis - Brooklyn-based Artist and Educator

Daina Mattis is a Brooklyn-based artist and educator born in Los Angeles, CA. Her paintings, drawings, and sculptures explore perception and disposability through vehicles of imitation, scale and time. Mattis is a lecturer at Parsons School of Art and Design at the New School in New York, NY and she is represented by High Noon Gallery in Manhattan, NY, and Sara Nightingale Gallery in Sag Harbor. Mattis co-founded and co-directs Undercurrent, a non-profit arts platform in DUMBO, NY. Founded in 2019, Undercurrent maintains a robust international program partnering with diverse Cultural Institutions. Mattis was a Cooper Union A.I.R. (2016) and has shown her work extensively at galleries including Family Style, Vessels, High Noon Gallery, Bona Fide, AMAG at St. Thomas Aquinas College, and The Cooper Union A.I.R. Exhibition to name a few. Mattis has been featured in Design MILK, ARTnews, Two Coats of Paint, and Professional Artist Magazine. 

What was your first job in the Arts?  

I was commissioned to make three bronze sculptures for the Nix Nature Center in Laguna Beach, CA. I was 20.

What was the most useful or important thing you learned at that job?

Negotiation and invisible capital.

Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?

There was no actual cornerstone. I have always been hands on and creative, never afraid to get dirty. Assigning myself projects and goals. 

What do you do now? 

I’m a visual artist, educator, and co-director for Undercurrent, an art non-profit, located in DUMBO, NYC. 

How did your current project, UN/MUTE-10002, come about?

When the pandemic hit, many projects were cancelled. We were approached by some members of the EU National Institutes for Culture New York and were asked if we would be interested in partnering with them on a potential project yet they weren’t sure what it would look like, or exactly what it would be. 

The idea they prompted Undercurrent with was a collaboration between two artists who had never met. From there, Undercurrent put on its thinking cap and evaluated the situation. Many galleries were opening up virtual spaces, however that did not seem an interesting solution to the prompt nor a project we were interested in facilitating at the time. With the pandemic there seemed to be a global phenomenon of DIY (Do It Yourself) in the common household, people’s interests were in making and creating. Therefore, we saw the creative process as a subject, which is so often hidden from the audience. With this in mind, Undercurrent pitched the concept to share the creative process unfolding as a narrative between two artists using Zoom as the medium for communication. That’s how the first volume of UN/MUTE was conceived.

What do you hope the participants and the public take away from this project?

Our message is one of inclusion, no matter your age, color, gender, native language, or location. We are attempting to build trust, bridge differences, and create an accessible platform to share, discuss, innovate and create no matter your technical ability as a digital immigrant or digital native.   

On behalf of Undercurrent, I believe the creative process is our most valuable resource. It’s something we need to nurture in new and unexpected ways. We need to learn how to work with what we don’t know and we need to recognize the importance of the creative process and that it comes in many forms.  

Undercurrent’s mission is to promote and support contemporary art practices that are contrary to prevailing trends and movements. We support international exchanges because that is what New York City is, a cultural epicenter where few are actually from here. Undercurrent’s belief in showing local and international contemporary artists “augments our mission by providing a switchback, for a diverse and accessible platform distilling cultural perspectives in New York City.”  

The challenges we typically encounter are the same that many must overcome living in a metropolitan city – language and cultural dividers. Fortunately, it is the language of art where we find common ground, can share, and exchange ideas. Art becomes the conduit, the solution to being lost in translation.  

Where are you from? 

Originally Los Angeles, but now I consider myself a New Yorker. I acknowledge the land of the Chumash and Tongva people and also the land of Munsee Lenape and Canarsie people. 

What is the arts community like there? 

In LA the contemporary arts community has potential with the space and climate, however those could also be its greatest obstacles, while in NY, the arts are happening all at once, across time and space. It’s really amazing to be able to see so much art at once, from so many time periods and places. It’s like travelling back to the future. The NY contemporary scene really allows for one to see the diversity of what’s out there. For how much there is available to see, there are even more artist studios and their work that are not as visible, which need to be shared. Overall, I think the arts communities on both coasts, have a lot of work to do for more accessible platforms, more inclusion and more diversity. I believe a shift in values will need to occur in this country for the creative process before we see this major shift.  

Has where you come from shaped what you do in the arts today?

Growing up in a bi-lingual family with the backdrop of Los Angeles has definitely impacted my visual sensibilities. In LA, one of the entertainment capitals of the world, simulacrum is everywhere in plain sight. From almost anywhere I roamed, the skyline was shared by both the Griffith Park Observatory and the Hollywood Sign. Both pinnacle icons for show-biz, yet ironically one deals in science and the other in fabrication. Existing for different objectives, they both rely on optics and perception. This is a huge part of what I do in my studio practice, as an educator, and at Undercurrent. It’s about knowing your audience and how you frame the information. 

What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?

Stick to your beliefs, treat everyone as you want to be treated and don’t take anything personally if it rubs you the wrong way. 

What is one of your greatest accomplishments in your career so far?

Staying true to my art practice. 

What has been a challenge for you?

Moving to a city with no personal or professional network in my field. 

What is one of the weirdest things you have had to do on the job in your career?

Try to contact Oprah because she owned a piece by an artist we were exhibiting at a gallery in LA that I worked for. 

What defines a good employee? What defines a good boss?

For both – don’t assume anything.  

What do you think makes a person hirable?

Reliability and communication.

What is your advice to making yourself stand out in your workplace? Any good tips for a giving a great interview?

Know your interviewer, have some questions that show you care about knowing the employer. 

Is there any advice you would like to give people entering the art world?

Stay open minded and diversify. 

Any other anecdotes about your working experience that you would like to share?

When climbing to the mountain top, don’t bring a big stick to knock the others down, be sure to bring some rope, and pull others up with you. 

What is the best exhibition you have seen in the last year?

Bureau Gallery’s 

Beauty Can Be the Opposite of a Number
Uri Aran, René Daniëls, Rochelle Feinstein, Peter Hujar,
Quintessa Matranga, Libby Rothfeld, Martin Wong
January 31 – March 8 2020

If you could own a work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection?

Today I’m feeling – Danh Vo, Ambera Wellman, JPW3, Agnes Martin and Clare Koury.

What is your greatest WFH challenge? Or a WFH luxury you don’t want to lose ever again? 

Limiting my Café Du Monde coffee intake. 

How do you think art can play a fundamental role in the world’s recovery?

Through humor.

How do you think art should be shared and/or experienced moving forward? 

With discussions – rather than just look and like/love, ask why. Deconstruct it, ask yourself and others around you what you are seeing. Talk it out. 

And finally, do you think the art world should be more transparent?

For anyone earning a degree, it’s the educational institutions responsibility to make the art world less opaque. This is complex but it’s not rocket science. There are so many facets and tiers of the art world, the diversity and subtleties of it don’t seem to be as celebrated or educated as the avant-garde, and that is problematic.

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