For as long as she can remember, Danie Cansino has been drawing people around her. She started doing so in grade school, when she would draw other kids in her class, often using ballpoint pens. “I never had the access to art materials,” she said in a Zoom interview, speaking from her home and studio in East L.A. “Being young in a Chicano household, you’re told if you’re going to be an artist, you’ll be a starving artist, so I was always discouraged from moving in that direction.”
With that in mind, Cansino instead pursued a career as a professional makeup artist for MAC Cosmetics for nearly 10 years, working on a Janet Jackson music video or one of Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performances. One of her final projects as a makeup artist was a film that was to be shot in Doha, Qatar. Production delays trapped her there for three months. “With nothing to do,” she said, “I found an art supply store, [bought] aerosol paints, and started painting.”
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Upon her return, in 2013, when she was 26, Cansino enrolled in Rio Hondo College in Whittier, California, where she took her first oil painting class. She ultimately transferred to Laguna College of Art and Design, where she often spent 12 hours a day painting to complete her B.F.A. Though she developed an admiration for Old Masters like Rubens, Vermeer, David, and Caravaggio, Cansino said that she wants her art to subvert the Western canon.
“The art canon is just so full of white males, and we rarely see Brown people, period,” she said. “But when we do, usually they’re in a role of servitude or one that is inferior to the white male subject. And when you see female subjects in these paintings, these women are usually sexualized. I really wanted to change that gaze.”
Cansino’s subversive eye has already gained her a number of admirers, among them Mera and Don Rubell, who appear on the ARTnews Top 200 list—a significant feat for Cansino, given that the couple is known for supporting artists like Rashid Johnson, Oscar Murillo, and Amoako Boafo before they achieved world renown. In an interview, Mera said she was immediately struck by Cansino’s work because of the way it balances a “classical” painting approach while managing to “bring forth a kind of sensitivity toward L.A. histories.”
“The way she paints an ice cream truck or a street scene makes you realize that these are scenes that are all around us, especially when you explore L.A.,” Mera continued. “She introduces you to a place we know is there but that I don’t know much about.”
Cruise Now, Cry Later (2022), a painting featuring five Chicana women who have what Cansino described as “strong feminine energies,” is one such work with imagery that’s familiar to many in L.A. It hung behind Cansino as we spoke, and a version of it was also made public this past summer, on a billboard near the corner of La Brea Avenue and First Street, courtesy of streetwear brand Undefeated. Reflecting on “a very strong matriarchal system in my family,” she painted the work with the intention of having her sitters “directly confront the viewer,” she said. “This changes the narrative from object to subject. We have control in the situation versus being gazed upon by the viewer.”
Cansino wants to foreground the Chicanx communities on L.A.’s Eastside because “a lot of our family history is here in East L.A. and Boyle Heights,” she said. It’s all an effort to “show the slices of life within the Chicanx community” in the same manner in which quotidian scenes are presented “in old Flemish or Italian master paintings.”
To create her paintings, Cansino sets up photo shoots with her subjects. Most of the time, she takes the photographs herself. She then uses multiple images from the shoot to create a composite in Photoshop. She’ll complete a full underpainting in burnt umber on flat panels of plywood, scumble in highlights with a thin coat of paint, and then fill in with glazes for flesh tones until she creates the final image.
Drawing on her academic training, she prizes tenebrism—a style employing contrasting light and shadow to produce drama—to evoke the strength and power she sees in her sitters and her community. At times these references are even more direct, as in Mi Familia (2021), which shows the artist receiving a neck tattoo from the tattoo master who trained her. The composition is intentionally reminiscent of paintings by Caravaggio and Rembrandt.
Since earning an M.F.A. from the University of Southern California in 2021, Cansino has been working at a larger scale, most of her canvases being four by six feet; she’s continued to work big, even when her studio space doesn’t allow it. One piece grew to such proportions that, earlier this year, ahead of a solo show at L.A.’s Charlie James Gallery, she had to finish it in her dining room. Cansino painted From 3rd to 5th St., showing several people lined up in front of an ice cream truck on a summer night, “literally lying on my belly on the floor, painting the bottom part of the painting. I just couldn’t reach it.” She had to split the eight-foot-long work across two panels in order to fit it through the doors of her home.
Before the Charlie James show officially opened, the Rubells bought From 3rd to 5th St., along with everything else in the exhibition—much to the dismay of other collectors and institutions who were hoping to nab a piece of Cansino’s work.
Around the time that Cansino was working on her bachelor’s degree, her cousin urged her to take up tattooing, and he and his wife became her first canvases. After graduating, she began apprenticing in a tattoo shop. (At 15, she’d made her first tattoo, a simple stick-and-poke depicting a crescent moon on a fellow marching band member.) She sees tattooing as a “performance of endurance, strength.”
Cansino’s love for tattooing is akin to her love for ink in yet another form: ballpoint pens, which she often uses to draw landscapes. Her largest pen drawing to date, Make Your Mark (2020), was completed in the 72 hours preceding a show at USC. “It became this kind of endurance piece where I just banged out this giant 12-foot topographical map as fast I could,” she said.
The idea for the work “came from my experience being a SoCal resident and constantly moving and commuting,” she explained. Her daily round trip some 120 miles between Compton and classes in Laguna Beach made her “consider how much we drive in Southern California.”
Mark Your Mark also included a performative element in which people who attended the pre-pandemic opening were invited to touch her drawing. “Artists usually work with precious materials, or the art becomes something so precious that people aren’t encouraged to touch,” Cansino said. “But I’m working with materials that aren’t so precious—ballpoint pen and paper—that you can find just about anywhere. It’s a disposable material, but it’s meant to archive information or document history. It’s just non-precious in form.”
To leave their marks, Cansino had people eat Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, a callback to the food’s overnight popularity beginning in the ’90s. The chips’ infamous bright-red powder is notorious for staining anything it touches, and in the case of Cansino’s work, it enabled viewers to write messages on the piece. One visitor made an important contribution: the phrase fuck ice.
“I didn’t write that,” Cansino said, “but it was interesting, because a lot of people asked, ‘Are you upset?’ And I said, ‘No.’ What does that say, to see a map of Southern California with Hot Cheetos and to think about ice? That stayed with me, because to me, this map was for everybody.”
Cansino has also recently begun painting on serapes, the brightly colored blankets that are commonplace in Mexico and the Southwest, and at their shared border crossings. “The serape points to my childhood and crossing the border and buying blankets at the border—having these blankets in our cars, on our couches, just everywhere,” she said. Because of how absorbent the material is, the painted images come out fuzzy, even dreamlike.
The use of serapes, as with many of her materials, is meant to start a conversation about access to art supplies, which many viewers may take for granted. “Growing up, I didn’t have access to cotton duck and Belgian linen,” she said. “It’s an issue that comes down to class. Serapes are still, like, $20, and I can make three panels from one. That’s why that ballpoint is so important to me: I rarely had materials like that. And when I did, they were so precious to me.”
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A version of this article appears in the 2022 edition of ARTnews’s Top 200 Collectors issue, under the title “Danie Cansino Paints a Picture.”