Nowhere is the idea of renewal more playful than in the work of Shawn Huckins. Elegant portraits and history paintings from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are interrupted by LOLs and WTFs, combining methods of communication from the past and present in a way that’s both contemplative and hilarious.
Huckins’ historical images are paired with overlaid acronyms and tweets that poke fun at the dilapidated state of our language; the series, American Revolution, utilized paintings originally made between the 1760s and 1820s, and The American ___tier broadened the scope, incorporating landscapes and portraits from the 1820s to 1900. “The whole idea was to choose periods of past American transformation and contrast them with today’s evolution, good or bad,” he said.
But Huckins’s first series of work remade an item more common than the historical portrait. Paint Chips converted supersized Behr painting swatches into backgrounds for seductively simple scenes. I conversed with Shawn over email to learn what it is about familiar imagery that inspires him to say something new.
Lindsey Davis: Did you paint the backdrop of paint samples in Paint Chips? What was it like to scale up such an everyday thing and turn it into an image, only to paint something else from everyday life on top of it?
Shawn Huckins: Yes, everything is painted in Paint Chips. At the beginning of the series, I would mix and match the color of the swatch using acrylic paints. However, this process used up a lot of paint, and I was running to the art supply store often. Later, I used actual Behr paints. This not only made the color 100% true to the paint card but also saved my tubes of acrylic paint. To paint the subject matter of the everyday was the whole intention of the series. Taking these color swatches that we use to choose our kitchen or bathroom colors and to superimpose other everyday objects was to bring the mundane to the forefront and make it monumental.
LD: What is the significance for you in meticulously painting these works by hand when the text you include indicates that we’re in an age where Photoshop can used towards a similar end in a fraction of the time? Is it the idea of there being an original, a relic from the past that we can’t give up?
SH: The computer is great, and I use it often to sketch or compose ideas, especially for my current series, The American __tier. I suppose though, I’m a traditionalist at heart and love working with my hands. Creating something with your own two hands as opposed to having a computer generate it gives the body of work a human touch and soul. That’s one thing I love about viewing works that are hundreds or even thousands of years old. You can see the human process and feel the human presence.
LD: What’s your process of combining image and text? Does one always precede the other, and how do you know when you’ve found a pair that fits?
SH: In the preliminary stages, working with text and imagery are two completely different processes. One day, I’ll work with imagery, finding the images I want to replicate from years past. On another day, I’ll search for text. I never use my own texts, as I feel it would be too contrived, and using other people’s texts gives more authenticity (or realness) to the work. When I’m ready to start combining the two for composition sketches, one side of my screen will be images I want to use, and the other side will be the master list of texts I have found. How I marry the two, imagery and text, together is sort of difficult to explain—it just sort of clicks, like an “ah-ha” moment. It may have something to do with the imagery and what’s going on within, whether the figure is male or female, or even by the expressions on their faces. It’s not a science, how I combine; it’s just an inner feeling.
LD: Which American president, do you think, would have had the most Twitter followers?
SH: I think most likely Abe Lincoln would have had the most followers. He was such an incredibly influential president, going through some drastic and difficult times in American history.
LD: What’s your favorite or least favorite word, acronym, or expression that’s been invented thanks to the Internet?
SH: Right now the term I strongly dislike is YOLO. It rubs me the wrong way when people use it or even say it out loud. It’s like an excuse to do something stupid. It’s hard to name a favorite expression, but I most often use texts that express sound, such as “haha” or “ugh,” even though I don’t audibly laugh or sulk.
LD: Have you ever LOL’d at one of your own paintings?
SH: No. I’ve had that “ah-ha” moment, like I mentioned, but seeing the creation process from the beginning sort of reduces the LOL effect for me. However, I have seen other people at my shows belt some LOLs. For example, with one painting from 2015, with the text, “cracking jokes and drinking while everyone trying to be art serious,” people will laugh out loud and say “so true” or “that’s so me.”
LD: Do you think there’s a way technology can bring back some of the emotional connection it’s stripped away from interpersonal communication? Is there any way in which the sheer amount of texts and tweets can build something of value?
SH: The only technology I can think that would bring back some human connection is a device that shuts down or obstructs people from using their phones—maybe in a restaurant, or at the family table. We have grown so attached to our phones that I believe human connections have suffered as a result, and sympathy we should learn and feel toward others is slowly getting diminished since we all have a little shield to hide behind. I can’t see a greater volume of texts and tweets building anything of value. It’s not the quantity; it’s the quality. For example, I find it much more satisfying to simply say, “Good morning,” to a complete stranger, face-to-face, than to text back-and-forth at length about what’s for dinner. The human connection is far more valuable.
LD: What did it mean for you to remove the Front from your series title, The American __tier?
SH: This is meant for the viewer’s interpretation. It can mean whatever you want. The American frontier symbolized a time of exploration of the nation’s west and of new beginnings. Now, with the advancement of technology and social media, some may say that we are devolving, or heading in the opposite direction in regard to human interaction. Fill in the blank to suit your own opinion: Is it Backtier? Get-off-your-phone-and-talk-with-a-human-tier?
LD: In American Revolution, you started at the country’s founding, and in The American __tier, you continued on toward the idea of Manifest Destiny and the Wild West. Do you see your work continuing to move forward chronologically through American history?
SH: After this current series, The American __tier, I see no further pursuit of continuation. I have been working on this body of work for about six years and feel I have said what I needed to say, and now it’s time to move on to new subject matter.
LD: What is it about American culture and history that keeps you inspired? Do you think we’re actually an exceptional nation, or are we only exceptional because of how much we assert our own exceptionalism?
SH: That’s a heavy question. We are a great nation, and I’m very proud to call America my home… although it’s hard to say that now, with the current presidential race going on. Anyway, I’ve been immersed in the American culture since day one, so it’s basically all I know and love. But America to me isn’t just branding and logos. I grew up in New England, so I was surrounded by America’s first buildings and landmarks and a culture full of history and tradition. That’s America to me.
A solo exhibition of Shawn Huckins’ work titled Everything Is Hilarious And Nothing Is Real opens Thursday, May 5th at Modernism, Inc. in San Francisco, and runs until June 25th, 2016. Follow him on Instagram and Tumblr for updates on his work.