Although history is made of the past, the past is not exclusively made of things that make history. It is inevitable therefore, that history becomes an ethical judgment. And it is precisely in response -or in liberating reaction- to this reasoning that we have been granted pop art.
Shawn Huckins paints through history. He does this rather literally through placing lines of modern dialogue onto the works of renowned masters. What is most interesting in his work, however, is not the mere juxtaposition of word and image, or the single symbolic code it produces. In foregoing the obvious option of digitally reproducing the paintings that he uses in his own work, Huckins does more than just exploit the opportunity to exhibit mastery -he affords himself the actual labour required for an examined recontextualization of the past. He starts by taping lettering on a blank canvas, and then paints the image on top; he then peels off the tape to reveal the lettering and thus create his own, personal new work.
I couldn’t help but wonder if ever, as he peels off the tape, he feels as though doing an injustice to his meticulous work of reproduction. “Peeling the letters is one my favourite parts of the process” he says. “In no way do I feel I am jeopardizing the integrity of the time and effort I put into the work. Before the tape is peeled, the painting looks incomplete anyhow. It is the letters that bring the painting to life and completion.” One feels reassured by his answer, because such labour is what transforms what could otherwise dissolve into a trivialized study in contradiction, into so much more: Subversion is only possible through immersion, and vice versa. His passionate and learned immersion in both the work of painters he so evidently admires, like Bingham and Singleton, or Ruscha, as well as in the currency, in the temporal as well the practical merit, of language, dignifies his matching of perceived extremes -like Benjamin Franklin “LMAO-ing”.
Huckins often attributes at least part of his love for painting to the “Big Kid” on a school bus ride home. “One afternoon, I had to sit with the larger, kind of scary looking kid. He was several grades above me. I noticed he was drawing, and I started asking him what he was drawing and what things he was using. He got off the bus before me, but before he did, he ripped out one of his drawings and gave it to me. When I got home, I coloured in the drawing and asked my mom if I could get some sketch books and coloured pencils”.
His work continues to somehow be about colouring in ripped pages from others’ sketchbooks in which the defining quality is not the work of the big kid, but the uncensored playfulness of the little kid. Huckins is at times actually ingenious in appropriating the works he loves, whether he is turning Hockney into a paint card, deconstructing Lichtenstein for a Lincoln portrait, or even finding Bob Ross in historical American painting. His next series is another pairing exercise that features “paintings of highly detailed landscapes, and superimposed on top are abstract colourful shapes in the form of houses close to where I live”. I can’t help but ask him, what quote would he put on his own self-portrait. His answer? “Dafuq.”