While a painting student at Cooper Union in the '80s, New York-based artist Dan Witz decided to concentrate on a genre that was very unpopular at the time: realist painting. "On one level I consider myself a fairly traditional academic painter," he says. At school, he followed the traditional curriculum that progresses through still life, landscapes, figure painting, and nudes. "And then the highest aspiration of that type of painting were these big, ponderous kind of boring history paintings, but I wanted to update that genre."
So Witz put his own spin on the dark, intricate and sprawling scenes by Renaissance painters like Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel, with his series of large scale, photorealistic Mosh Pit paintings. For the past 15 years, Witz has been photographing mosh pits at hard core punk shows, stitching the scenes together in photoshop and then recreating them in oil paints. A new solo show of his work is will be on view at Jonathan LeVine gallery in New York starting April 2.
Witz chose the setting for his paintings based on his own experience playing in clubs in the Lower East Side as a part of New York's noise scene. "I used to be in these bands when I was in my early twenties and I always really admired the intensity and emotion and abandon of the concert and mosh pits," he says. When he started touring in Europe, he would take the few hours between traveling and before sound check to visit the major museums. "After I quit music I regretted that I wouldn’t be living at that level of intensity that I had been as a musician. I decided to combine the two: my painting progression with my love of music."
Now at age 58, Witz can still be found on the floor at punk shows, photographing body-slamming concert goers and dense, sweaty crowds. He uses Photoshop to combine the images into one immersive scene and then prints them onto canvas using just an outline or a green grey underpainting. He then switches to 400-year-old techniques of painting that the Old Masters pioneered—like glazing and scumbling—to fill in the scene. Each painting takes anywhere from four months to a year to complete (a process greatly sped up by the digital element).
For the new show, Witz is debuting a pair of works called Brite Nite that move away from the hardcore scene to depict euphoric rave and festival-goers. "I’m tired of painting white guys with tattoos," says Witz. "The rave festival paintings give me a chance to paint different types of people, different skin tones, different emotions." Though he doesn't enjoy the music and atmosphere of big commercial raves as much as the underground punk scene, there's still a sense of vibration and intensity of emotion that's fun to translate into a painting.
"It's like an out of body experience because there's this deep base note that's sort of vibrating deep in your solar plexus," he says. "I do really enjoy that. It's a whole new experience.
All Images: Dan Witz/courtesy Jonathan LeVine Gallery