SHAWN HUCKINS | ARTIST INTERVIEW
Shawn Huckins in his studio with a work in progress
Artist Shawn Huckins recently took the time to sit down with us to answer some of our questions about his work and process. Read on to enjoy the insights he shares. Thank you, Shawn!
Foster/White Gallery: How do you choose your subjects?
Shawn Huckins: I choose my subjects based on what I’m initially drawn to; I tend to lean toward paintings that have a realistic style. For example, 18th century portraits by John Singleton Copley are incredibly well painted, and offer a challenging experience when I create my own painting. I also look at portraits as if they tell stories, so if the portrait is unique (either because of the environment the subject is placed in, their clothing, or the expression on their face), I will likely choose that element to engage with the digital text phrases.
F/WG: What draws you to subjects from this era (the 18th century) in American History?
SH: American history has always been a fascination to me ever since I was child growing up in New England, learning about the history of redcoats, monarchies, revolution, and war. I was also interested in the architecture and clothing of the time as well, so it was a perfect matrimony when I created my series combining my love for American history with a current day digital lexicon. One thing that makes these portraits stand out is the clothing. One of the great joys in my painting practice is painting fabric and the intricate lace work of the 18th century.
F/WG: You recreated pieces from the White House Art Collection for your recent show by studying the works in digital archives. In your opinion, does the keyword-based digitization system help or hinder the legacies of the works, people, and artists in those collections?
SH: It most certainly helps elevate the legacies of the subject matter. One of the great things about the internet and digital cataloging of pre-computer era art objects is that it preserves their original purpose and importance. I feel it in no way hinders the legacies of those objects, as more people can access the work and learn about their histories. It’s only when someone (an artist, for example) uses the work to manipulate those paintings to make a current day statement on the fragility of legacy.
F/WG: The figures you reproduce project power and status communicated through modes of traditional painting. How do you reconcile this visually with the symbols of status and how we understand them through social media, influencers, and followers?
SH: One of the main objectives in the text series is to contrast the power and status seen so much in 18th century painting (as the powerful and wealthy are the only ones who could commission paintings) with current day digital language; which in no way gives a message of power. The debasement of language by shortening phrases, creating acronyms, and frequent misspellings gives the opposite message of power and status and that’s why I think the series works so well. It brings the person of status down several tiers to the level of a commoner.
F/WG: Do you notice a marked difference between generations’ reactions and understanding of your work? Do you feel our modern simplified communication lends itself to a broader understanding?
SH: When I started the texting series 11 years ago, I thought it was going to be too limiting in regards to people understanding the work. I thought people my age and younger would be the only ones to appreciate the message and the ‘quirkiness’ of it all. In 2012, I had a two person show in LA. Very few people attended the opening, but one thing made my entire night. An older man in his mid-to late seventies came to the show and purchased one of my larger paintings. I had the privilege of speaking with him for several minutes and he told me he had a big connection with the painting. He shared that the goal of his collection was to capture a moment in time (or a record of a specific era). I suppose a person doesn’t really have to understand what all the acronyms mean to appreciate the underlying message of the work. Does how we communicate govern the value of what we communicate?
F/WG: The ability to understand visual cues in traditional portraiture were traditionally a class and education barrier. Does a more universal and simplified text make it more accessible? Does the broader use of Photoshop and digital editing software make a universal language?
SH: This question ties in with a previous response as it brings the individual of power and status down to a level of the ‘common man.’ In the18th century, it was generally the wealthy who could afford proper education, learning to read and write. With social media so dominant in our society and everyone having a cell phone, anyone can access the internet, as well as communicate in whatever form they choose. The advent of computers and ‘digital speak’ has created a more universal language that everyone across the globe can recognize (ie, emojis) and it doesn’t matter your social class is.
F/WG: How has our modern simplified communication effected individual reactions and understanding of your works? Do you notice a marked difference between generations who grew up with computers and those who did not?
SH: Some see it as a puzzle, as they have to decode the acronyms and side-step the misspellings. However, ‘digi-speak’ is so prevalent in our society that it shocks no one to see it in our everyday lives. It’s when you see that language contrasted with a society that is portrayed as being more civil and intelligible that the nuance of digital communication really stands out. I think the only difference in the age gap is that younger generations may better understand what the text actually says without going to Urban Dictionary to look up the meanings.
F/WG: Do you see your works as a bridge to a deeper connection and the preservation of legacy in a world of ‘fake news’ and algorithmic information reception? How so?
SH: I feel the goal of any artist is to capture a moment in time and to record what they see and feel. The arts are so important during times of chaos because they allow an artist to see a problem and visually interpret it to share with others who might not see the original issue as relevant. The arts allow artists to communicate to a broader spectrum. It’s up to artists to be true and honest with themselves, and to make work that reflects that. It’s up to the viewer to decide if what they are consuming, whether it be a painting, or a cable news network, is fake and doesn’t portray their beliefs. Art, like the news, is subjective. One person will appreciate the meaning behind your work and another may find the work offensive. I’ve had several comments about the ‘erasure’ paintings as being disrespectful to the portraits behind them. And in regards to the particular series, that was entirely the message of how our current day government is being disrespectful of generations past. Their objections to my work is how I feel our of government, so basically we are on the same page. Kind of.
F/WG: You speak of the importance of legacy and the ease with which it can be smeared or erased. What kind of legacy do you hope your work leaves on painting or on history?
SH: My goal when creating work is to portray a potentially heavy message with humor (more noticeably in the text series). I think it is okay to talk about serious issues, but I like doing so with a sense of humor and I think that’s evident in my work. During the opening night of my last solo show at the gallery, my partner acted as my spy, walking around to different groups of people to overhear their conversations about the work. Lots of people were smiling ear to ear and laughing as they gazed upon my work and that ultimately feels really good. When they can understand the underlying motive behind the work and also have a chuckle, I think that’s a pretty good mark to leave.
To see more of Shawn Huckin's work please visit www.fosterwhite.com