Certainly the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been on virtually everyone’s mind, at least to some degree. Disasters of this scale, man made or naturally occurring, are often cause for reflecting on who we are, what we do, and whether we’re doing what we should be doing.
Artists put significant effort into crafting methods of art-making that are individual and enduring. What happens to that kind of process when something big happens? Something topical but undeniably significant? Do we carry on as always? Should there be a specific response to the event in question? Does the event reframe the work temporarily or permanently? Shane Walsh has kindly agreed to a one-question interview on this topic. He received his MFA from the University of Washington in 2006, and he currently teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and at the University of Milwaukee.
Your paintings of shipwrecks skirt the line I’ve drawn above. They aren’t specifically about oil spills, but they are definitely about disaster at sea. Are you interested in directly addressing the BP spill, since you’re already well-versed in some of the imagery? Has the spill led you to re-interpret work you’ve already made?
I should start by saying that these paintings weren’t done in response to the BP oil spill. I feel like the BP situation is symptomatic of our society’s relationship with our environment, where making a profit is the primary concern. I’m interested in looking at the visual effects of this relationship rather than using the work to make a statement about big business and the environment. I don’t consider myself a political or environmental artist. Artists are like sensitive antenna and pick up on things in the culture, which find their way into the work. These things are already built into the practice, allowing the freedom to not have to make paintings “about” current events, which for me would kill the activity of making a painting. I do however think it’s really interesting that world events have the ability to re-contextualize works of art, either amplifying or denying meaning and whether or not It’s temporary or permanent. The few times that I have shown the paintings I’ve gotten some comments about them being very post-apocalyptical which makes me a little uneasy, but I understand how people could see them that way. It calls attention to questions of meaning and the viewer’s role in the constructing of that meaning.
These particular paintings were a response to an experience that I had when I was young. My father had a small boat that we would take out onto lake Michigan. I would hang over the side of the boat and look into the water, always anticipating the moment when things underwater became visible to me. That moment when form became visible was really thrilling and I consider the process of making a painting to be very similar. You’re working, searching for a specific thing and then it happens and you see it, just like the lake bottom becoming visible. Seeing this submerged landscape was also sort of terrifying because the Great Lakes aren’t really like the ocean. They aren’t teeming with life, it’s sort of cold and sparse. On one trip the boat passed over the giant wooden ribs of a sunken schooner and I almost lost my mind! Seeing these ominous man-made forms had a huge impact on me and stuck in my mind. A few years ago I had the urge to access this formative memory in the studio, and realized fairly early on that it was a really generative vehicle to explore my painting concerns. Working from my memory and imagination allowed for a certain openness, so that composition, form, and space could all be discovered within the making of the work.
At a certain point in this series I started to become really aware of how color was able to produce meaning and context. I removed the blue from the work and it raised some big questions for me. The color was the signifier of place and by extension, meaning. So then I was faced with questions regarding where these things were and what they were since they weren’t underwater anymore. It was good for me because it brought up the issue of naming and if these paintings couldn’t be named as shipwrecks then what were they? This shift in the work coincided with my move back to the Midwest and I recognized that Milwaukee’s post-industrial landscape was entering the work and affecting my thinking. The mid-west is unique because the ghost of 20th century industrialism is really visible in the landscape. I live in a neighborhood that used to be a mid- century shopping district and the buildings are now abandoned or have been re-appropriated. Sometimes it feels like living in the carcass of American optimism, it’s strange but I like it. Milwaukee is full of abandoned warehouses and industrial spaces, which I explore for “research”. I’m definitely drawn to sites like shipwrecks and industrial ruins. These places embody a critique of our human activity on this planet, but also offer a plentitude of exciting visual information. Piles of garbage, collapsing infrastructure, overgrown courtyards, a ship whose deck has caved in, it’s all great material for making paintings.
Indeed, it is. Thanks Shane!
View more of Shane’s work here.