Shawn Huckins: The Birds Will Sing
It has been close to two years since we last covered the work by Shawn Huckins and after years of talking about the erasure of history through figure-based works, he is currently presenting a body of work revolving around landscape tradition. The Birds Will Sing, on view now at George Billis Gallery in Los Angeles, borrows the title of an old Cajun folk song, and just the sweet-sounding title conceals a murder ballad, Denver-based artist is disturbing the breathtaking landscapes with dark statements about contemporary love.
Living in the age of captions, memes, and social network communication, Huckins creates a visual bridge between the classic American paintings by 19th-century masters and the way we share and/or absorb information in the present day. Sourced from public domain and museum collections, Bierstadt's or The Hudson River School's iconic works are here repurposed as mere backdrops for misspelled and abbreviated statements evoking the familiar emotional states. "The handwritten text phrases I’m using to combine with the landscapes are more specific to the struggles of love, as I feel everyone can have a connection in some manner," the artist explained to Juxtapoz in terms of the connection between the two dispaired elements. "The hasty text appears in sharp contrast both in form and content to these landscapes that represent an era when communication, and just about everything else, took time and had to be planned in great detail. The immediacy and speed of contemporary life deeply impact our human connections - sometimes for the better and sometimes not. I’m pointedly asking if the devolution of language in the face of technological advancement weakens our ability to empathize and connect to one another in a meaningful way." With this in mind, the artist is making a subtle connection with the unchanged intimate experience of heartbreak, and the accelerating transparency and publicity of our lives through social media and technology.
The epicness of the original, reference imagery, allows for a more playful and experimental clash of the two aesthetics. "With this series, I have a little more freedom to place the text anywhere in the painting as opposed to my portrait paintings where I would select the text based on the portrait details," Huckins told us about how the new trope informed his approach to making the composition. "What I like to retain is the visual flow of a painting and I place the text where I think it will be highlighted, but not ruin the focal point of the landscape." In this regard, the urgency of WTAF is minimized underneath the breathtaking mountain peaks in Maroon Bells: What The Actual Fuck, 2021, while sobering HELLO? completely takes over a seastorm scene in Rising of a Thunderstorm at Sea: Hello?, 2021. Besides the clever juxtaposition and elements and subtlety of his commentary, it's Huckins' masterful painterly practice that is the core of his captivating works. When asked about how does he go about selecting his reference visuals, he answered, "My style is highly rendered, so I’m interested in works that are realistic in nature. For example, the paintings of Albert Bierstadt are absolutely stunning and such a challenge to replicate. A good majority of work within this series are re-creations of Bierstadt paintings, not only because of his style but because of the abundance and accurate record-keeping of his work." And while continuously interest in meticulous replication of the originals as well as constant improvement of his technique, this particular series allowed for a more relaxed approach to rendering and a bit looser mark making. Consciously stepping back and not focusing on every detail, smaller pieces in the show such as Nightfall Color Study, Touch Me, 2021, serve as studies for larger works while having the feel of the actual plain-air style paintings and adding to the authenticity of his concept. —Sasha Bogojev