In these times of rehashed ideas and formulaic expression, its hard for an artist to have their own voice. To unapologetically be ones self as an artist much less a person. Even your most respected artists tends to compromise for their audience. Today in our Q&A series we are going to be talking with Shawn Callahan an artist that brakes that mold. Who reimagines the art
aesthetic in a style that I can only described as some sort of abstract pop art hybrid. The work is familiar yet strange, tangible yet hard to grasp. I think all of these things and more make his work such an important contribution to the art world. So we got a hold of him and got to ask him some questions. His perspective is humble yet inspiring, but don’t take my word for it…
Check it out:
$ocity: How long have you been painting?
Shawn C: Painting came late for me. I was always drawing as a kid, but never thought of myself as a painter. I did this acrylic painting of a kitchen sink juxtaposed over some vintage block-pattern background when I was in high school and people really reacted to it. That was my first painting and I was probably 15 or something.
$ocity: What got you into art?
Shawn C: I don’t know if it’s like that – you know, something getting me into art. I just always was. Maybe it’s inherent in my personality, or maybe it’s a coping mechanism of sorts. There’s a lot of bullshit in the world that can’t be improved with speech & logic, and I was never a great talker or the most rational – so art became the thing. Growing up in a large city with great museums and galleries definitely helped to aid my interests later in life though.
$ocity: Your style is very distinctive. How would you describe it?
Shawn C: It’s always funny describing art. I would like to think it’s got a pinch of everything I love: saturday morning cartoons, underground comics, surrealist paintings, pop art, anime, record covers, skateboard graphics, commercial design. The elements that those genres have in common are typically heavy use of line, flat color fields or linear gradients, and lack of texture/removal of artist’s hand. That’s my shit.
$ocity: Who were your biggest influences?
Shawn C: Were? Like in the past? – Unknowingly Art Spiegelman with his participation in the creation of Garbage Pail Kids. Charles Sellier with the horror movie ‘Silent Night Deadly Night’, Bruce Lee, the Beastie Boys, Mad Magazine. But really, I think it was skateboard graphics that held my interest – gave credibility to nonsense still-frames. Gold.
$ocity: Is there a particular method to your style?
Shawn C: Yes. It’s kind of painful to talk about really. My paintings take an extremely long time to execute. It’s mainly because I apply multiple layers of thinned paint to create an ‘untouched’ or textureless opaque color field. My paintings are extremely economical in a material sense, using the least amount of paint to cover the surface, however, the amount of time taken for application is costly. Each color field is at least 20 layers of paint. The end result is ultimately what I crave – so the final product is always worth it.
$ocity: You’re from Houston TX but moved to Portland OR. Which one do you like better? Which one would you say had the bigger influence on your style?
Shawn C: Oof. It’s all so subjective. I used to have real concrete views about what’s this and what’s that, and where is this better and this better. I’ve kind of given up on that. I love Houston, and yes Houston owns my influences. Everything I love came out of that city. What’s cool is that my experience growing up in the South will always be there for me, but I don’t know if there’s anything for me to go back to now. As far as Portland, It’s an easy place for me to live, and I was drawn to it for that reason – creative folks living unconventionally to make things happen. I can’t say that I’m influenced culturally by Portland though. It’s a little small & tame for my tastes, but it’s opened other doors for me.
$ocity: Any new artists that you’re digging?
Shawn C: New…hmm. Like 10 years new? I don’t really f with cutting edge anything these days. I’m always looking at tons of new art via the web/books/mags, but no-one in particular. I really had time to be a head like that years ago when I was checking out Inka Essenhigh, David Ellis, Chris Ofili, Brad Tucker, Neo Rauch, Bodys Isek Kingelez, Tal R, Cheik Ledy, Takashi Murakami, Henry Darger, William Pope L., Madame Chao, Marcel Dzama…just to name a few. Tripper Dungan, Julia Stoops, Mona Superhero, & Eat Cho are some Portland locals that are doing it.
$ocity: What’s the biggest challenge for an artist in general? And what’s the biggest challenge for you in particular?
Shawn C: I think the biggest challenge is the time/money factor. Not only is it hard to find a job that pays for the space you need without killing yourself working overtime, it’s hard to find employers that are tolerant of artistic personalities. I seriously feel like I’ve been discriminated against for being creative like it’s some sort of defect or childish obsession. You’re way more likely to get time off of work & raises if you have a family & talk sports. Related to that — is the challenge of finding the right people to collaborate with. I am still struggling to find creative peers/roommates/lovers.
$ocity: How did you become an artist?
Shawn C: That’s a hard one. I guess it takes thinking of yourself as an artist even when no one else perceives you that way. Eventually people catch on, and say – ‘oh you have a knack for that’, or ‘you excel at that.’ I remember walking down the street with this painting of a fire escape I just finished in downtown Austin. This passerby on the street examined my painting and said “Ah – so you’re an artist”. I thought that meant something. I wouldn’t necessarily define myself as an artist if the definition relies on how much money I’ve pulled – but I’ve invested a lot of time into my craft, I love doing it, & I will do it as long as I can no matter the circumstance. I guess ultimately I became an artist through lifestyle choices – placing importance on some things over others.
$ocity: Where does your inspiration come from?
Shawn C: Too many places. From an emotional standpoint, I think there are some dark moments in my childhood that have played a huge part in my artistic drive – events that force me to see beauty in heinous circumstances. Visually speaking — there’s nothing cooler than a Bombstick wrapper, a Garbage Pail Kid card, psychedelic street debris, southern rap album covers, Hanna-Barbera cartoons, etc. I still acquire obscure VHS movies/publications and things for visual stimulation, and have my go to’s like ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and “Urotsukidoji’. I believe you hipped me to Richard Kern’s video work long ago, being fans of Sonic Youth and whatnot. All in the mix. Females play a huge part as well, mainly from personal relations.
$ocity: I’ve heard of some artists complaining of experiences trying to get into galleries? Is that something you’ve had?
Shawn: Not really. Mainly because I never went for galleries. I think I flirted with that whole dynamic in my school days, & after graduating I made my rounds in Houston. A lot of folks where nice to me, but treated me like a dumb kid which may have been accurate. So- if that was a first date, I’d be like ‘fuck that’ and move on. I’d rather slum with a cafe than marry a cold box of windows. Plus- I feel I saw so many galleries close in the late 2000’s. I think galleries are still struggling, and saying that, you have to have SELLING power more than ever. I don’t think any folks with tons of cash are betting on me yet.
$ocity: I bet there’s a lot of competition amongst artists in Portland. Is there more of a community or a competition there?
Shawn C: I have no idea. I moved up here to be a more serious member of a music collective. I’m still riding the backslide of that venture & have been fairly isolated artistically. I do feel there is a heavy price to pay for not having roots in the NW though – it’s a tiny cliqued-out bread shell. I also take full responsibility for my aloofness at the same time.
$ocity: Any other classic artists that inspired you?
Shawn C: Classic? I’m guessing you mean older? I’m always impressed by renaissance paintings although I can’t necessarily relate to them. There is a certain integrity to that period that I don’t think will ever surface again on this planet. I thought Carravagio was crazy when I was in school i guess. I’ve spent time with impressionism, minimalism, surrealism, pop art, dada – that’s classic to me. Isn’t Coca-Cola classic these days??? (bad joke)
$ocity: As much as I hate categorizing artists amongst genres, I have to ask…how would you categorize yourself?
Shawn C: Contemporary. I think that really embodies what I do.
$ocity: Any medium you enjoy using most?
Shawn C: I enjoy acrylic paint. It dries fast, no odor, mixes/cleans with water, dries matte – love it. My favorite instrument is by far the Bic pen though. The way you can control the heaviness of line with the pressure of your hand is gold. I can use the same tool to make the most consistent thin line as I can to make a bold line.
$ocity: I read a lot of Juxtapoz magazine & High Fructose magazine. I know there are countless more. Any in particular that you enjoy?
Shawn C: I was into Flash Art for a while & had a subscription to Art News. I dip into magazines like top forty radio. I don’t want the jams stuck in my head, but I want to keep some kind of gauge on that world.
$ocity: Do you think these magazines are a good resource for artists or do you think they focus on a small spectrum of art?
Shawn C: I think it’s kind of up to the individual. I’m sure some artists are very inspired after looking at such publications & some feel poisoned. I’m probably somewhere in between. I take what I can from them and chuck the rest. It’s an extremely subjective zone out there unless you’re talking about money.
$ocity: Do you think the political side of the galleries, publications, etc. make it harder for an up and comer to really expand audiences?
Shawn C: Maybe, but creativity doesn’t stop with the physical artwork itself. Being creative with how/where it’s seen is just as important. If gallery owners aren’t catering to your preferences, then it’s ultimately up to the artist to do some weird shit to bypass that nonsense.
$ocity: Like any other art forms, there are usually trends. Do these trends leave other important artists out of the circle?
Shawn C: I think there is authenticity and there is trickle down, but that’s just speculation – and maybe I’m a little old school to think like that. The way information travels today – everything is derivative of everything. Tracing the source of something makes less and less sense in contemporary society. It’s easy to look back at certain schools of painting defined throughout history, who was included & who wasn’t. I’m not so sure it’s like that anymore. A lot of artists are successful in their own right without owing anything to a particular school or movement.
$ocity: Any advice for other artists???
Shawn C: Sometimes the best advice is no advice.