Documentation photos courtesy of Jake Holler and No Place Gallery.
Shawn McBride (b. 1990; Ashland, OH) is a L.A.-based painter, for now at least, with deep roots in Ohio. A graduate of the Columbus College of Art and Design, McBride lived at Skylab Gallery and kept a studio in No Place Gallery before leaving Columbus for balmier climes.
However, the artwork in McBride’s No Place Gallery exhibition, Syridium Damianus Hectophatasmagon, was brought into being close to Ohio’s capital. The whole body of paintings and drawings on show was created in August 2017 at Open Wabi, an artists’ residency in nearby Fredericktown, Ohio, on the site of the former Sun Glow Furniture factory.
Shawn McBride, I Believe In Having Warts Removed Immediately, 2017, 7.5’x 5′, acrylic, collage on canvas.
“Syridium Damianus Hectophatasmagon” is the name of a celestial being who controls the universe in the 1989 B movie Monster High. The being’s name means “Monster in Charge.” In the film, Syridium Damianus Hectophatasmagon resolves a conflict with a character named “Mr. Armageddon” by playing in a basketball game between intergalactic monsters and a high school basketball team. Therefore: “Monster High.” The film has been described as, “Kind of like Michael Jordan’s Space Jam but much, much worse,” as well as being “completely boring.” Yet another reviewer put it this way: “It’s really tough to be entertained by anything this inane, chintzy, and uninspired.” In a time when The Room (2003) is a cult phenomenon solely for its ineptitude, Monster High is still unable to be processed even on that level.
In conversation, McBride told me he wants his paintings to be like Monster High: not scary, nor funny; not simply bad, per se, nor just good. When familiar judgments like these fail to resolve through viewing an art object, it can produce a blank indeterminacy that frustrates the audience’s expectations. McBride describes this indeterminacy as a “state of multiplicity” that he aims to achieve.
Shawn McBride, A Doozie, 2017, acrylic, collage on canvas.
McBride’s state of multiplicity – of multiple, unresolvable experiences – can be seen in one of his vertical diptychs, an acrylic painted collage titled A Doozie. In its top half, a head channeling Otto Dix’s Great War invalids rests atop a toddler’s triumphal arch. Resting against this mangled death’s head is a symbol that retains the semiotic residue of both a peace sign and a Mercedes Benz logo, which contradicts the spirit of the ghastly visage it overlaps. The bottom half of the diptych, singing in a full Stuart Davis brio, works to pull its all-too referential top-half into a world of joyous abstraction, where the colors of the Pan-African flag predominate, presenting, through form and color alone, a social formation in opposition to the grim imagery culled from European imperial wars. This push and pull from abstraction to representation; deliberate art historical reference to naive imagery; horror to elation; keeps the viewer’s interpretation of the work moving, never settling into an easily received idea.
Shawn McBride, Killer Condom Routine, 2017, 25″X 17″, acrylic, collage on canvas.
In Killer Condom Routine (2017), another of McBride’s diptychs on show, tubes pilfered from Fernand Léger empty out into a laughing clown’s, or pinhead’s, masked face. The motif of the mask circulates throughout the exhibition. It is a metaphor for hiding meaning – “masking the truth” – but also, it is a metaphor for the act of painting, which is always a representation of the thing, and never the thing itself. Divining actual meaning from paintings, McBride suggests, is like trying to read facial expressions under a mask.
Shawn McBride, I Heard Myself Today, To See If I Still Hear, I Opened Up My Ears, The Only Things That Hear, 7.5′ x 5.5′, acrylic, collage on campus.
Enmeshed in an era of overdetermined and overwhelming meaning, McBride’s paintings ask if there’s a freedom to be found in an artwork that can be looked at, but not settled. If there isn’t quite freedom, perhaps there’s relief. Relief, because indeterminacy is a more faithful reflection of the lack of intention in our lives: We live in places that are an accident of birth, doing things that feel more like having things done to us, in edifices, like Open Wabi, that no longer contain the operations they were built to house. That disconnect between the intentions of the past and the desperation of the present is why the anesthetic ketamine is en vogue. K’s eerie, dissociative feeling allows one to regard oneself as, and through, a mask; as a representation of something one can embody but never be. This is what Americans are now: we are not the leader of the free world; we are a mask our past wears, anxiously, in the present, to suggest nothing has changed since we were. We aren’t Jerry Seinfeld during the dot-com boom, but, rather, an upside down, white mask pasted over that cultural memory, able to forcibly articulate our past, but unable to claim to be an authentic extension of its continuity.
This dynamic is captured in one of McBride’s titles, a corruption of a lyric in NIN’s “Hurt“:
I heard myself today. To see if I still hear.
I opened up my ears. The only things that hear.
After his opening, McBride insisted our group catch the midnight premiere of It at the South Campus Gateway Theater. Of course, It was sold out. Instead, we went to the Ugly Tuna Saloona, a bar known for two things: blue raspberry fishbowls and the unsolved disappearance, on April Fool’s Day, 2006, of an Ohio State University medical student named Brian Shaffer. Shaffer walked into the bar – he did not walk out. The indeterminacy of what happened to Shaffer – murder, suicide, voluntary disappearance – spurred a citywide fascination with the case. It allowed for any characterization of Shaffer and his motives to be posited, from Shaffer as a coward who ghosted his soon-to-be fiancée, to a folk-hero who literally escaped into a bar; from a victim of the “Smiley Face Killer” to a nervous wreck in the midst of a mental breakdown due to his mother’s recent death. Out of the Big Ten banality of the Ugly Tuna Saloona emerged a prism, which, no matter the angle one viewed it, nor the light shone upon it, only reflected the viewer.
In honor of Shaffer’s escape from life’s overdeterminations, and McBride’s evasion of meaning, I threw a blue raspberry fishbowl off of Ugly Tuna Saloona’s balcony and into the void, laughing.
Columbus, September 2017