A Review By Erin Keever
Shawn Camp thinks in polarities. He celebrates color and heavy impasto in his abstract canvases, but his work’s seductive surface beauty belies its agenda of concealing and revealing as it obscures reminders of man’s struggle against the forces of nature. In Camp’s work, thickly stacked areas of paint alternate with sheerer sections, sometimes spitting up bits of collaged text. Like a palimpsest, the artist’s use of layering connotes oppositions: rejuvenation/destruction, legibility/confusion and harmony/discord.
“A Self Correcting System” shows Camp’s ability to paint from two perspectives at once. At first glance, the composition resembles a digitized Google map’s aerial view of a forested, or at least well-treed, environment. Look again, and we might be gazing upwards through a tree canopy, where slivers of grey sky peek through. Are we looking up or down? Camp likens this perspectival tug-of-war to the existential back-and-forth of figuring out our place in the universe. Lines divide parts of the painting as well. Of these divisions, Camp says, “Sectioning off areas is a metaphor for the intersection between civilization and nature.” Perhaps by visually marking the threshold between subjective states, he searches for liminality.
“A Self-Correcting System’s” color scheme and particular pattern are also significant. The imagery resembles leafy green foliage, but also looks like camouflage. Camouflage’s purpose is to disrupt an outline by blending it with the natural surroundings, making enemy targets hard to spot. Our struggle with nature in our struggle with man is at work once again.
Consumed with the duality of nature and humanity, Camp at times looks to history. His signature painting for the upcoming solo exhibition, “We Bring from the Mountain,” references the Battle of Carrhae. Fought in 53 BC, in the harsh desert region of Mesopotamia, the Parthian forces defeated the Roman army and killed their leader Marcus Licinius Crassus. It’s said that the Parthians used Crassus’ decapitated head as a prop in a play in which these verses were sung: “We bring from the mountain, tendril fresh-cut to the palace, a wonderful prey.”
“We Bring from the Mountain’s” beige palette can be compared to desert sand and its large scale and overall paint application with no focal point, to the vastness of desert. The character of the desert is made heroic, over the historical leader whose downfall it caused. At the same time, there is a peculiarly fleshy (and human) quality to the paint. [Like chunks of skin or silly putty piled up, the paint film is sort of fetishistic.]
A series of individually titled works that Camp collectively calls The Moscow Series refer to a town’s cultural conflict. To represent a socio-religious divide in Moscow, Idaho, where Camp lived during his undergraduate years at the University of Idaho, he adheres words from The Book of Revelation alongside passages from a 1972 Playboy to the canvases prior to painting. For the artist, these textual elements represent order and chaos butting up against each other. And while the artist is known to coax collaged snippets of words to peek out from painted layers, here, almost all traces of text are buried deep beneath multi-colored strata. It is as if the artist is burying nuts or planting seeds in the earth, and waiting to see what will endure or grow.
Another work with religious overtones is the diptych titled “And Once You’ve Understood You Can Never Go Back.” The pair of smaller works is mostly white, but still shows Camp’s chunky paint application. They are installed on a ledge like two tablets, Ten Commandments style. Accompanying the installation is what Camp describes as a “wall of noise”—sound cut and pasted together in 2-minute loops. His interest in barriers that cover individual sound motifs is similar to that of hiding words in paintings. Camp, who describes his new show as a “mixtape,” says his “painting and music evolved side by side.” Increasingly, he has been experimenting with incorporating visual and aural aspects in his art.
In addition to Camp’s conscious exploration of extremes, he enjoys talking about the act of painting. He says, “For the last five years I think I have been self-consciously trying to get thinner areas into the work … thick and thin, order and disorder.” He almost proselytizes about the “honesty of the mark.” In his near-holy quest to create an unmediated mark in the painting process, the artist acknowledges the difficulty of making the perfectly pure mark without corrupting, weakening, or even obliterating it somehow. Sure his search may be futile, but he enjoys the Sisyphean task nonetheless.