As we were asking Shawn Huckins questions in regards to his new solo show Zippers Short and Skinny, on view at Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica this month, I was thinking of him in the studio in the Monadnock region of southwestern New Hampshire, the beautiful and changing landscape all around. It seems like the perfect setting for re-interpreting and re-imaging the American art form, the American artist. It's historic and a confliction with history, all within the same works. 

Evan Pricco: I want to know when the first time you walked into a museum, or looked in an art history book and thought, "what if I mess around with this, make it funny." I feel like you are doing graffiti billboard takeovers, but with art history and the masculine form.
Shawn Huckins: Altering historic works of art wasn’t a planned course of action, meaning I didn’t purposely look at an artwork and say ‘let me alter this piece is some way.’ About a decade ago, I created my ‘text series’ where I combined historical works of art (typically from 18th century American artists) with contemporary ‘digi-speak’ material. That series began as a total accident where I was teaching myself to paint portraits and learning the subtle color changes in skin tones by recreating artists such as John Singleton Copley. One of the test paintings happened to slip below a sheet of tracing paper with the acronym ‘LOL’ drawn on it and I found the juxtaposition fascinating. The imagery came first and the questions came after. Ever since that moment, recreating historical works of art has been the keystone in all the series I create.

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("Henry Pelham's Jocular Tweet: To Dante - If I'm Just A Friend, Why Do I Know What Your Lips Feel Like??" acrylic on canvas, 2011)

Do you remember the first time you really nailed the concept you were aiming for? Like how that felt, how the audience responded, what the work was? 
Absolutely.  I feel like I’ve created some really good paintings in my career (and some really bad ones too, let’s be honest), but one that was a bit off course and challenging was a piece I did for my show ‘Fool’s Errand’ at K Contemporary of Denver.  I still recreated a historical work of art, but instead of combining it with text, I wanted to get more structural and create an installation piece.  I bought a heavy concrete replica of a roman statue bust and spent an entire day chiseling away in my back yard to break down the statue to create the sense that the head fell from the sky and landed on this painting.  This series was created during COVID and was combining remnants of Roman art with American art to challenge the idea that our republic (as the Roman republic was) is not immune to destruction.  I think that’s pretty relatable now as well with the current political environment.

I think artists can relate that you can have a seemingly great idea in your idea and once you create it, it’s either a hit or a miss.  This piece was everything I thought of and more and the feedback was terrific.  It was a great feeling.

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("(Mrs. Anne Fairchild Bowler)" 2020 Acrylic on canvas, concrete, spray paint, stretcher bars)

What have you created for Zippers Short and Skinny, the new show at Richard Heller? What are the themes you are examining, adding a little sardonic take on? 
This work is a continuation of my ‘Dirty Laundry’ series which spawned from the pandemic and examined my trajectory as an artist and individual as a whole.  ‘Zippers Short and Skinny’ was created after moving from Denver to New Hampshire.  I grew up in NH, but spent 10 years in Denver.  Living in the city, you take for granted the progressive atmosphere you are surrounded by.  It was culture shock moving back to NH and had to adjust (or at least get comfortable with) with the more conservative mindset of NH.  The male bravo is more showy and, to me, over the edge.  With ‘Zippers,’ I wanted to create a softer approach to the male portrait combing them with soft, satin fabrics and handwoven latch hook weavings.

What was the source material that attracted you here? 
My style leans towards tight representational painting, so I choose portraits from  historic artists that are highly realistic in nature.  I love the portraits of John Singleton Copley, especially his portrayal of fabrics.  One may even argue that his fabrics were more life like than the actual portrait.  I’ve also found that painting fabrics is incredibly therapeutic, as it’s not too complicated as painting a face perhaps, and I can zone out into the canyons of folds and gradients.

We are in a very contentious time. It feels like, probably for both our lives, this is the most tumultuous atmosphere globally. I feel like these portrayals of masculinity have maybe taken on new meaning since you started this project. Has your approached changed in recent years? 
I agree on all fronts and my work contemplates and challenges a number of issues that I see as problematic.  My career started off with the playful ‘text’ series, but had serious undertones of the dangers of social media and loss of communication skills.  Then it progressed to the 2016 election where I replicated paintings from the White House Art Collection and ‘erased’ portions to symbolize the destruction of a nation because of one man’s ego.  And as I mentioned before, I did a series using Roman and American art to contemplate that the American experiment can come to an end.  And now, I’m taking on the male bravado and how harmful it can be.

How did you come up with the name for this one? 
I was re-reading the book “Leave Any Information At The Signal. Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages” Ed Ruscha sent to me years and years ago.  The book documents letters, interviews, and notes throughout his career.  I stumbled upon a section in the book of Ruscha’s unused text he didn’t use in his paintings.  The original phrase in the book was ‘Zippers Long and Skinny’, but since my show is about masculinity, I changed it to ‘Zippers Short and Skinny.’  It’s basically an innuendo for small male genitalia.

Does LA mean anything to you and this work? Is there something specific you were thinking about when you knew you were showing in LA? 
The title of the show is derived from one of the kings of LA POP, Ed Ruscha, and I was leaning toward more bright colors to contrast the earthy tones in the portraits.  LA POP has had a huge influence on my body of work and was prevalent in my early paintings with historical portraits with huge, blocky text covering a portion of painting.

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(Moon and Trees Oil on linen 20"x20" 2022)

What was the last piece of art that moved you? 
I recently discovered Will Galbaldon’s landscape paintings and they remind me of the huge milestone my partner, Matt, and I achieved.  We recently bought 13 acres of land consisting of wildflower inhabited meadows and lush green forests.  We just finished our house with attached studio build on that beautiful land. The paintings may seem simplistic, but I find comfort is the simple compositions and limited use of color range. With all the contentiousness is the world, Will’s paintings bring a sense a calm and remind me of the new chapter Matt and I have created for each other and to remember and be grateful for the little things.

Shawn's new solo show, Zippers Short and Skinny, will be on view at Richard Heller Gallery June 15 - July 13, 2024