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

ROCOCO BEATBOX, Shane Walsh

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!

Artist Feature: Bryan Cera and Critical Machining

Bryan Cera is a former student of mine (he did both his BFA and MFA with me at UW-Milwaukee), and I couldn’t be prouder. Not that I can honestly take any responsibility for the person and artist Bryan has become – one who far surpassed his teacher long ago; but rather, I am proud to call him a friend and colleague, proud of the hard work he has done, and what he has achieved with it.

Cera was the featured artist at Maker Faire Milwaukee last weekend – the largest Maker Faire in the country – showing off his custom-designed 3D/ceramic printer, and some Daft Punk cosplay, among other things. The former’s main innovations are a vertical shaft worm gear box in order to seriously increase torque, so as to work with standard clay (rather than the over-watery liquid that often doesn’t hold form in most models), and real-time, manual  controls to similarly adjust speed and viscosity as needed. The latter (which gets heaps of Interweb hits), he happily told us, uses an Arduino Nano and addressable RGB LEDs.

But it is not Bryan’s technical innovation nor his open source attitude alone that make me proud. He was always this way, generous and smart, able to figure things out and willing to help others understand them. (See some of Cera’s best tutorial shares here.)

What continues to intrigue and impress me is Cera’s ability to smoothly move between cool pop culture fun, and important questions about how we perform and understand technology, ourselves, and the worlds they together make and change. For him, and for anyone who spends any time with him, art and craft, technology and culture, philosophy and fun, are never far apart – and the stakes in that distance – or the lack thereof – always have consequences.

When I met him, Bryan was making traditional art and going through school on the one hand, playing with technology and his sense of humor on the other. He didn’t see these two lives as connected until he was pushed to explore his fun and geeky side in his (home) work. What initially came out was various versions of Supercontroller – a full-body, interactive interface for Super Mario Brothers. Delightfully fun, we grab coins and jump over (or on top of) turtles to rack up points; this piece’s various iterations also begin to show how digital realms do not enhance our behaviors: they actually limit them in how we must face the screen and interact. Pung – the title a cross between the 80s game Pong and the word sung (like singing) – sees us control the up/down paddles of the classic table tennis arcade game with our voices. Here microphones stick out like robot arms from the screen, and gallery-goers sing and scream into their controllers in order to make it go. It’s a hilarious amplification (literally!) of the weird things we do to make our technologies function (watch the video!), between play, performance, and habit.

These two works embarked Cera on a journey around precisely the tensions between such things. One breakthrough open-source piece that got a lot of attention was Glove One: a fully functional phone you wear on your hand. Though a lot of folks really loved it – you dial on your fingers, do the classic “call me” gesture to speak and listen with your thumb and pinky, hang up by slamming your fist – there was a much funnier, and more critical, joke to the entire gesture. You see, there’s this great hand-phone you can use with natural movements and that looks super cool… and all you have to do is give up all other uses of your hand. You can’t do anything else. Pick things up, hold hands with your partner, wipe – none of it is a go. And Cera’s argument is that we often give up just so much when we adopt our new tech toys. Even when our phones are not there, for example, when we try to shut down and shut off, we feel the phantoms ringing in our pockets, pulling away our attention and our time…

ARAI: Arm For Artistic Inquiry (pronounced array) goes in another direction, but explores similar concepts. We constantly hear how robots are going to outperform us, steal our jobs, become more human. One core argument for this future is so that we humans can spend more time doing important things… What if, Cera asks, we made a robot more human, by having it do the things that humans would actually do in that free time? So… he made a robot that procrastinates. I kid you not. ARAI constantly opens the fridge, peers in, then closes it. It surfs Facebook for pictures of cats. It stares at magazines but does not read them. Ironically, says Cera, the more human the robot becomes, the more useless it is to us. Scary, funny, something to think with… He talks about it brilliantly in the TEDx talk above.

I’m super excited to see what’s next from Bryan Cera. Now an Assistant Professor of Craft and Emerging Media in the Media Arts Department at the Alberta College of Art and Design (that’s a mouthful of awesome right there), he seems to be playing out how more general materials think and act, and how they may change our media, alongside and within them. His beautiful Video Crystals, for example, shape moving images into moving sculptures, and he is in the process of imagining ceramic robots.

Good job, Bryan. Thank you for your work.

Wednesday Sept 27: Morehshin Allahyari at UWM

Morehshin Allahyari is an Iranian artist who moved to the US ten years ago, and produces work across Internet art, video and installation, sculpture, writing, and other forms, all of which explore, she says,  the political, social, and cultural contradictions we face every day.

Two of Allahyari’s recent and most well-known works are The 3D Additivist Cookbook (with Daniel Rourke), and Material Speculation: ISIS. The former is a book of 3d .obj and .stl files, critical and fictional texts, templates, recipes, (im)practical designs and methodologies from over 100 world-leading artists, activists and theorists.

And it is absolutely free.

Download The 3D Additivist Cookbook here, or torrent (yes, a completely legal bit torrent!) the archive here.

Material Speculation is a reconstruction of 12 selected (original) artifacts (statues from the Roman period city of Hatra and Assyrian artifacts from Nineveh) that were destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Allahyari 3D modeled and 3D printed these forms, creating, in the artists words “a practical and political possibility for artifact archival, while also proposing 3D printing technology as a tool both for resistance and documentation. It intends to use 3D printing as a process for repairing history and memory.” She includes a flash drive and a memory card inside the body of each 3D printed object, making each a kind of time capsule with images, maps, pdf files, and videos gathered on the artifacts and sites that were destroyed.

She is also a friend: generous and fun, smart and friendly, I highly recommend you try to make it to her talk this week, September 27, 2017 here in Milwaukee.

Artists Now! lectures take place every Wednesday at 7:30 pm in the Arts Center Lecture Hall on the UWM campus. They are always free and open to the public.

implicit art… restart (on Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy)

With the pending release of my new book (Ecological Aesthetics: artful tactics for humans, nature, and politics) in June or July of next year, and all the goings-on of the last couple of years in my life / the world, I’ve decided it might be time to reboot the blog I began back in Johannesburg circa 2002, and which teetered off and eventually died after two continental moves. Whereas that site began with my writings on art and politics, moved into regional discussions of aesthetics and culture and back again, here…. um, well… yeh, it will similarly be on whatever I feel like posting about, that I think is interesting.

For now, the new tagline is “art and ecology, fiction and geek stuff, culture and philosophy, parenting and life, etc”.

Forthcoming: a bit on my new book, some interesting tidbits from students in the classes I am teaching this semester (two Digital Studio courses, and one in Mechanical Engineering, plus some extra-curriculars), and thoughts on some great new art and books I’ve seen and read this Summer. You can expect to hear from me about once per week from now.

For now, a briefiew (yeh, I just made that up, a “brief review” portmanteau.  Tho I’m sure someone else has used it before, and it may not have gone down well. I decided against googling it, and ruining it for myself….) on Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy.

There are some lovely, and funny, and sad moments in this book, about a Google engineer’s quest for contentment, where he found and lost and found happiness before and after the death of his son. Gawdat hopes to share, simply, how to live with ourselves, and others, in the moment. He has an actual equation and formula, with numbers and lists and drawings (I’m actually listening to the audiobook, so I just imagine them, tho it comes with a PDF; his voice is very soothing). Honestly, Gawdat’s outlook mostly feels like a contemporary (and geeky) take on Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now (which my mom likes way more than I do).

In the end, overall, it’s worth your time (even if, like me, there are few self-help books you are into – non-fiction is, of course, much broader than this!). The author is likable, his stories moving, his personality generous and relatable. And I’d like to share my favorite bit, which more or less goes as follows: the voice in your head is not you.

That person, who you think is you, who criticizes the way you eat, or move, or work out? The one who replays conversations in your head (or in my case, out loud), or wonders why that person at work is being that way towards you? That voice, which questions you, or the world, or the ones you care about? Overall, your inner monologue… That person is not you. That’s a construct of a person, the one who got praise or punishment from parents and teachers, and followed suit; he or she is the one who performs for others. That is not the real you. YOU are the one observing that criticizer. And you do not have to listen to the voice.

I’ve named the voice in my head Ferdinand. He is a bit of a dick, and I like to roll my eyes at, and make fun of, him. It has seriously changed things around here. So… thanks for that, Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy.