Shaun O’Dell is a busy person these days. When he’s not teaching at the University of California, Berkeley or the California College of the Arts, he’s travelling between New York, the Midwest and San Francisco working on various group and solo exhibitions. He’s currently preparing for an exhibition at the Inman Gallery in Houston, Texas opening on May 20th. Earlier this week we were fortunate to have have had the chance to speak with him about his work and his thoughts on the recent events in the Middle East and Japan.Shaun’s recent works have consisted mainly of drawings using a combination of ink and Gouache on paper. His recent work is more abstract now, but previous works embodied surreal forms and figures in either black and white or primary color palettes. His “Looming Sound” is one of many volumes in which he demonstrates a painstaking repetition of shapes, palettes, surfaces and textures that only a committed and seasoned artist could exhibit.His work also contains many philosophical undertones. Questions about the individual self, identity, society and culture are introduced immediately upon reading the titles to many of his pieces. This is commingled with a visual representation of instability in the physical objects and that of survival, whether it’s survival of the species or that of the nation state.
- [Shaun] My thoughts about the revolutions are focused on dialectics. There’s one idea that quantitative changes are occurring in society, nature, etc that ultimately evolve toward a qualitative change. We’ll see what happens in Egypt, but the revolution is clearly a qualitative shift. It’s not like they were thinking about wanting the regime to end (on a large scale) until recently.An earthquake is similar. It’s a geological dialectic process. I’m considering this in my practice right now, but I’m trying to stay away from any preconceived inspiration. I’m trying to pick random colors, but most come from leftovers that I have already. After that I don’t start making any marks other than simple brush marks from which I’ll continue to layer until I think something is working out. [In other words] if it speaks to me or if a qualitative shift occurs. But it’s interesting to me since I’ve been working in this way (in the last several months) that these events have occurred. I’m essentially modeling the dialectical process in the studio.
They [artists] come up with questions and weave it into their practice. My thoughts just to finish up, have given me some optimism. It was difficult because I’m basically a Marxist and in the classroom students and my colleagues in the past have cracked friendly jokes as if my politics are naive or old fashioned. And then the revolution occurred and it’s like boom, what do you think about that? All the academic apathy around the idea of the revolution is all quieted. I don’t even have to talk about it. It speaks for itself. Now when people say what can we do, it’s like, look at Egypt. This is what you have to do. The power structure is not going to just hand you power because you voted for some liberal Democrat who most likely will be chumming up to every lobbyist in Washington their first week in town. That is not how democracy happens. If we want change we have to get in the streets and confront the police and tell them we’re not going home until the tyrant leaves the capitol – that you’d rather die than go home. From my vantage point it seemed like everyone was on the same page in Egypt. Even FOX news had trouble finding anyone to belittle or debunk what was going on. Doctors, Lawyers, students, factory workers all wanted Mubarak to leave.
What brings the uninformed viewer closer to Shaun’s work is his attitude. He’s a carefree individual who has faith in the curiosity of the viewer. Additionally, his teaching experience has helped him in this regard. His exhibitions, like his courses are premised with a set of questions that serve to set the stage of the class or group of pieces. Consequently, he also believes that his pieces are never finished and that they’re merely responses to a larger ongoing conversation, one in which he is also the viewer.
[ArtSHIFTING] Your visual and written work is very philosophical and nuanced. Do you often wonder (or care) if the acknowledgements embodied within your work make their way to the uninformed viewer?
[Shaun] Well, most people end up being curious especially if they see something they don’t initially understand, but something about it is captivating to them. I don’t really worry about it. If I’m doing good work, they’ll tell me. If somebody doesn’t understand they’ll tell me… Ultimately this is a larger question about what art can actually do. I spend a lot of time thinking about that very question. I don’t want to make didactic work. I don’t want to tell people things. So I just try to continue to resist this. Over time I’ve slowly concluded that art does not do politics. When you talk about Egypt… people were not going to leave the square. There’s no metaphor there. Everyone wanted Mubarak to leave. To me that’s pure politics. No ambiguity. No metaphor. A clear and direct message. Over time you will have to stand up for that message.
I cannot find anywhere in history where Art has done politics in that way. It does inspire people to get to that point. It inspires people to do politics. It’s happening all the time. As an artist you may stop making art, but the politics continue. I expect the work to communicate this, in some way., but I don’t expect it to go beyond that.
For example, I’ve done work on excavating American history, but it wasn’t necessary to me that people saw a painting and thought that there was a mechanism at work in American history which some have termed regeneration through violence – that regenerate our idea of national self through violent acts, whether it be the Native American genocide or Afghanistan and Iraq today. I always just figured if people were interested in what’s going on in the work that they have to do some work to see what [IT] is. And that’s what I do. I’m attracted to work that I don’t understand. If something seems odd or mysterious to me, I’ll look into it more to see what else is revealed. Sometimes it’s enriching, sometimes it a letdown (i.e. the artists statements are more interesting than the work). The whole effort is kind of in flux.
[ArtSHIFTING] What are your thoughts or opinions on works that are intended to evoke a response, emotion versus those that wish to provoke a response.
[Shaun] I don’t expect that it can provoke much. You can put acrucifix in a tank of urine and show it to a group of nuns, but what does it actually do? Banksy’s work is provocative, but it’s not doing politics. The fact that it’s on the street abandons the role of the institution/commercial gallery.
The revolution in the middle east came at a perfect time for this. It’s very clear. Do you want the response to be a revolution? Well art cannot do that. If you want to evoke emotions, then that’s something that art can do. I’m not trying to do either. I’m just trying to make work that is engaging to me. The process that I’m using has some conceptual elements along with political philosophy but I don’t think they’ll be transmitted into the pieces. I don’t start creating a piece with the preconceived notion that I’ll be evoking or provoking a response or emotion in some way. I guess in some way I’m hoping that some sort of engagement will occur, but I think in the context of larger political systems it never made sense to me that way. It never seemed like it was successful nor is it my style.
[ArtSHIFTING] Should artists have a role in society? If so, what role should they fill?
[Shaun] Artists are the ones who ask the questions. If anything the provocations are in the questions. Artists ask questions about all kind of things, about gender, the body, sex, the unknown, the sublime, outer space, genetic engineering. There are as many questions as there are artists. We spend the time contemplating and articulating that stuff. There are many artists also that romanticize their role and I think this gums up their work. We need many different types of workers in society and artists are among them. All those people are necessary for a healthy society. Capitalism is something that throws the balance out of all of this stuff. Some artists that become financially successful become part of the upper class. They’re making objects that the market has decided are quite “trade-able”. A lot of it has to do with the ruling class as voyeurs and the ruling class as consuming themselves. There are artists who demonstrate this: Damien Hirst for example. Andy Warhol played with this also but he was beyond all of this. He was doing this at the same time he was making mysterious, complex and amazing art. Just before Warhol pops on the scene you had people like Clement Greenberg stating that abstract expressionism was the zenith of what painting could be – that it was the avant – garde. And then Warhol started painting comic strips and products and it blew the whole thing apart. He was pointing out the hypocrisy of the art object as something that can be sacred. Ultimately it’s just a commodity – that it’s all surface. And at the same time he’s using industrial reproductive mechanisms to make those images. And he’s making tons of them.
[ArtSHIFTING] What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given? And professionally, what’s your goal?
[Shaun] The best piece of advice I’ve been given is to be patient. As an artist there’s a lot of situations where patience will help you, such as developing you’re practice and how your doing it.Professionally, what’s my goal? Ultimately you just want to make work that is challenging and that is engaging for the viewer. I don’t think about professional goals so much. It’s not a good idea to do that. [laughing] Some people do and they do a lot better professionally than me. I mean you work hard, do what you can, and hopefully it works out.Making a living is nice, but it’s not a goal. Your work will always be framed in the context that it should generate money. That’s a whole different problem. But in the end I don’t feel like making money as an artist is somehow a compromise ethically. I mean artists should make money like any other professional. The idea that artists should somehow be ok not making money for the work they do is a naive and romantic notion that doesn’t understand or realize the reality of living within a capitalist economic system.[ArtSHIFTING] What are your thoughts on the recent revolutions in the Arab world, Iran, sub-saharan Africa (primarily lesser developed countries)? And how would you compare and/or contrast the effects of the natural disaster in Japan (a developed country)?