Layers Upon Layers: A Conversation with Dan Lam

by Caleb Bell May 10, 2023
Photo of Dan Lam in her studio

Dan Lam. Photo: Justin Clemons

Often called an “Instagram sensation,” Dallas-based artist Dan Lam has created eye-catching sculptures out of foam and resin for years. Whether a drip, blob, or squish, Lam’s vibrant works beg to be touched (except, they can’t be).

After graduating from the University of North Texas, Lam attended graduate school at Arizona State University, receiving her MFA in 2014. Since then, her work has been featured in exhibitions and art fairs around the world.

Lam was recently selected as a collaborative artist for the forthcoming Meow Wolf Grapevine. Below, she and I discuss everything from her first foam sculptures to her current projects.

Caleb Bell (CB): It is my understanding that you didn’t really start experimenting and creating with foam until graduate school at Arizona State University. Is that correct? Can you share a little about those very first foam sculptures?

Dan Lam (DL): I first learned about polyurethane foam right before I graduated from undergrad at UNT, but I started using it once I started graduate school. The first few times I used it, it was straightforward — I mixed the materials and poured them. I watched how it worked and learned more from practice. There was some shaping and forming on my part, but I let the material do its thing. Once I got the hang of it, I started pushing what I could do with it.

CB: As far as “pushing” the medium, from those initial works until now, how would you say your sculptures have evolved?

DL: They’ve become more complex and less straightforward. I layer other materials on the polyurethane, including resin, paint, and various polymers. The further I’ve gone, the more layers there are, and the shapes and textures have also become more detailed. In my early sculptures, it was easy to recognize what the material was.

Large blob, technicolor blob suspended in space

Dan Lam, “A Subtle Alchemy,” 2021. The piece was on view at the Nasher Sculpture Center in 2021. Photo: Kevin Todora

CB: What are the main inspirations for your works? What are you hoping viewers take away from encountering a piece?

DL: My inspirations come from various sources, but the most direct influence is nature. I take many visual cues from the natural world, especially in how I form the work and how it builds and layers. I don’t want to recreate what already exists, so I take inspiration and give it time to percolate and filter through. 

I want people to have a sense of wonder or curiosity. It can be as simple as wondering what the work is made of, or even what it is. Maybe those questions lead to more questions and there is dialogue there, whether it be internal or with someone. To create something that sparks questions is ultimately what I want. 

Process shot of Dan Lam installing a large scale installation

Dan Lam installing work at Meow Wolf Grapevine. Photo courtesy of the artist

CB: I know that you were selected to contribute to the forthcoming Meow Wolf in Grapevine, and you recently installed your largest work to date. Before we discuss that though, I wanted to talk about your Nasher Public installation in 2021.

At the time, that was the largest piece you had ever created. Can you share how it felt to realize the size and scale of that sculpture? Also, how do you think the scale influenced visitor interaction and perception?

DL: Making Subtle Alchemy for Nasher Public was a massive accomplishment for me. It was the largest piece I had created up to that point (with the help of assistants). I worked with fabricators previously to execute at that scale. I learned a lot from that experience regarding materials/processes and solidifying my capabilities. Before starting, it felt daunting. But the days passed and progress was made! I love how physically involved it is to work at that size. It forces me to slow down as well.

The piece’s scale was the perfect size for the gallery at the Nasher. It was tall enough that people could walk into it and spend time within the piece. There was projection mapping to create the effect of the sculpture morphing and moving. The piece’s finish was a chameleon pigment, which shifted with the viewer’s perspective. All of those elements combined piqued the curiosity of visitors and drew them into the space.

CB: In what ways would you say creating that piece helped prepare you for your 15 x 15-foot wall installation for Meow Wolf Grapevine?

DL: The most significant way it helped me prepare was problem-solving. When working at a large scale, there is less room for error and more demand for preparation and planning. You have to break the process down more intentionally into steps. There is also a timing element to make sure everything comes together logistically.

CB: I know you can’t share a lot about the Meow Wolf installation and process, but what has being involved with that project meant to you?

DL: I love what Meow Wolf is doing — it is different and creates a space for artists and art lovers that didn’t exist before. It’s fun, playful, and immersive. You can see the excitement in people when they go. I can see how they are contributing to a bigger dialogue in the art world, and being a part of that vision means a lot to me. 

Detail of Dan Lam's colorful large scale installation

A peek at Lam’s Meow Wolf installation. Photo courtesy of the artist

CB: With your installation in Grapevine behind you, are there any forthcoming projects that you would like to share a little about?

DL: Yes! I have an upcoming solo show in Portland, Oregon with Chefas Projects in July, a mini release in August that will be directly from my website, and a solo in New York City with Hashimoto Contemporary in December.


This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

To stay up to date with Dan Lam, follow her on Instagram (@sopopomo).

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