ANGLE OF REFRACTION
“What painting wants more than anything else is working space—space to grow with and expand into, pictorial space that is capable of direction and movement, pictorial space that encourages unlimited orientation and extension. Painting does not want to be confined by boundaries of edge and surface.” – Frank Stella
Surface, line and geometry are central to Shawn Camp’s creative explorations. Like the American minimalist Frank Stella, Camp uses these basic elements to extend the painting into the viewer’s space. For Camp, painting is about creating an aesthetic experience, one which encompasses space.
Camp, like Stella, is an innovator—one who embraces challenges and thrives on considering infinite possibilities. In his most recent body of work, he has migrated from the topographical references to an exploration of smooth, almost metallic surfaces based on oblique rectangles, linear edges that cut across the panel and the refractive qualities of light. The transition evolved out of Camp’s series of Light Box installations that combined palette knife impasto mark-making on plexiglass with an underside of glazed colors that allowed patterns of light to stream through.
Anxious to see the evolution, Sean Gaulager, Executive Director and Curator for Co-Lab projects, and I visited Camp’s voluminous East Austin studio to preview the work for his upcoming solo exhibition, Angle of Refraction, at Gallery Shoal Creek. As always, Camp was articulate and philosophical as he talked about the evolution in his work . . . even admitting he is a bit of a control freak!
– Judith Taylor
Sean Gaulager – Do you want to give a little background? When did you start this series? What’s the genesis?
Shawn Camp – Aspects of this approach have been creeping in for several years, but I specifically began the series about eight months ago. I wanted to explore utterly flat, smooth passages. The new work is every bit as much about surface as my previous impasto pieces were—but it’s the other extreme.
Spending so much time on the underpainting with the backlit pieces made me want to investigate the glazing approach further. The imagery flowed naturally out of that process—mostly subtle, contradictory depth cues formed through atmospheric transitions and changing orientations of shapes that interact in the picture plane.
Judith Taylor – To what extent does layering play a role in creating the smooth surface? Is it still integral to the process?
SC – Yes, even more so. They are just very thin layers now. Each layer itself does almost nothing, and it’s only after 20 or 30 layers that you start to see the impact. I hadn’t worked in that language with paint (at least as anything more than preliminary studies or underpainting) since I was in college. And of course it feels very different now than it did for me as an undergrad in Idaho. The experience is fresh. And it forces me to consider different realities than the impasto approach I’ve used for the last 15 years or so.
SG – I can see that in terms of your backlit pieces. I remember there being more of an ethereal quality to the paintings in the dark than when the gallery space was fully lit. Using the abstract imagery, it was more reminiscent of the sky than landscape. I wonder if thinking about lights and the luminous quality influenced your change in direction.
SC – For me, they’re composite views—simultaneously reminiscent of landscape and the sky. I like the thought of looking straight down and straight up at the same time. A unity of opposites . . . coexisting states of experience. We are always a bundle of all these contradictions. When the surfaces were overtly physical—heaping globs of knifed-on paint—it’s hard not to see them as “earthy.” The paint itself was a sort of landscape. In the new work there’s an aspect of immateriality to the surface. In a lot of ways, the flatness is the denial of the physical existence of the paint. Naturally, they come across as more atmospheric than topographic. But ultimately they’re still just as much one as the other. Or neither, really. The whole thing with imagery is that it’s a framework to build a painting around.
SG – Tell us about the taped edges and little masked off areas in the surfaces. I see broken planes, almost like cracks in the glass.
SC – The tape marks, gaps and imperfections that remain through the completion of the work are like glitches. They’re remnants, leftover traces of the act of painting—acknowledgements of the painting as an object. I’m fascinated with Nick Bostrom’s thought experiments. The glitches remind me of his simulation argument that uses very reasonable logic to contend we are nearly certain to be living in a computer simulation—something fundamentally contradictory to common sense. It’s as if you could find some kind of evidence of this through observation if you knew where to look. All the floating shapes and masked edges are like glitches in the contrived reality of the painting.
I like the idea of traversing space and engaging the whole room as part of the work. -Shawn Camp
SG – It suggests a sort of give and pull of your vision.
SC – Absolutely—it’s paradox. Relationships within the work change as you look at different areas and from different angles to contradict what you would assume based on the surrounding imagery. Hopefully it creates a kind of flummoxing sense of not being able to pin it down. I’m also trying to open the door to things that aren’t consciously preplanned—to embrace spontaneity within a rigorously indirect process.
SG – And the lines are reductive, right?
SC – Mostly they’re gaps left behind when the tape is pulled back. I manipulate the way they converge to suggest different orientations.
Geometry through the entire work begs discovery. -Sean Gaulager
SG – Well, they work as sight lines and direct your eye. They dictate motion. And that line implies that it continues on forever, so your eye is constantly shooting across the surface, which leads to moments of discovery on various planes and sections of the painting that you can then investigate further.
JT – What medium are you using to achieve the metallic quality and the impression of a glasslike surface?
SC – Each of the paintings in this series are done in acrylic. There are a variety of different mediums and pigments in them, but some of that look comes from a type of paint that has mica flakes in titanium. They reflect a complementary version of the specific color when the angle of the light changes. Overlapping layers of different colors start to inform the surface as they accumulate. The buildup of paint along taped ridges reflects light even more. It creates an active edge . . . white light. Tape, then paint, re-tape, paint. Sand as needed. Paint some more, etc.
JT – What was your thought behind these nonrectangular pieces? They create an interesting environment juxtaposed next to each other.
SC – They’re made of multiple four-sided panels hung in a specific configuration. Individually, each is an irregular quadrilateral, potentially a rectangle in perspective. A rectangle is the standard format of visual information, but these contorted rectangles imply wildly different spatial relationships. Together they align to create little synchronicities. A kind of harmony through our aesthetic response to mathematical relationships—resonant moments that feel right. It’s like Plato’s “Forms” as a sort of broth that our natural world floats around in.
The jutting shapes also define and incorporate the negative space around the paintings. Absence versus presence. Continuity versus a fractured series of glimpses.
SG – They transition to flatter planes—going away from a pure rectangle format. Why do you do that?
SC – The element of shape is such an overt part of those paintings that they need more compositional room to breathe. I’m trying to keep the surface from being overcrowded and distracting. There’s still an element of pictorial space and atmosphere to them, but fewer broken planes are painted into them since the planes are the panels themselves.
SG – In the large painting, the lines run between panels as well as in the paint—geometry through the entire work begs discovery.
SC – A painting is in itself a sculptural object. Having the lines separate the painting into distinct physical objects calls attention to that. But I try to make them related enough to the lines within the work that the distinction is hard to see at first. There’s a tension between the picture and the thing itself. That’s the illusion and artifice in what paint does—particularly in such a traditional process as glazing. The sense of space . . . it’s all fake, right? It’s not the real thing. On one level, painting is only a facsimile of true experience. It’s always been about this push and pull between image and reality.
SG – Is this the beginning of a new direction in your work?
SC – In some ways for sure. I like the idea of traversing space and engaging the whole room as part of the work. I’m kind of a control freak regarding everything about the space my paintings are seen in and the way they relate to one another. The whole thing about making art is trying to frame a viewer’s aesthetic experience—that’s what’s most interesting to me.