TitleAthenaeum (I Can’t Pretend That This Is Poetry)
Duration05 October 2017 to 21 October 2017
VenueFoster/White Gallery, Seattle, WA
|Title||Athenaeum (I Can’t Pretend That This Is Poetry)||Posted In||Painting||Duration||05 October 2017 to 21 October 2017|
|Venue||Foster/White Gallery, Seattle, WA||Location||
220 3rd Ave S #100
Seattle, WA 98104United States
There is a lovely painting of a cloudy moon-lit sky in Shawn Huckins’s Athenaeum exhibition. It is framed to include just a part of a number of treetops, and in the clouds a simple question is written: “dafuq?” I can’t help but go back to our discussion some months ago, when talking about his work: I asked him what text he would put on his self-portrait. His answer: Exactly the word he has now placed in the clouds.
As I try to decide whether the painting is a self-portrait, or if Shawn has simply decided to share the title with another theme, I also think of Stuart Hall, that towering figure of cultural studies, who drastically expanded the concept of articulation to analyze the constitution of cultures that encompass, for its critics, almost everything. Shawn Huckins is struggling with his own interpretation of articulation, both a literal one and a figurative one. (Impressively, the word “figurative” can itself be used literally in this case.)
Shawn takes the works of masters he admires, and recreates them, superimposing words of the most contemporary vernacular, as encouraged by the realities of communicating through social media apps, hastily written texts, and even linguistically acceptable neologisms –just think of “twerking” being included in the Oxford dictionary. The result may be light, but it is exquisitely layered. This is an artist who knows what he is doing and what it means; he just doesn’t beat his audience with it. “Audience”, by the way, is remarkably appropriate. Shawn’s medium is visual, but it is so present and involved in the linguistic moment that the words can almost be heard with the exact intonation their original posters would have in mind when uploading them to twitter, the artist’s favorite medium for picking the text for his paintings.
In looking at how layered Huckins’s works are, I take an example from his Athenaeum (I Can’t Pretend That This Is Poetry) exhibition, which runs until the end of the week at the Foster/White gallery in Seattle. It takes someone paying attention to the history of both politics and art to take a portrait of Richard Dana and interpret it as zero fucks given, or in the artist’s chosen words, ZFG. For this marriage of text and picture, Shawn goes to one of his favorite painters, John Singleton Copley, and distorts the message that his model, the prominent and puritan Massachusetts lawyer might otherwise convey. However, even though Shawn instantly takes this from zfg to lol, he remains ambivalent about the point of it. In his note for Athenaeum, he wonders: “does how we communicate govern the value of what we communicate? (…) As goes our grammatical literacy, do our social and cultural literacies follow? (…) But who are we to say that ‘twerk’ and ‘selfie’ are not valid forms of communication? These additions do not signify the death of the English language, but rather a growing and evolving method of communication which changes as does our world.” And so, the question justly arises: Is this poetry? Can we pretend it is? Can we pretend it won’t be?
I go back to the dafuq? clouds. There’s just enough ambivalence there to match Shawn’s note. Even so, I don’t really think it’s a self-portrait. Huckins is much more confident, as his representations of such contradictions clearly show. That has to mean something, right? Contradictions are a thing. They go beyond the instant of their chance or calculated matching. They are culture. They are poetry, right? Oh, well. As Augustus Brine says in the reimagining of his Copley portrait, “IDK, WHTVR”.