Feature: An Interview with Shawn Smith

Juxtapoz // Tuesday, 09 Aug 2011

In the spirit of hyperreal sculpture, Shawn Smith’s pixel art blurs the line between real and simulated. But while the deceptively photoreal work of folks like Duane Hanson or Ron Mueck are, in fact, just sculpture, Smith flips the illusion on its head. Though pieces feign digital rendering, each “pixel” is carved entirely from wood: a real, tangible thing. This process is an arduous one, sometimes taking months at a time. Smith currently resides in Austin, TX, where he continues tedious production on his work. —Tyler Curtis

Tyler Curtis: What does it mean to "thingify" something?


Shawn Smith: I went to CCA for grad school. I took this class called "Thing Theory," taught by a professor named Barry Katz. There was an article I came across by this guy Vilem Flusser, where he talked about this relationship that human beings have had to the "thing," the "object." He talked about it in terms of this new object that’s come into our lives, called a "non-thing." So this non-thing is basically something that is like software, a Google search, these types of things that you can't quite put your hands on but you think that you're using.


So anything that's not tangible, but real enough to impact our day-to-day lives.


Yeah, exactly.




Is this more rooted in TV and radio and broadcasting technology, or is it specific to the digital age?


I think this was more along the lines of coming out of a VHS tape. There's no way to really decode it without a machine, because it's all just plastic magnetic tape. So it’s coming out of that, and at the same time you have some form of digital format beginning to shape objects and shapes things (or non-things) at that time. I’m giving you kind of a long answer, but I feel like this background information is important to it. To “re-thing,” this term I coined when I was playing around with Flusser's idea of this non-thing. So what I've been doing is taking things I find online that exist as a non-thing, and turning them into a thing by reconstructing them with little pieces of wood, pixel-by-pixel, and creating a re-thing. That's kind of where that idea came from, thingifying a non-thing into a re-thing.


Your work seems to effectively flow between real and digital. What's a real thing? What's just a representation of that thing used to create the experience of said thing? You bring this all to question, and in your artists' statement, you mentioned that you get your content from images on the Internet. Do you consider your work just a representation of another simulation/representation? How many layers of representation are at play here?


I am definitely playing around with representation and I think of them as a surrogate, a re-representation of something that already exists. I use these natural forms, they're not just things that I create out of nowhere. I pull them from the computer. And they're usually things I don't have a whole lot of first hand experience with, at least when I start it. I have this joke that I've never been camping, but one of my first pieces was a campfire. And so I’m using this real object and I’m re-representing that. They're like surrogates, in a way. You've got the photograph of the object that somebody's putting into their computer, you've got the translation on the computer, you've got me seeing it, you've got me taking that off the computer, doing a drawing, and then building. So what is that, seven layers?




And you've got people like me looking at it on a computer.


Exactly. Or just seeing it in real life, that's like eight or nine removed. It calls to question Plato's idea of art representing real life, and that's something I've never really put to my work.


What makes one representation better than the next? By that I mean, more representational. How do you value a representation?


For me, a certain aspect of representation needs to be there because I’m talking about this natural world that has recognizable forms. I think that's where the importance of being able to convey that and build it with these square pixels comes from. But as far as representation goes, I can think of people that do it very well. The sculptor Ron Mueck does these pieces of human beings where he changes the scale, and the amount of detail that is there is just impeccable. Duane Hanson is another person. These are human forms that they're re-representing. And the detail that's there allows you to fall into the narrative. Everything is there, and there's not one thing that's going to kick you out of it. It's a seamless, fictional narrative. That’s something I’m trying to work with when I’m building these objects; try to build them the best I can by hand so when you're looking at them as an object, you're getting sucked into that reality, and there's not some flaw that's going to remove you from the experience. Kind of like when you're watching a film that has tons of digital reconstruction in it. If you begin to see the seams, it's going to throw you out of it.



What exactly do you expect from your audience?


I always hope that the audience will experience some humor with the work, but also not just look at what's there making up the language the feedback of what's going on, but more about the labor involved. I think the labor is a very important component of the work.


It seems like a very time consuming, tedious process. Is there a method you have to get focused, to get honed in?


People have asked me if I’m obsessive over my work, but I just look at it in terms of what needs to be done to finish the piece. So as far as getting focused, I do have this process, broken up into about four laborious steps. And it helps me to break it up into sections so that I don't have to look at it as one long marathon. First, I find my subject. I begin to do a bunch of drawings. I find something on the computer, and I usually do my drawings on graph paper. That way, I can figure out scale and all the different proportions, and ultimately what I’m trying to do with a particular piece.


They're kind of like architectural drawings. I'll do a front view and a side view, multiple perspectives, so I begin to understand the form. And after that, I find my material and I cut it down. I have a table saw, and I cut them down into strips. And let's say I’m cutting this material, if it's 1/2 inches thick, I usually cut it into 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch strips, and then I set up a jig on the table saw and I cut it into 1/2 inch increments. I’m just using 1/2 inch as an arbitrary measurement, but usually I'll cut 1/2 inch cubes, and then one inch by 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch, and then it grows all the way until it’s whatever I need for the drawing. It might be, say, 18 inches long, by 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch.


At this point, I go back to my drawing, and I start to figure out the color of the drawing, what I’m trying to do with it, and then I start the coloring process. I use acrylic paint, and water-based ink. I don't like to use a lot of super toxic stuff, because I have to be in it for a long time. Then I start dying all the materials by size, or by color, or whatever I’m trying to figure out with the object. Then after everything dries, I sort it into sizes in plastic bins. At this point I start assembling. Depending on the object, I usually start at the center and work my way out. And I use the drawings that I did initially as a roadmap, so I can keep track of how this thing is being built. I'd say it's probably about 85% strictly adhering to what the guidelines of the drawing are saying, but for the other 15%, I do tend to just kind of ad lib at a certain point, because I find that it makes it a lot less stiff. And I never want the forms to be too stiff or not flowing or anything like that, there's no life to it at that point.



So you use the drawings as a roadmap, not the pictures you initially find on the Internet. It’s almost like a big game of telephone.


Yeah it is. I haven't thought about it like that, but it definitely is. In the process, certain things get left out, certain things are included or added, as far as details.


What was the most difficult piece in this series for you?


I would probably have to say my first piece, “14 Point Buck.” I started it in 2005 in grad school. I built the piece, a deer head, very simple, with it's head turned to the side. And I probably worked on that thing for two or three months, about ten hours a day, every single day. I just kept working and working, because I couldn't quite figure it out. It really was difficult; I was looking at one pixel in the front, and I realized that it's something else in the back, so I had to deal with modifying and getting it just right. Also, I built it with tape, and I didn't glue anything together at first. I'd use this double-stick tape, stick it all together, and bring it home. Then I'd look at it and I’d take it back. I use glue now, and I eventually glued it together. But I'd written all over it, and it had all these marks, so essentially it was this big working three-dimensional sketch. And that probably was the most difficult to build. I think there was a lot of pressure to get the form right.



Did you know you wanted to continue exploring these themes and forms with this body of work at that point?


With that particular piece, I think I realized it at the end. I had some doubts as to whether or not I could make it work, at first. I didn't know if I could do that because I'd never really worked in that way before.


You didn't have rhythm down yet.


Looking at things, working representationally, I didn't do that before. And I think that just made me change the way I look at things.


How so?


It made me look at things in terms of volume, and before I was making things that were a little bit more abstract or I would make a direct cast off of something, and I wasn't trying to build this form up from little tiny things into a big thing, and all its little constituents, so it kind of changed the way I was looking at building things.



So before you weren't working from little thing to big thing? Were you starting big and whittling it down, then?


I used books as a raw material. And a lot of it was subtractive, I would take the books and cut parts off to make them into other things. So then the process was subtractive, and this is additive, and I think that's the biggest difference.


I can imagine you feel pretty crazy after working on a piece for a long time.


I think so. I do really silly things when I’m about done with the piece. I find myself sometimes silly about the whole piece. Sometimes I’m super critical about the piece, like, "What the hell am I doing?" That kind of thing. I have mixed emotions depending on the day or how tired I am. I try not to do all-nighters anymore, because I tend to not really be fun to be around, and I don't want to do that to my wife.


Are you a sci-fi fan? A lot of these themes you explore tend to be present in the genre.


I'll watch the old Star Trek series, or the old Star Wars movies, but I’m not super into sci-fi as a genre. I do, however, like to read a lot about science. I think that informs the work a lot more than science fiction does.



How does science inform your work?


I’m drawn to sciences of the small that make up larger things. I’m really interested in viruses and parasites and I like to read about quantum mechanics. I think it's kind of a fallacy to say that I understand it completely, but it's interesting to read about, and seeing how small things interact to create something bigger.


Biology is interesting, too, and the way planets are formed, gas behavior, I mean these things are really interesting to me. And they inform the work just by trying to understand how things bond or interact with one another, like in chemistry, and how they change once those two things join. If they still have an identity, or what's going on there. There's this great book called Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer. I read that right after graduate school. It was really huge and informative to me about how parasites get in the body and change the color of things. Because the parasite doesn't want to live in what it's in, it wants to live in something else that's going to come along and eat the colorful thing. It's fascinating to take that and play with it. Not necessarily in a scientific way, but using that as a catalyst.



That's interesting, taking something very empirical and using it as jumping point for an abstract like art.


It gives me a lot of freedom. I try not to get so bogged down to where I try to pay attention to every single rule, because I’m not a scientist. But it's interesting to me.


I think artists and scientists similarly grope for a structure that makes sense. You have that much in common.


Oh yeah, definitely. I want to find a scientist and collaborate with them. I still haven't done that yet.



What would you want to do?


I want to meet an entomologist and do something with bugs. E. O. Wilson would be very cool to do something with, he's a guy whose whole life is about ants. I think he teaches at Harvard.


Speaking of small things fitting into the space of a whole, here are these insect hive minds and swarms.


Yeah, it's like a whole supra-organism in how it behaves as one. It's really interesting stuff.


The queen as this locus point for all these ants. Just look at social networking, technology can facilitate a human hive mind. too.


I think Facebook is a quicker microcosm of looking at a populous and how it behaves, I think it’s really interesting.



Thomas Edison did a lot of work bringing sound recording and motion picture technology together, trying to create a complete representation of life. In your opinion, how did he fair?


I would have to say pretty good for the time in which Edison was working. But as far as where I am now, chronologically looking back, I think I would require a little bit more. That's weird to say that Thomas Edison didn't do such a good job. I guess it's my own little thing.


I don't think he'll complain. What would you expect at this point?


A little more interaction. I think that's a big part of where we are with technology now, as far as interaction in terms of things that can think for themselves and respond back. Like bots on the computer and pretend they're somebody, or bots that can take over a computer and do things, even though they've been programmed. I think there's something really interesting there.

For more information about Shawn Smith, contact http://shawnsmithart.com/


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