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Interview: Shannon Blanton


Ditch Kills

Oil, ink and mixed media on canvasboard, 5 x 7 inches, 2022


1) Could you introduce yourself? Where did you study art? When did you first see yourself as an artist?


Hi there! My name is Shannon Blanton and I am a painter and an installation artist living and working in the beautiful Northwest Corner of Connecticut. I studied Art History and Painting at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. My education continued as I moved to NYC right after college, where I began working in the commercial art world. In my “spare time” I was a docent at the New Museum and I also curated pop up art shows under the name NUDEwithaGOOSE.


With this background in studio art, art history, and gallery and curatorial work, I have always been deeply attached to both the creating and viewing of art. My journey to acknowledging myself as an uppercase-A ‘Artist’ has certainly been a tenuous and a personal one. The older I get the more I realize this tension is likely much more a result of how our society defines “The Artist” and less to do with my practice or work. To be honest, I think we all are artists. The adjectives, qualifiers, or modifiers we put before the word ‘artist’ can vary, but who among us is not creating and communicating the worlds around them. Is this not what an artist does?


But I think the first time I first saw myself as an artist was right after I moved to New York around 2006. I was spending a lot of time at the Spring Studio, going to artist lectures at the New York Studio School, writing for a number of art blogs, and painting large canvasses in my studio in Bushwick at the amazing Splinters and Logs studio space created by Caroline Woolard and Christine Wang, all while working my day job as gallery director at Mark Borghi Fine Art on the Upper East Side. During that period, every facet of my life was fully immersed in art, and I was constantly surrounded by artists similarly immersed in their own work. It was such an exciting time.


Since then, my practice has been steady, necessary. Each day embedding itself a bit more into my way of being, habitual. To me, being an Artist just means having a practice. My practice has sustained me and provided much needed nourishment through the light and darkness of my own life experience. Though creating is instinctual for me, I find that I must choose each and every day to actively identify as an Artist, so in that sense the first time I saw myself as an artist is every single day.


Left - Step To The Line Right - Skies The Limit

Both from the series “Sanguine”

Ink and oil on canvas


2) Do you subscribe to the theory of Panpsychism, which states that everything in the universe has a consciousness? If everything has consciousness, including plants, do your paintings of organic forms take on a figurative aspect in some ways?


I really appreciate you asking about this because it essentially the crux of my artistic practice. After I became a mother, the blurring of self-as-individual made me think about the real “limits” and “separations” that we visually see, but that often intuitively feel artificial. Essentially, what’s the difference between my consciousness and yours—what is permeable? what is solid? There have been many times where I have been thinking a word or concept in my head, and my children will ask what that word or concept means, without me ever having said it out loud. I know this could be getting a bit metaphysical, but experiences like these have led me to question why we assume that the way our brains communicate to ourselves internally can’t be understood, felt, or interpreted in some ways by another being, especially one so connected to us, like children. Empathy.


This idea of non-verbal, abstract communication is all over the natural world. The dialogue between trees and mycelium fascinates me, mycelia being distant, but not too distant, relatives of humans. If consciousness is perception of internal and external worlds then we witness the perception of nature, and thus the consciousness of nature, all the time. Plants grow toward sunshine. The bird chirps at me when I get too close to its nest. What’s an object and what’s a subject? The answer probably has more to do with ourselves than with the objects/subjects themselves.


I often wonder if our perception were not only as fluid as water but was within water. In this way the flora or organic references in my work are meant to be imbued with a perceptiveness, a consciousness. The result should certainly feel like a portrait of our floral kin. I think this blurring of object/subject has always been an element of my work. Some of my very first paintings after college were still life’s of crumpled PBR cans, with the cans serving as stand-ins for my friends at the time. I would arrange them in space, thinking of them as figures. As my work changed over time this anthropomorphizing has morphed into a sort of phyto-morphism.



Mama Make Me Free

Cause Living Takes Its Toll

Oil on canvas, 12 x 16 inches, 2021


3) In your depiction of the natural world, do you find a sense of individuality of each leaf and tree, or the universality of some kind like energy and presence? Can the natural world communicate with you in a spiritual or poetic sense?


Nature as metaphor is paramount for me. It is, of course, abundant with inspiration because we are from it—nature is the distant ancestor that lives alongside us. I often think about how a leaf falling from a tree seems to me like a metaphor for life. I imagine life as the floating down—I don’t think we can ever really understand the tree we came from, and we certainly can’t see the ground where we will land.


I had an amazing experience in January of 2020 when I stood at the side of a river in Richmond, Virginia. My children were asleep in the car and I stepped out to just absorb and take a deep breath. As I stood there, I felt the sensations of a warm hug, the gray winter day seemed to turn slightly more sepia-toned, and a voice from within (that sounded like mine but was clearly from some greater source, one I seemed to know as “Mother Nature”) saying, “I will hold you.” It was such a profound moment. I had spent tons of time in nature. I was that kid who was always outside playing until my parents made me come inside. But this was different. I understood, maybe for the first time, that communication with a spirit that is both within and without, that is both our own and completely universal, is possible. This moment was one of the main impetuses for me beginning to show my work again.


4) What do you think about Post Humanism and the Cyborg Manifesto, which argue for a complete rethinking about the hierarchical relationship of people, cyborgs, machines, and the natural world? Does your work relate to this concept as well?


I think we have a number of filters we place on ourselves and our relationship with the world. We have to segment reality to be able to digest it, but what do we lose in the process? I see the world as a series of patterns—often, what we become is what we see (or choose to see) in terms of the patterns of speech or thought to which we’re exposed. Watching my children learn to walk and talk and now read, I am fascinated with the ability for the mind to find and make order, to filter. This brings me back to my idea of filters or veils—what is the difference between the system of our brain and the system of the computer, or the infinitely complex systems of the natural world. Reality has, as we have all witnessed, itself come into question as a concept. For all the danger this can present, I think we stand at an inflection point from which we can recalibrate of what we mean by ‘reality’ and contest who or what is doing the defining. I think this is what posthumanism is looking at, a recalibration of the idea of dominion. To that extent, I think my work is in communication with these ideas.


Earthly Delights

Oil, ink, mixed media on canvas, 24 x 36 inches, 2021


5) It appears that the organic forms in your paintings have an internal glow rather than being illuminated. Why do you shift up the light sources and direction of shadow in your work?


I started to wonder if shadows could be subjects in and of themselves, again playing with the idea of what is the thing, what is the shadow of a thing, what if something could be painted without the weight of its matter. Could the shadow present a reality within a reality? Also, as you said, the objects are all meant to glow from within—what kind of light are we emitting as molecules of stars distilled in walking water? In art history I was always taken with the style of chiaroscuro where shadow becomes the visual language in which we present the depth of a subject. I definitely manipulate the idea of chiaroscuro in order to play with the viewer by suggesting the indeterminacy of a vantage point and/or light source. Maybe if the viewer can question the light source, they can begin to question more. By contrasting form and substance through the lense of light and shadow these layers of dichotomies begin to give way. I am purposefully provoking the viewer to wonder if they aren’t in turn being viewed by the plant or abstraction. Maybe the viewer’s own internal light could be the flame illuminating the forms?


6) What does the use of fabric in your mixed media paintings signify? Does it signify the fabric of the universe that binds it together? Or is it a poetic metaphor to clothe the raw and naked forms of nature?


I love the way you have absorbed the works and made these beautiful connections, so thank you for taking the time to really engage them! I think that idea of the fabric that binds us is exactly right. I also think of them as “filters” or “veils.” How do we shroud ourselves from the truth or reality, and what if those filters became the subject rather than an obfuscation of the ‘real’ object. Those veils can bind as well. This reminds me of the convention in Italian Renaissance sculpture of depicting “synagoga” [synagogue] as a blindfolded or veiled female figure, as if she cannot see the truth, a point made clearer by its nearness to another statue showing “ecclesia” [church] with eyes open. This symbolism was meant to otherize, to separate but also to bind together. The same veil that marks “syanagoga” as the blinded outsider also bound together the believers in “ecclesia.”


My piece Ditch Kills utilizes fabric to extend the canvas beyond it’s preconceived parameters. The latticed grids undulated with softer forms sit atop or below or within the veil. In this image the fabric can act as both medium and subject, it’s own shadows are directly cast on the wall and yet the inky surface churns the figures as if caught in an eddy.


Another piece which is tethered, possibly captured in fabric is Earthly Delights. The light strains through the fabric entangling the inky flora shadows requiring the viewer to contend with this filter. Is nature caught in our net, snared by our duplicity?


7) Your paintings appear to sit in a middle zone between abstraction and figuration. Do you believe that everything that is figurative still has an abstract quality? Like reality itself is still abstract in its parts? What does abstraction do for your paintings?


I really love playing with abstraction. As I mentioned before abstract communication is often the subject I am trying to represent. Some of the figures are actually shadows reinterpreted, but others are shadows of memories. I love abstracted memories, the sensation of the warmth of the sun on your skin—this memory doesn’t have a timestamp on it. “Mama Set Me Free, Cause Living Takes It’s Toll” is a painting meant to recall the memory of the feeling of dappled sunshine on my skin. The abstract images all remain figurative in my conceiving of them, but filtering and abstracting the memory allows for really exciting exploration in paint. I find that something can be abstracted but still understood, which is counterintuitive, or maybe just plain intuitive. Really, I think of shadows like abstractions—they are both seen and unseen all at once, never tangible and yet unquestionably present. Conversely, I see figuration as a function of light—when something is illuminated, when the spotlight is on it, how it becomes more real, more tangible.



Sanguine

From the series Sanguine

Oil on canvas, 12 x 16 inches, 2022


8) Does your work associate with the folk art tradition in any way? Some of your recent works remind me of Ukrainian folk art in terms of color and patterns.


I don’t draw directly from folk art however I can totally see the connection you are highlighting especially with the newer works in my series Sanguine. I started painting these as Ukraine was being attacked by Russia. The colors were directly influenced by the hues I see around me in wintertime, that winter blue sky and the crimson of dried berry brambles. I have a long dialogue with blue in my art. So they weren’t directly inspired by Ukraine or the folk art tradition. But I wonder if the visibility of the Ukranian colors didn’t seep in. The crimson certainly is meant to evoke blood, but the sky blue brings a sense of possible futures in as well. The title ‘Sanguine’ plays with duality—meaning both ‘bloody’ and ‘hopeful’—in that way. It certainly relates very specifically to my personal grappling with it means to live in zones of war and violence—whether in Ukraine, Syria, or here in America—trying to live and love beyond the bloody present. The active intrusion of a border, an invisible determination of nationality, or ideas of ‘ally’ and ‘enemy,’ are like any other filter or veil, and I try to explore them visually in that sense. What does it mean to live on one side of that border or the other? What does it mean to be ‘friend’ or ‘foe,’ and who gets to decide?


9) Who are the artists whom you are looking at or are influenced by? Could you talk more about your recent work titled, "simple?"


Currently I am very influenced by Hannah Beerman who is constantly ripping open the concept of painting and creating. She has an authenticity of practice that really inspires me and her paintings do what all great paintings do, they make you look. Rob Ober is another artist who is really inspiring me, his work is so tactile. His paintings almost shout at you with expression. I like how much they have to say—there is nothing timid about his paintings, neither the subject nor the brushstrokes. The result is mesmerizing. Xingyun Wang is another artist whose work is visually captivating. Each piece is so intricately layered. She makes work that feels like a confluence of energy. I’m always inspired by Clintel Steed. His body of work is astounding in its beauty of execution and subjects. Clintel contends with every subject with a strong sense of animation translated through a color palette so distinctly his own. I look at these artists right now as influences on how to live the life of an artist with conviction and authenticity of voice.


Simple

Oil and Ink on paper, 11 x 15 inches, 2021


Simple is a painting that is anything but simple. I often play with the layering of ink and oil two mediums which juxtapose nicely. The sense of chaos here is really amplified by the layers of ink and oil. Really it is meant to feel like two paintings colliding into each other, or even the reflection or memory of that. An explosion can really muddle what parts belong to what. In an explosion everything is either melted together or thrown in chaotic patterns making it difficult to differentiate the substance of something. Simple is simply a portrait of the feeling of anxiety. Viewers have really gravitated towards it which is funny to me as I honestly couldn’t look at it at first. I mean I could tell it was a work of art, and a completed one at that but I could feel the explosion billowing out through the paper, it made me avert my eyes I guess. That’s what great about art is even things that are resolved can make you feel unresolved. That kind of dialogue with the work, that’s the good stuff.


Out of Stalk

Oil on canvas, 8 x 10 inches, 2022



10) What are your goals and dreams for your future? Do you believe in the transformative power of art to change the world?


I did a backyard pop-up art show last fall and definitely want to do that again, maybe even including other artists. As for plans, right at this moment my priority is finding and cultivating more artist community. I have really gained a sense of self but, as my work hints, I don’t believe we are separate individuals—I think we are all connected and in need of ways to experience and express that connection. My hope for the future is that all of us can find our own artistic or creative practice and make creating a habit, a conscious meditation. I wonder what collectively we could conceive of if we worried less about being recognized as the best and worried more about being linked and collaborative.


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