Crafted of recycled foam, polyurethane, acrylic paint and resin, each piece seems to possess a fantasy backstory and anthropomorphic charisma. The artist says natural forms may inspire her, but the true meaning of her work comes from within.
"They do have personality, but it's not on purpose," Lam says. "There's no narrative there. When I was doing the more blobby wall pieces, I did draw more directly from nature, but now I never want to inadvertently create something I've seen. I think that's why when people look at my work, they think there's a hint of something organic like a slime mold or weird fungus, but it's not that thing."
Still, Lam's little aliens are personable and attractive enough to take her career from local spaces to blue-chip galleries, and from the collections of Demi Lovato, Gigi Hadid and 2 Chainz to the walls of Meow Wolf. Their appeal is instinctual and almost universal — so much so it was the egalitarian platform of Instagram that allowed the then-aspiring sculptor to get on the art world's radar.
"For a gallery like ours, Instagram is a pretty vital resource," says Ken Harman Hashimoto, the owner and director of Hashimoto Contemporary, who represents Lam in California and New York. "My business partner, Dasha Matsuura, discovered [her] work online in 2015 or 2016. When she posts, it sucks you in, even if you don't quite understand what you're looking at. I think that's one of the things that makes her so special: You can appreciate it both online and [in person], and it can resonate in both formats."
One could argue that Lam is an artist of her time: social media savvy (484K followers on Insta, 497K on TikTok), clever with color and a lot of fun to collect. From the very beginning, art seemed to be destiny for this Vietnamese wunderkind.
Born in 1988 in a refugee camp in Manila, Lam moved to Houston when she was a baby. An only child, she amused herself by drawing, building things and playing with melted wax. Her mother also had creative tendencies, and the portraits she would make of her growing daughter were a highlight of Lam's childhood.
"I was so excited when it came to that time of year," Lam recalls. "I loved watching her draw. She also had this job hand-embellishing baby objects, and she would take me to work with her, which was another pretty influential thing. Being a kid after school, I would watch all these ladies sit and paint and was obsessed with all the colors."
The family relocated to Dallas/Fort Worth when Lam was 8. She knew she wanted to pursue a creative career by the time she reached high school.
"It's funny because teenagers are so dramatic," she says with a laugh. "I loved writing and still love it, and there was a split moment where I was like, 'Am I going to be a writer, or am I going to be an artist?' For some reason, it can't be both. I picked pursuing art in high school."
Lam's talent was evident even in those early days of sketching in AP art class at Plano West High School. Her former classmate Liz Paris, now collections manager at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, says she saw something special in the artist's aesthetic from the start.
"From the time I first met Dan at the beginning of our senior year, she was really talented," says Paris, who opened a show, Beyond Reality, featuring Lam's work at the McNay this month. "The only difference was she was primarily working in 2D. But all the elements in the 2D work you see in her work today. A lot of her work had a very organic quality to it, and there was a little bit of a psychedelic influence. You saw these squiggly things going on, and there were always bright colors. A lot of those primary elements made their way into her work as she moved through grad school and beyond."
It's amazing to see her work with color combinations that don't exist in nature but feel like they should." – Han Santana-Sayles, Meow Wolftweet this
"I had professors who were like, 'You HAVE to do studio arts,' and at the time, I thought they were just being nice," Lam says. "But after I had some time and was in grad school, [I knew] they don't just tell that to anybody. I told my mom, and she was super upset, and we had this fight. She thought I was only doing it because it was the easy way out, but I did it because, in my gut, I knew this was right and what I needed to be doing."
Lam ultimately earned her master of fine arts from Arizona State University in 2014. After graduation, she followed her boyfriend to Midland for his job. When not teaching art appreciation at the local community college, she spent her hours in studio exploration and time on a little app called Instagram.
"My paintings were very textural and thick [in grad school]," she says. "I was still working on the wall, but I would definitely call them sculptures. At that point in time, I was using polyurethane foam, which is still one of my primary materials — I'm obsessed with it. A lot of time, it was just about me exploring the material. I thought [it] was so cool. Within my own explorations, I was like, 'How can I can push it and make it do different things?'"
Inspired by artists such as James Turrell, Olafur Eliasson and Lynda Benglis, Lam also pushed her color combinations and posted the results on Instagram under @sopopomo. By 2016, local galleries and international celebrities were sliding into her DMs.
"This was a way of sharing my work because I didn't have the community I did in school," she says. "Instagram had been out for a few years, but people were still getting into it. I remember my following was growing. At the time, it was just like, look at these numbers inching up! This little ticker felt like a game; it didn't feel real. Someone commented on one of my posts, 'Miley Cyrus follows you.' It was like, that's cool. Then she hit me up a few months later [for a piece]."
Lam moved back to Dallas, where local outlets such as Circuit 12 and Fort Works Art started exhibiting her work. The latter took her to Miami's Scope Art Show, where she met Harman Hashimoto. Once gallerists were able to view Lam's pieces in person as well as online, it was a game changer.
"Being able to see how she makes her work [online] is such a fascinating process," says Harman Hashimoto. "It's colorful and hypnotic, and that works very much in Dan's favor because that's not necessarily true for a very amazingly talented painter. On the other end of the spectrum, when you see the work in person, people have so many questions, 'What is it that I'm looking at? What is it made of?' People will ask if it's ceramic or glass. There's nothing I like to do more than allow people to touch it because it will raise the hair on the neck and make you feel something."
The company's director of artistic collaboration, Han Santana-Sayles, was acquainted with Lam's work. Still, it wasn't until she found the artist had filled out a collaboration form on Meow's website that the two met.
"I was shocked because she was already this high-caliber, well-known artist who would be a perfect Meow Wolf collaborator," Santana-Sayles says. "I knew I wanted to see her work on a much larger scale. She's always messing around and playing with new methodologies. It's amazing to see her work with color combinations that don't exist in nature but feel like they should."
Lam's piece for Meow Wolf's fourth permanent exhibition at the Grapevine Mills mall soars to 16-by-16 feet, and Santana-Sayles hopes it will be the first in a long line of collaborations.
"[With her sculptures] people are either delighted, and they love it, or they're like, 'Ew, that's so weird, why is that here?'" Santana-Sayles says with a laugh. "I'm completely biased in Dan's favor. We don't have a formal roster at Meow Wolf, but I see her as someone who will frequently collaborate with us. I'd love to do a bigger project in the future. That's definitely the intention for us right now."
"I had professors who were like, 'You HAVE to do studio arts,' and at the time, I thought they were just being nice." – Dan Lamtweet this
Lam challenges herself with materiality and scale as she moves up the artistic ladder. Having explored spikey finishes and glittering Swarovski crystals, micro-mini sculptures and massive installations, she is now creating furniture prototypes in her Tin District studio in West Dallas.
The prices for her pieces might soar up to $20k (and climbing), but it's also essential for Lam to make her smaller sculptures affordable. She periodically offers "mini drops" of little drips and phone cases on her Instagram, with the next one set for June.
As she plans for that release (plus solo exhibitions at X in Portland in July and at Hashimoto in New York in December), she remains a one-woman show. She's attempted to use assistants, but her only-child upbringing means her best work happens alone. It allows her to experiment, play and "go down the rabbit hole" in new and fresh directions.
"I have friends who are artists who have teams of 10 or 12 people!" she says. "I'm sure there's an energy to that which fuels them, but I can't. I feel like I'm doing myself a disservice by handing off prep work to somebody else because there are things I learn in all stages. When I start feeling too confident, I'm like, let me switch things up so I can keep challenging myself and not keep making the same thing."
That tactic will likely assure her future remains as bright as her work.
"Having her work be so unique, so special, and not mass-produced is so important,” Harman Hashimoto says. “She always has a very clear idea of what she wants to do, she's always thinking about the next thing, and she never ceases to surprise. Every year she introduces a new aspect that makes it even more interesting."