conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 11.01.2024
DANILO XHEMA: "ART HAS TO CONVEY A MESSAGE"
IRONY AND NOSTALGIA
In the vibrant intersection of traditional and digital, Danilo Xhema has forged a unique path, blending the world of painting with the realm of digital art. His exploration of technology during the COVID-19 pandemic became a gateway to a new frontier, encompassing NFTs, tokenization, and an innovative fusion of mediums.
In conversation with Anika Meier, Xhema shares his journey that led him from a background in classical painting to the dynamic universe of digital creation. The discussion delves into the influence of nostalgia on his art and explores the interplay between the past and present.
ANIKA MEIER: Danilo, you have a background in painting. How did you get into digital art?
Danilo Xhema: I have always been fascinated by art in general and by creating. For as long as I can remember, I have been drawing, and then I ventured into painting during my early adolescence. Simultaneously, I have developed an attraction to basic technology, viewing it from a playful perspective rather than intending to use it as a medium for creation.
During the years of the COVID-19 pandemic, I approached technology more out of a need to experiment than anything else. Since then, I have not abandoned it. Consequently, I tackled both traditional and digital mediums simultaneously, with the sole intent of creating. In the recent period since I started, I have delved deeper into the medium through research, discovering the world of tokenization and consequently NFTs. The process of learning and immersion in this world was gradual, initially as complex as it was intuitive and welcoming.
AM: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
DX: As I mentioned, it has always been a desire and goal of mine since I was a child. I approach the world creatively on any occasion or opportunity. The fact that this is becoming a reality makes me even happier. I still have so much to experience, but I am confident that this side of me will never be stopped.
Then, what will happen in the future holds a vast variety of possibilities. I transitioned from classic materials and expressive painting to something entirely different. In the near future, who knows what I will explore—perhaps installation, perhaps video art, or perhaps painting again? What I know and am certain of is that the motive for artistic and free creation and expression will persist, despite any challenges.
AM: Is there a difference between working on a painting and a digital artwork?
DX: Initially, I was repurposing what I was doing in traditional and canonical ways equally in the digital realm, pictorially, so not using a canvas but a screen. Then it matured and evolved into what I'm doing now. In the near or distant future, perhaps things will change; who knows? Only the need to create will tell.
Working on digital work and a traditional one have one thing in common for me: the fact that, regardless of everything, I throw myself into working unconditionally. Of course, there are some peculiar differences. On canvas, what interested me was, in a literal and almost poetic sense, the painting itself. The painting, the expressiveness of the thing, and therefore, almost like a performance for me, the realization were important, given that it is not a perfect and meticulous academic type of painting but quite the opposite; every single brushstroke and "mistake" is fundamental, and the moment of realization is crucial.
It must also be said that when painting from life without a particular motivation or idea behind it, it has always been only and exclusively the painting itself that made the thing. In digital, however, it's a completely different thing. Before creating something, I have a precise image, idea, and concept in mind, which are then elaborated and created with the necessary time. No gestures, no expressiveness, no "painting."
Here, the focus is entirely centered on creating and making the subject that is created as faithful to reality as possible. A minimum of pictoriality still remains, if not more. If you zoom in and see the details, you will notice that it is actually made in that way, as if I were painting. Change the approach and the goal. The painting remains; now it is vectorial.
AM: In which ways does painting influence your digital work?
DX: Approaching digital as a fabrication tool with a painterly base has been crucial for me. "Knowing how to paint" is essential for various things, whether it's schematization, the basic structure of the work, or a set of elements; all of that, in my case, is due to painting. I always remain firm on certain fundamentals, even if they are not literally visible; in my thinking, they are always a constant.
Before I began to experiment seriously with digital, traditional, and therefore painting, was my only avenue and outlet. Nothing in particular, just gestures and the pictorial essence itself. I have always painted from life with the subject in front of me represented; thus, still life, people, and the room or scene itself are empty. Since I started painting in childhood and then carried it on until now, I have always been looking for a motif that would make me talk about something and then conceptualize it. Which I then found in the digital medium. In painting, however, there was always that force that drove me—the gestures, the interaction with the people I was portraying on a small and large scale.
I always went to periods where I would take one element and emphasize it to the extreme, always painting the same subject in all possible forms, distances, and points of view. In the COVID-19 period, for example, when forced to stay indoors, I ended up painting and repainting the same chair that I was seeing and almost observing all the time. Other times, however, I would just paint empty rooms so expressly that you could almost tell it was a room that was made. Other times, only portraits of faces are taken in close-up, in all sizes, from the smallest to the largest.
I don't even know how many times I exhausted my family, friends, and acquaintances to stand still and watch me while I painted their looks, each one different from the other and always more intriguing. At times, I arrived to repaint old works due to a lack of money or the possibility of getting more canvases at that time. Under each of my paintings that I now keep, there are three or four others. For me, it was fundamental to paint, period. Nothing else mattered to me, only to convey what I observed on canvas or panel, whatever the medium. And I think that this thing has remained imprinted in me at least. When I find something new that takes me, I take it, transform it, and transform it again until I'm fed up or satisfied with the results.
AM: You are based in Rome. Does the city and the presence of art history influence your work as an artist?
DX: Having been born and raised here in Italy, I think that the great historical and artistic culture has influenced me a lot, although it could happen to anyone. Perhaps in terms of stimuli and research, undoubtedly. Immersing oneself in such beauty and having the opportunity to observe and study the great masters of the past has been very helpful and will continue to be. However, this should rightly be seen and interpreted as a starting point that stimulates the creation and elaboration of one's own vision, which is not necessarily strictly linked to the cultural past of a place; otherwise, it would be extremely limiting and would not progress.
AM: Nostalgia seems to be a driving force in your digital work. You often show old TVs and devices. The artist Skye Nicolas once said in a conversation with myself that nostalgia is a warm security blanket. Is nostalgia a feeling you would like to evoke?
DX: Nostalgia is precisely, as Skye Nicolas says, a safe place where we all bask and cover ourselves with memories, with bitterness, with pleasantness, but at the same time pricking sensations full of past events and concepts that will never return—all in subjective alteration. It's something that I like to recall and take up again and again, starting primarily from my own experience.
I'm born in the early 2000s, where I find things that actually belong to many, if not all, of my generation. Obviously, even the past ones, given that many devices or experiences have also returned to us, as that was a period of transition and passage. I like it because you can communicate directly with a listener or visitor, playing with it in an ironic way at times or in a blatant and simple way at other times. Using these sensations to communicate with others, connect dots and talk about something that everyone can perceive and assimilate. In rational symbiosis with nostalgia.
AM: Where do you find inspiration?
DX: Inspiration is something intrinsic that is built through two fundamental factors, in my opinion: randomness and, above all, perseverance; therefore, constancy. Every single thing can give me ideas and pieces of thought from which just as many others start. In everyday life, in routine life, common ideas and stylistic features, in readings, in study, and in constant research. The impulse to ideate and, therefore, create can arise from everything, from every small gesture and thing that may even be insignificant at that moment, but is not a factor to be taken for granted. Then, regardless, I tend to take everything in a creative way; everything I do is always linked to that.
AM: How do you describe your style? It reminds me of Post-Digital Pop by artists such as Oli Epp. Instead of painting on canvas, you create Post-Digital Pop in the digital realm.
DX: What I do perhaps has, as its common thread, works that are created through gradients and, therefore, digital as a basic tool for executing and developing concepts through subjects developed and based on the specific context and key proposed at that moment. Being able to collect elements attributable to different historical eras and social contexts and enclose them in a single block is what I am currently trying to carry forward, in different ways and approaches. There are times where I propose elements of everyday life in empty and therefore alien landscapes, highlighting their normality and perhaps even ambiguity. Other times, I propose video game characters or icons of the past in communion, linking the past and present. Still others cite the works of past artists, literally re-proposing them. There is also the repetition of elements that return, thanks to the instrument itself. Or the obvious, almost photographic re-proposal of such subjects. So, of course, I can only agree.
AM: Everyday objects such as lighters, chairs, and cigarettes, animals, technology, icons of pop culture, and figures from the history of art are the main characters in your work. Does art have to have a message?
DX: Art always has a message to convey and make explicit, whether in a more simplistic and direct way or in a more sophisticated and conceptual way; otherwise, it would not be making art.
I have always tried to find something to convey, something to say that is not obvious or trivial as a situation. I have achieved this through Internet contact and, of course, personal experience so far. As I have already said, my interest is in sharing thoughts related to a particular context and subject. It then obviously depends on the work itself. Even when there is no real motivation for me to do so, I always try to find it and come up with it in the process. However, always start from an initial preconception that triggers the whole thing.
AM: What is your message?
DX: My message is sometimes basic and simplistic, telling a fact or experience through other factors. So my intent is to state the obvious in the light of facts in a digital and illustrative medium (right now). I take what has been done, what has been accomplished, and mix it with more. There is no real direction; it is complex to even explain it and realize it in my own head. However, what I say varies depending on how I feel and what I am saying, and it can touch on all possible fronts. I can joke about it, humor it for a moment, or, on the contrary, throw the ugliest and crudest of truths in the face, but always play teasing.
Randomness is another major factor; finding a connection, sometimes even irrational, but complementing it with things that don't have much to do with it, the error leading to a solution also.
AM: Thank you, Danilo!