The McNay Art Museum takes a leap into the unknown with its new exhibition Beyond Reality, opening March 22, featuring Dan Lam and Carlos Donjuan from Dallas, and San Antonio artists Ernesto Ibañez and Angela Fox. 

Each artist transforms familiar materials and forms into fantastical imagery and sculpture that evokes imaginary worlds come to life.

Among the four artists, Lam has achieved a sensational level of popularity thanks in part to the rise of social media as a way for artists to connect directly with audiences.

A million followers

A quick scan of her various social media accounts reveals why Lam has attracted nearly 1 million followers. 

She’s there on Instagram hugging one of her person-sized sculptures while wearing smiley-face slippers in one post, and seemingly balancing a neon-rainbow-colored drip sculpture on one finger while standing barefoot in her studio in another.

While many artists hold tightly to their secrets, Lam makes frequent TikTok videos showing exactly how her artworks are made, pouring glossy resins and paints in layers over accretive globules and drips to create creature-like forms.

“I didn’t get on social media with any kind of strategy,” Lam said. “I just wanted to share my work.”

Her way of posting grew as organically as her sculptures, she said. “I would be working, and I’d have moments where I’m like, ‘Oh, this is cool. I wonder if I should just record this, and if people might also think it’s cool.”

Many of her videos have gone viral, with one process video of pouring a translucent green circular blob sculpture attracting 9.3 million views over a one-year period, and many posts attracting hundreds of thousands of views.

One of Dan Lam's sculptures titled <I>Sink Your Teeth In</I>.
One of Dan Lam’s sculptures titled Sink Your Teeth In. Credit: Courtesy / Dan Lam

Early potential

Beyond Reality co-curator Liz Paris, who works as collections manager for the McNay, attended high school with Lam in Dallas, both graduating in 2006. Paris recognized her classmate’s artistic potential at the time, even before Lam moved from working primarily in two dimensions to making sculptures.

“Visually, you could see those elements that became what she makes and is known for now,” Paris said.

In 2016, Paris was invited by Julie Ledet and Joe Harjo, a pair of artists then working in the Lone Star arts complex, to curate a pop-up show. She took the opportunity to include Lam’s artwork. Then as Lam’s reputation grew with exhibitions around the U.S. and gallery representation in New York, she appeared locally again in the Re/Devaluing Colorism: Intersections of Skin Color and Currency exhibition at the Southwest School of Art.

This is Lam’s first museum show in San Antonio, following a 2021 solo show at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. Such institutional recognition is generally considered a major achievement for a young artist, success which Paris attributes in part to the power of social media, “because there’s immediate access,” she said.

Museums are noticing, Paris said, and emulating the notion of making popular art more accessible. Institutions still have a role to play, she said, even as audiences get insider looks at their favorite artists’ work through social media.

Lam’s work reproduces well in images, Paris said, but “the photo doesn’t do it justice. It’s that tactile quality of her work that makes me want to go see something in person … because art is the experience.”

Beyond Reality opens March 22 and runs through Aug. 13, accessible with regular museum admission.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...