Nature’s Sights and Sounds: A Conversation with Shawn Hall
By Michelle A. M. Miller and Jeanie Ambrosio
New Orleans-based, multidisciplinary artist Shawn Hall’s expansive body of work conjures the idea of the archetypal artist-scientist deep in thought among her many fascinating specimens. Her intuitive and lyrical practice engages with biological phenomena through painting, video and installation where she deftly lures us into a state of wonder: we see, hear and feel color, form and space. She has participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions across the U.S. Her work was recently on view at The Ogden Museum of Southern Art for The Whole Drum Will Sound: Women in Southern Abstraction curated by Bradley Sumrall and Drawing Discourse: Examining Contemporary Drawing and the Intersections Between Fine Art, New Media & Craft at the Holden Art Center Gallery, University of North Carolina, Asheville. She has been awarded a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant and has been artist-in-residence at the Santa Fe Art Institute and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. The following conversation is from a generous email exchange that took place over the course of several months.
Michelle A. M. Miller: When we first began our interview Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 essay Grids was on my mind. Your work is organized such that the grids evoke a sensation akin to centrifugal forces pulling us beyond the picture plane suggesting a larger other world and at the same time there is an internal evocation of spirit, myth or searching. Rather than silencing narrative, your framework feels like a conversation. Do you agree with this reading of your work? What would you like your work to communicate?
Shawn Hall: I suppose I do agree with that reading of my work: I am suggesting a larger, other world, and I am evoking the spirit of that world. I have always thought about a grid as forming language rather than silencing a narrative, at least in the way I am using it. The grid does impose a structure, but I see it more as a doorway to the work than a repression of discourse, as Krauss suggests a grid is. For me, it’s a vehicle to build an elegant if not rudimentary, cognitive language about a complex world, out of the relationship of my marks and their associations. Two images side by side invoke a kind of read-between-the-lines feeling that intrigues me. More images = more intrigue = broader, more complex picture. What is it? What’s going on? What is it doing? What is implied? These are loosely narrative questions that I ask without words. I think these questions come into play because my work has a sense of animation, of phenomenon in motion, despite being confined to a two-dimensional plane and clearly not moving. I want the work to evoke a state of wonder, that fundamental bridge to opening our minds. But it can only do that if people take the time to look, so I (subconsciously) draw them in with odd beauty and the compelling strangeness of gestural marks. I want the work to contribute to a conversation about curiosity and investigation and to be a counterweight to fear and reactivity toward the unknown, particularly in the natural world. I want the work to contribute to a dialogue that ultimately asks questions about our stewardship of the environment and our place within it.
MM: How successful do you think art is in facilitating that conversation and can art reach the skeptics?
SH: I do think art can facilitate the conversations about stewardship, but the conversations depend on the venue and, of course, the art and the artist. And it absolutely requires outreach, art can’t do it on its own if no one sees it or is able to interact with it. Projects and exhibitions in elementary, secondary or university schools can reach a diverse population of young and older minds, and museums and non-traditional venues can also often reach diverse populations. Traditional galleries have little impact unless they make it part of their PR mission to educate and do outreach, which isn’t typically the case. Does it reach skeptics? Possibly not. Finding audiences outside of traditional art venues is difficult. We have a culture that doesn’t value art education or art, after all, and I think that contributes. I’m currently engaged with an issue related to this question, which is how to convey fact-based information in a science-based project without losing the poetic mystery, so the work can stand alone but convey information that is little known. Otherwise proselytizing becomes a part of the work in the form of somewhat dry spoken or printed language, and that’s not very poetic or visual and doesn’t work on the subconscious level that visuals are often able to – visuals can go deep. Language can, too, but I’m not sure facts can. But I’m trying to find my way here, and feels like I’m inching toward epiphany and that I will be able to figure it out. However, there is something very powerful in presenting ideas and visuals to diverse audiences in the form of lectures and discussions that are conversational and inclusive, and may or may not be in conjunction with art exhibitions. So, while I absolutely believe art can be successful in facilitating conversation, I think it often needs the support of conversations to do that.
MM: Returning to the work, the paintings read like visual poetry to me. Each square becomes a signifier for something greater, and can be read either vertically, horizontally, forward or backward. Is that part of the appeal of the grid structure?
SH: Absolutely! Omni-directional readability. It is visual poetry. Observation is a kind of poetry—the mind wandering and linking things or musing in its own way even if it’s directed with purpose by the observer. You have to suspend a bit of rationality to make the leaps and find the structure.
MM: I like that you think of your grids as forming a language. This evokes all sorts of concepts, from slide samples used by scientists to explore the microscopic to ideograms, even honeycombs. I am struck by the specimen-like qualities--each discrete element has its own character, and conjures so many things: blood, chemical, pollution, amoeba, diatom, life.
SH: Definitely slide samples or specimens; an evocation of the seen and unseen things that inhabit our world. Even when a painting seems like pure abstraction, which it sometimes can and is, I think it still has the presence of that world lingering – habitation/action - even if that is just energy. There is energy being transmitted in my actions and it comes through. In a funny way I am a narrative action painter!
MM: When did you first identify your interest in these natural phenomena?
SH: I think I’ve always been interested in natural phenomena on some level. When I was an undergrad, I did a number of paintings exploring intimacy, really trying to figure out what it was and where it crossed the line and turned into pornography. Surely intimacy is a natural phenomenon; although, I didn’t think directly about it like that then, like pollination—insects touching sexual organs to take pollen to other sexual organs for flowers. I was aware back then that I was turning away from science and math to explore more freely within what I viewed as the “non-confines” of art. I lost track of science, thought more about history and just focused on trying to figure out how to paint, and also how my paintings worked as language and with language. In my paintings (and drawings) there were always serial relationships, diptychs and multiple panels, but my first real grid was I think in my last semester of grad school in 1991, a piece called 156 underwear made up of 156 small oil paintings on shellacked paper of mostly dumb–ish underwear sans wearer. My late friend Robert Blanchon curated me into a show called Strip that year at N.A.M.E. in Chicago that had Tom of Findland in it among others, and the grid of underwear is what I sent. Porn was the radical signifier in that show and I think I may have been inadvertently irreverent (and consequently probably ignored) by sending my goofy underwear piece. It was a very painterly piece and it was also individually center-focused like much of my recent work.
MM: You incorporate your body and the bodies of others in your video work, but your paintings exclude the human figure. In this sense do your paintings become artifacts of human action?
SH: Yes, my current work is non-figurative but my previous work was very figurative for a good 15 years, and I taught figure painting and figure drawing both for many years back then. However, I would argue that my paintings are still figurative, just non-human. And you're right that much of my video work does use the body, on the same hand much of my current video doesn't. I think with the videos they are witness to a human act, and in painting, as you’ve pointed out, it’s more of an artifact of a human act. I don’t know if my non-body using video falls into either of those categories. Are they witness to something in the natural world—or are they only ideas about the natural world, or something else?
MM: I am always interested in how place impacts one’s art. Has New Orleans been influential to your practice?
SH: I spend a lot of time on an island in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan most summers and that has profoundly influenced my art in every form. New Orleans is something different for me, not really an influence as much as it has been a lab for me, as well as a home. It’s been a place of regeneration of the soul. Although, the last few science-based projects I’ve done have started via observations in New Orleans.
MM: Natural disasters and personal trauma can further characterize this idea of place and can impact us in unexpected ways. In 2005 you survived hurricane Katrina and in 2006 you were diagnosed with breast cancer. Does the grid format provide some level of visual comfort or control?
SH: Great question. Yes, but maybe I take issue with the phrase visual comfort – I have never thought of my work as comforting per se. But I think what you’re getting at is right. Parallel to the grids right after Katrina were bodies of photographic work, much of it juxtaposing images to make a complex commentary or documenting flora, including many weeds, and printing with fancy frames containing the view - all of that work was trying to make sense of the chaos by imposing an aesthetic order. And, yes, the paintings, too. However, doesn’t all work that documents, catalogues and/or is in a series or body impose an aesthetic order? But perhaps the difference with what you are alluding to is that maybe I’m not shying away from the chaos.
MM: Music seems fairly critical to your performance practice, and in addition to all the other evocations we have discussed there is something tonal about your paintings. Are you a musician? And have you incorporated music with your work?
SH: Thank you. Tonal is a nice thing to think about. I did sing for a few years, and took voice lessons for about 3. I was in a band briefly and then a duo with an ex of mine performing out for about 4 years starting just as I was getting out of grad school. It was fun, and a lot of my poetry morphed into songwriting. My dad was a jazz piano player, so I grew up with music and jam sessions, and of course I did run a recording studio from 2001-2013 and I live in New Orleans – music is all around me. I have collaborated with several musicians on sound for video and performance, but I have not incorporated sound with my paintings yet. It is an idea that has been talked about with my friend Floy Krouchi, who is a Paris-based composer and musician that I have collaborated with on another project. She hears music when she sees my paintings and I would be very interested in what sounds she would bring to them.
MM: Can you talk a bit about the trajectory of video in your art practice?
SH: In 1985-87 I started collaborating on a lot of experimental work – mostly performance art, and it was then that I shot my first video. I did some minor experiments with 16mm film in grad school in 1990 then in 1998 I collaborated with Courtney Egan on our video trans- which got into the New Orleans Film Festival. We set up a camera and loosely DJ’d a film shoot/dance party with our friends. It was tightly cropped and shot in black and white, and kept at a low resolution because it looked better – video didn’t have a great quality back then – and edited it like crazy.
I’ve been shooting footage and working with video regularly since, but after Katrina is when all my work changed into work about natural phenomenon. The hurricane certainly had some influence on that.
Clearly, a big thing for me over the years with video has been experimentation. I get an idea and I try to execute it. Maybe it’s an action or performance, whatever it is I have a parameter of some sort. I do something until I can’t seem to get myself to do it anymore, my interest shifts, things gradually morph, and then I find myself doing something else. The pathway takes me different places. Although now I’m finding that the pathways are taking me into field documentary directions, which are somewhat experimental but that’s probably because I’m not a scientist.
To view more of Hall’s work, visit http://www.shawnhall.org
Krauss, Rosalind. “Grids,” October 9 (Summer 1979): 50-64.