There is something magnetic about Dan Lam’s drippy sculptural work. It is subtle at first, elusive in its compulsion for further study. This combination of polyurethane foam, acrylic paint, and epoxy resin that draws the eye back to the distinctive, organic forms that seemingly capture gesture and movement in still form. It plays at the interstitial spaces between fact and fantasy, thought and experience, curiosity and play, begging the inquisitive mind to follow down its vibrant pathways to the tension-filled space in which the artist has carved out for creative play. There, in a landscape of seemingly disparate juxtapositions, her sculptural work pulls at the threads of reality by provoking viewers to engage, interact, and consider meaning and perception.
“Curiosity is so important to me,” Dan Lam said. “My work explores sensational dichotomies such as beauty and repulsion, and chance and control, by combining unconventional materials, organic forms, and bright colors. I implore viewers to ponder reality and existence while aiming to stir feelings of familiarity and wonder.”
Dan Lam is an internationally acclaimed contemporary artist and social media influencer known for her creative—and curious—exploration of foams, polyurethanes, acrylics, resins, and polymers. While she often refrains from direct references, thematically, her body of work intentionally builds upon itself like the very sculptural pieces she creates: organic, ever-flowing, frozen gestures toward curiosity and the unknown. Lam embraces the chaos of materials, allowing them to guide her artistically in an intuitive process that relies on experimentation, play, and the balance between control and flexibility. She is interested in how her work invites people to question it, and inspires the need to understand it through touch, pulling that thread of interactive curiosity closer to the bright, dichotomous surface.
Based in Texas, Lam has developed a dedicated social following on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, where she rose to popularity after her debut solo exhibition “Can I Touch” at Harry Wood Gallery in Tempe, Arizona in 2014. The thesis exhibition would set the stage for an impressive list of two- and three-person exhibitions, group exhibitions, and solo exhibitions over the years at venues like the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas; Hashimoto Contemporary, New York City; Stephanie Chefas Projects, Portland, Oregon; Anohaao Gallery, Gothenburg, Sweden; Lazinc x Danysz Gallery, London; Storepunkt, Munich; and Danyzs Gallery, Paris, to name a few.
Long before her work joined the collections of celebrity clients like Miley Cyrus, 2 Chainz, The Game, Lily Aldridge, and Demi Lovato, Lam was drawn to art as a creative outlet. Born in the Philippines while her family immigrated from Vietnam to the United States, Lam spent time in Texas where she eventually went on to receive a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas in 2010.
“I’ve been creative since I was a kid so I feel like art has always been a part of my life. I grew up an only child, my mom worked a lot, so I had to entertain myself and be imaginative. When I got to college, it was the time when you decide what you want to do with your life, I chose graphic design to compromise with my mom. I did that for a year, but it was not for me,” Lam said.
“It definitely had something to do with the fact that I had used art as expression for so long and then I was suddenly in graphic design which is structured in a way that caters to a client, to somebody else. I had a really hard time reconciling those things where I was used to creativity for my own personal outlet versus doing it for somebody else, so I switched to studio art,” Lam added.
Lam then went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts from Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona in 2014, and throughout her academic study, began to push the traditional boundaries of conventional medium like painting, sculpture, and fine art, which culminated in her “Can I Touch” thesis exhibition. Lam noted though both of her degrees are in drawing and painting, she began to consider what constituted a painting versus a sculpture and that point in which art crosses the line from two-dimensional into something three-dimensional.
“What else could I paint with? What else is out there and what will the professors allow me to get away with, basically. I had this art survey class and there was this moment where we were talking about the impressionists and how they weren’t accepted by most of the public at the time, they were kind of the rebels. Their whole thing was about capturing a moment in time, a feeling, something that was fleeting, and so the way they used paint was to capture that versus what had previously been done, which was using paint to model or create the illusion of something,” Lam said.
“I thought that was really beautiful, this act of painting in this looser way was a rebellious act and the fact that they were allowing paint to look more like paint. It is what got me down this line of questioning of like, if we keep building up paint so much it becomes sculptural, at what point is it a painting? That led me down this rabbit hole of different materials and I started playing with plaster, resin, different kinds of glue, anything I could get my hands on that wasn’t traditional,” Lam added.
Inspired by other artists like James Turrell, whose work is about the sense of presence of space and human perception; Olafur Eliasson, who recently opened a major exhibition that spans two locations in Qatar—one of which is a series of 12 experimental pavilions located in the desert near the Al Thakhira Mangrove Forest—and Lynda Benglis, an influential artist renowned for her poured sculptural forms and for redefining medium on her own terms; Lam quickly realized she wanted to make work from a place that deviated from the conventional, fine art space post-graduate study.
“There was this period of time when I was going to a bunch of artist talks and all these artists, whom I respect and love, would talk about this unlearning that would happen. At the time, I was in grad school and I’d be like, ‘what do you mean ‘unlearning,’ I’m here to learn.’ Now that the years have passed since I’ve graduated, it is so clear. You filter through it; you shuffle through it as you create your work and are not in the structure of academia. You take what serves you,” Lam said.
“There was a lot of rejection of play, having fun, and colorful, bright, bold work, because for some reason those things weren’t seen as serious enough. I remember having to internally fight that, it was what I’m naturally drawn to and where I create from. I realized instead of fighting curiosity, play, and having fun in my work, I’m fully embracing it,” Lam added.
It also meant leaning into her own curiosity, finding balance in themes that seemingly oppose each other and exploring the landscape between them. In “Bait,” exploration of color and form evolved from singular organisms to colonies interacting and revealing their anatomy, while “Infinite Playground” navigated the juxtapositions of attraction and repulsion, organic and inanimate, seriousness and playfulness, soft and hard. “Delicious Monster,” which debuted one year later in 2019, built on the opposing themes while experimenting with new materials and layering processes.
“When you think about things that seemingly are opposing each other, there is actually a balance. You need one to have the other. Just like to feel happiness, you might have known pain before, so there is contrast there, but they go hand-in-hand, because they need each other to exist. I can look at it as balance or I can look at it as tension, but I think where those two ideas meet, there is a lot of space in between,” Lam said.
“When you dive right down the middle, there are different grays, different ranges and points on the spectrum of where you could create from and I find it is very rich. It offers a bunch of different perspectives in how to approach things and there is never a right answer. Sometimes, when I’m working or creating a body of work, it skews toward one end over the other, and then in the next body of work or next show, it is skewed toward the other,” Lam added.
Over the years, Lam said she has realized she can take the time and space to explore ideas in bigger, more expansive ways, leveraging an entire collection or series to hone in on one element. From “Supernatural,” “Sweetmeats,” and “A Subtle Alchemy,” to “Personal Legend,” and an upcoming solo exhibition, “Guttation,” at the Hashimoto Contemporary in New York City, December 16, 2023 through January 6, 2024, she noted that her work builds upon itself.
“This [upcoming exhibition] will be a continuation of just everything that has come before it. Aesthetically, it is a fine line for me, a balance of presenting work that looks like my work and then just trying different things out that maybe as I was working on a previous show, I had ideas for new works that wouldn’t fit with that show so I save those ideas and bring them into the next show,” Lam said. “For some shows, the change is pretty apparent and then sometimes it is not as apparent. For this show coming up in New York, I have ideas for new wall pieces, maybe some different textures.”
That growth and progression at times is the result of the very process itself, in which she embraces the chaos of material and curiosity to learn new materials, leaning into the moment of experimentation and messiness. Inherently, there can be a lack of refinement and a series of mistakes that can lead to happy accidents as she familiarizes herself with a new material, and while there is reward in mastering it, Lam noted the unknown is probably one of the more exciting aspects of working with something new. And that creative, chaotic space of the unknown offers the perfect landscape for her to explore her latest themes of perception and reality.
“I cannot deny the influence that psychedelics have had on my work and because my work has had time to interact with more and more people, I’m more aware of it now. It is something that I think has always been in my work, but it’s like when people ask me questions of, ‘what are your pieces made of,’ or that they think it looks like a creature from an alien planet, that kind of feedback hints to me that there is some element of perception and reality that they are questioning when they ask me those questions,” Lam said.
“What is it made of? You can’t tell. It is not glass, it is not ceramic, what is it? Those questions really interest me and then that brings you back to this idea of are they influenced by psychedelics because that is part of what happens if you take them. You are questioning what is happening, what am I seeing, what is being perceived, is this real or is this not? I’m just on the very surface of it, pushing it further, but I do think that is what my work is currently diving into,” Lam added.
With an unquenched thirst for curiosity, Lam noted it is an approach to her art practice and to life that she thinks is really important. And it is seeing the unexpected in moments of play or in working toward a deadline that inspire her to sculpt creative forms out of chaos, provoking the onlooker to take just a step closer, examine just a moment longer, and question just an idea more.
“I think [art] is inherent in all of us. Just look around at the world around us and at everything we’ve made and created, it is all art. I think that in and of itself is valuable and important, and I think a lot of times as you grow up, it is pushed out. You’re told that you’re not creative or you’re not good enough. I don’t think any of it is true,” Lam said.
“We are all creative and have the desire for artistic expression. For me, personally, my art practice is a teacher for how I approach life. I’m curious in my art practice and I’m curious in life. There is a lot of overlap. What I do in life influences my practice, what I do in my practice influences my life. I spend a lot of time self-reflecting when I’m working, because I’m here by myself for hours and I find that it is very valuable because I learn about myself and work through things, work through feelings. For me, I think it is the most valuable form of expression,” Lam added.
Upcoming Solo Exhibition:
Hashimoto Contemporary NYC | 54 Ludlow Street
New York, New York 10002
December 16, 2023—January 6, 2024
First published in Great Lakes By Design: Bold Graphics, 2023
Text: R.J. Weick
Photography: Justin Clemons, Dan Lam Studio