Artist feature: Shane Walsh, Milwaukee-based painter (UPDATED!)


Shane Walsh is a friend and colleague I used to share an office with, and we’ve even shared a beverage once or twice (OK, twice. Once hot, once cold). He is a teacher and artist I respect greatly as a peer at UWM – he is in Painting and Drawing, while I mostly teach in Digital Studio Practice – and so I feel like this post has been a long time coming (er… well, I only restarted my blog recently, but you know what I mean).

That said, Shane’s work is kind of amazing.

Something often coveted but almost never fully realized in contemporary art – and especially painting – is a balance between abstraction and representation, a way to play out affective tones and modulations, or gestures and resonances on the one hand (think Rothko, Pollock, or Twombly), while still engaging with perfect mimetic copies of the real world on the other. Where and when do you play between easy recognition and subjective internalization? And Walsh’s attempts at this question are smart, funny, and overall, extremely effective.

Shane Walsh, recent work (2017)

What looks like photocopies, or smeared ink, or a photoshop “find edges” filter, or cut outs, or watercolor, or dozens of other media… is always paint. In other words, Walsh is producing what appear to be abstract images in pen and pencil, frivolous gestures with machinery, and / or coded or other media forms; but each is actually painstakingly and perfectly representational: of one medium (actually, several of the aforementioned) by another (paint). The results accomplish a strong and strange duality, where I am moved, first, by the compositions and what they feel like, and then again by their histories: the craftsmanship and irony, the detail with which Shane paints faux frivolity, the performance that is both the painting and Shane’s practice, and overall the core history of Painting’s (yes, it’s a capital “P”) continuous forms, all at once.

Walsh’s newer work is all in black and white, calling even more attention to the early 20th century’s obsession with photographic influence on painting (as material and practice), as well as to early video art, lithography, and “the office,” but his earlier works in the trajectory, too, show a similar old/new, abstract/real, celebration/critique tension that is humorous and charming, while never losing site of how painting is and always will be at the center of every discussion of critical art, contemporary or otherwise. So when Shane paints sculptures, or digital art, or what look like geometric paper landscapes, they are always with a self-reflection on who he is, how he works, and what is at stake in “representation,” or the lack thereof, when working with his medium/discipline.

His newest black and white work, above, feels even more like “traditional” abstract expressionism in its gestures and forms, without some of the grids from his last few shows. But on closer inspection (left), we see what seems like it must be the photoshop line/paint tool, what should be a dry brush, a scraper, paint drippings, ink, watercolor… but all of them are, we learn, laboriously crafted by Walsh – representationally rather than gesturally. These are not performative – e.g. created by an embodied performance – but performances themselves: masks, pretense, a “playing at” of gestures, with paint.

I visited Shane’s studio today, and got to see some of his newest, in-process work (right, and below). Walsh has – after some feedback and constructive critique from several peers – decided to venture back into color, and, with his kind of work, this is much harder than it at first sounds. While the artist wants to continue his exploration of media forms and how they think-and-feel-with-paint, the style he works in, once colorized, could easily be misread as decorative arts, or Pop art, or Typography and graphic design. There is, of course, nothing “wrong” with these genres and movements, but they are not part of Walsh’s inquiry into form, performance, and information, and so… I’ll admit I had a bit of a blast brainstorming around new possibilities of where he might go instead! Could Walsh continue his black and whites, then layer them with construction-paper-like color? Make photocopy-ish paintings, as before, then paint on top like a coloring book, or make them look like splatters and drips? Reference printmaking, like woodcut, litho, or lino “key” blocks, and etched or screened “color” blocks around them? Shane has a lot of work, and far more potential, in front of him. It’s going to be so cool.

What happens in that space between affection and reflection, between what we sense, and how we make sense? How do our media and materials impact meaning-making in our everyday, and overall? Where do we per-form, where is there already form, and how do we in-form each other across these spaces? If what we feel and see is always already a part of who we are and what actions we take (and why), then when do aesthetics become ethics, and what are the implications in that question?

These questions are not idle ones, and Walsh invites us into them with skill, intelligence, beauty, and a bit of fun.

Shane Walsh shows with The Alice Wilds in Milwaukee, and has studio space in Walker’s Point, Milwaukee, and Brooklyn, New York.

UPDATE: here’s the completed work from above!

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