The artist who describes his monumental oceanic paintings as “conservation billboards” is just getting started, writes Lisa Perkovic.
A recurring dream kicked off Ian Daniell’s ocean-focused art practice. At the time, the British-born artist was landlocked in London, working as an art fabricator for the likes of sculptor Anish Kapoor. Killer whales first started stalking his nights not long after he watched David Attenborough’s “Blue Planet II”. “Every two weeks I’d have vivid dreams where I’d see killer whales from the ocean, a boat or the coast,” says Daniell. “They were so vivid I became obsessed with finding them in the wild.”
And so began a pilgrimage to orca populations. A detour to Western Australia landed him in Exmouth’s Ningaloo Reef, playground for humpback whales, whale sharks and manta rays. He was in Margaret River when a stray pamphlet alerted him to WA’s lesser-known Bremer Bay orcas. There he finally “scratched the itch”, but it wasn’t long before seeing killer whales in the wild wasn’t enough. Six months later he’d returned to the Margaret River region permanently.
There’s nothing unusual about a British expat falling in love with Australia, but what came next has not just shaken up the art scene but helped put ocean conservation into perspective. Daniell’s first ocean project was a nearly-two-metre-tall killer whale dorsal fin — a 1:1 scale that’s confronting enough, but add in Pop Art bright hues and simplified form, and suddenly the usually fleeting moment a fin breaks the surface becomes permanent in searing, vivid colour. The black fin cuts across a slash of neon red “sky” and teal “sea”, the entire surface glossy from an epoxy pour that goes over the acrylic paint and is flame-torched. The smooth, seamless finish traps details like spots, stripes and “barnacle bling” under a water-like layer.
A quarter flank of a whale shark followed, stretching 2.4 x 3.6 metres, a scale that certainly took things up a notch. “Awe-inspiring is an overused term, but there’s nothing else to describe whale sharks up close,” says Daniell. “The problem is the sense of scale is lost to a lot of us. We’re on social media all day and even when you’re in the water, you’re often recording through a tiny GoPro screen. I wanted to bring their scale into the human space.”
Daniell is taking his art out of the frame of the camera, the screen and even traditional art spaces. His first major exhibition of new ocean art took over the hallowed halls at Voyager Estate, one of Margaret River’s tenured wineries. “It was madness squeezing the whale shark into the space,” says Daniell. “We had about one inch to spare.” The winery is known for its grand Cape Dutch dining room where seven-course degustations are the norm, so swapping traditional oil paintings for life-sized oceanic Pop Art might seem a bold move. But behind the scenes, its strong commitment to sustainability and conservation extends well beyond viticulture.
Daniell’s work celebrates creatures of the deep with deep intention. “I want my work to put oceans front-and-centre for audiences who might never snorkel with whale sharks but can connect to the art, to the joy of these creatures, and hopefully feel inspired to protect them,” he says. Daniell’s exhibitions incorporate marine biologists and other ocean researchers, opening up forums for discussion and education. A percentage of his art sales go to Greenpeace’s plans to protect 30 per cent of oceans by 2030 and 50 per cent by 2050.
The call to preserve the ocean through contemporary art has certainly hit a chord. This year, Busselton’s Shelter Brewing Co became home to Daniell’s biggest work to date, a 200-square-metre homage to the humpback whale. Working with Shelter general manager Paul Maley, Daniell pushed the boundaries of even Shelter’s oversized space. “I was offered a 3.5-metre wall, but we doubled that to fit half a humpback,” he says. “I could have done something less relevant, less important, in the smaller space, but for a humpback we needed to go big.”
The massive mural is certainly a statement, splashed on a purple sea and pink sky mimicking Shelter’s pastel two-toned colour palette. It was certainly the star of the show during the annual Margaret River Open Studios this September when Daniell hosted a pop-up studio on site. Program chair Jim Davies says the artist is “a great addition to the event with his distinctive artistic style”, and in hosting talks with marine biologists and underwater photographers at the venue was able to create “new art lovers in the region”.
Collectors can commission their own ocean art, though Daniell is strict in sticking to scale, so only ask for a seal if you’ve got space for one. His fine-art giclée prints — “miniatures”, as he calls them — are produced at a percentage of the original. The “Ocellated Eagle Ray” can hang on your wall at 17 per cent, or the “Whale Shark” at 4 per cent. Limited-edition runs of 100 are the norm, though Daniell extended “Great Hammerhead Shark” to a 200-print run, matching the estimated number of the species in the wild. It’s a reminder of the fragility of the ecosystem and the responsibility we each play in its preservation.
Now working with Perth-based Kamilė Gallery, Daniell will stage his first solo contemporary gallery exhibition next year and plans to take art and ocean conservation even further, including a collaboration with Greenpeace. He increasingly thinks of his works as “conservation billboards or extinction warning signs”, and is spurred to take that message further afield — large-scale exhibitions in Perth will see him play with even bigger spaces outside traditional galleries.
But it’s not just the whales in his dreams anymore; the artist has an entire ocean of creatures to get to know. He’s also set on not being “too formulaic or predictable”, never wanting someone to ask, “Have you done this animal or that?”. “There’s so much lifeform under the ocean — let’s not forget about corals and sponges,” he says. One look at Daniell’s studio bookshelf, which is filled with everything from “Sea Slugs of Western Australia” to “Wonders of Western Waters”, and it’s clear he’s nowhere near finished using Pop Art to promote the planet.
This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our sixth edition, Page 56 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Whale Scale”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.