Interview with Sean Mahan for ‘Rendered Problematic’

Sean Mahan Interview

In anticipation for Sean Mahan’s upcoming exhibition Rendered Problematic in Thinkspace Gallery’s project room, we interviewed the artist to discuss his artistic voice, themes of the show, and where he’d go in time.

Check out our interview with Sean Mahan below and attend the opening reception of Rendered Problematic Saturday, October 15th from 6 – 9pm.

SH: What is the inspiration behind Rendered Problematic? What ideas were you exploring during its formation?

SM: I chose the title “rendered problematic” because it was descriptive of both the rendered illustration style and the conceptual ideas I wanted to approach with the show. I was interested in problematizing how our modern environment alienates us from flourishing to our full potential. I’m interested in asking questions about human nature, about what individuates us and what enables us to be sweet and kind to each other. What is shaping our identities and to what extent are they plastic and moveable? I thought a lot about the ideas for the show and the ideas for each painting before considering how they would look. I wanted to experiment with the idea of naming each painting first and then assigning it to myself to be illustrated. It’s a little bit backwards of how I normally work, which is first dealing with the image, the colors, the visual content, which starts to suggest and reveal my feelings toward an idea. But for this show, starting with the idea in full form first and then responding to it visually was sort of like reasoning toward my feelings as opposed to feeling towards my reasoning, if that makes sense. I think painting is a good way to put these two together to give them equal voice.


SH: An artist explores different styles before coming upon their unique artistic voice, how did you develop your voice? When did it click?

SM: I started painting on wood in the early nineties. My dad is an architect and wood worker, so I think that had an influence. I’ve always had an interest in technical drawing which is probably inspired by my dad as well. One of the first jobs in Florida that he had was doing technical illustrations for NASA for the first space shuttle. In his studio he has all these cool blue print drawings of the shuttle and the platforms surrounding it during its construction. I remember using his drafting tools when I was little to try and render my plans for the ultimate skate ramp.

Skateboard graphics from my childhood in the 80’s were also a big stylistic influence. I must have drawn and redrawn all the early Powell graphics ten times over when I was young. Looking back at some of those early skate graphics I can see similarities in how I like to compose a painting with a central subject surrounded by objects encoded with a secret meaning.

There were other influences as well, but I think I settled on the style I’ve been working on after doing several album covers for the post-hardcore band “Twelve Hour Turn” in the early 2000’s. I liked having my art positioned into a context of dissent and social critique. It’s also great to have a soundtrack that accompanies your painting.

SH: Expression is very important in your work, how do you find your faces/emotion? What kind of reference material do you use?

SM: I like to depict a pause in normal thought, an interruption of expectation. I like the way that reflects in facial expression. For this series of paintings I built complex references to paint from; a kind of photo montage that is then carefully painted. I take some photos, find some photos, and take them apart and reassemble them into the image. For example, a face might be built from eyes from one photo, hair from another, nose from another, etc. I’ve always been a fan of the photo montage artists, Linder in particular. The way she took images from how femininity was being portrayed in women’s magazines and how it was being portrayed in men’s magazines and combined them into one troubling image is great. I’m doing something similar to make a reference, but then the final image is painted so the source images become irrelevant to the finished painting.


SH: What’s your creative process? How does a piece go from inspiration to conceptualization, and then final work?

SM: I plan a lot before beginning a painting. I like to assemble ideas and put together a reference. Then I make a drawing on tracing paper and transfer it to be painted. I mix most of the main colors I’ll use and keep them in numbered glass jars. Then, I usually paint one section at a time, start to finish, and at the end add any final colors to pull things together.

SH: What were you listening to while creating this body of work?

SM: I like to listen to lectures on philosophy, critical theory, cognitive science, ethics, etc. I also listened to several classes on cultural studies and political philosophy during this series.

I listen to music some while painting too. While painting this series I listened to some Norwegian/Swedish indie pop like Soda Fountain Rag, Avind, Je Suis Animal, Frida & Ale. I also listened to Spook School, Trust Fund, Color Me Wednesday, My Little Airport, and the record channeled from the mind of Lil’ Bub, that one’s really good.

SH: What is your studio space look like, clean or messy?

SM: My studio space is in my house and it’s organized and very clean. I have a drawing table from my dad’s architecture office in the 60’s and a record player and lots of records.


SH: What do you do with your day/time when taking a break from painting?

SM: I live at the beach in Florida, I grew up surfing and still surf a lot. I like growing papayas. At our house the papaya flowers are pollinated by hummingbird moths, which I love to see each evening. I also really love swimming in the springs. Florida has the highest concentration of freshwater springs anywhere in the world and there are so many beautiful springs nearby.

SH: You’ve shared you’re inspired by the works of Käthe Kollwitz, how did you discover her work? What is your favorite piece by her?

SM: We had a library of art history books in our house growing up. I think that’s where I first saw Käthe Kollwitz’s printmaking. I loved the stark and sad imagery and how there was still a beauty sitting there along side it. I later discovered I wasn’t alone in appreciation of her art as I started to see her prints on hardcore records in the early nineties – like Floodgate and others.

I like to call what I paint “social realism” in the same way she made social realism. There is something sweet in us that persists despite our suffering and alienation and I think she captured that well. I really like her woodcuts “Visit to the Hospital” and “The Widow, I” for example.

SH: What is the significance of the vintage appliances in your work, ie: sewing machine, radios, can opener?

SM: In “rendered problematic” I’m exploring the relationship of the subject and their objects, how we form our identities around objects. We identify with things we own and allow that identity to be shaped for us. There is a mediation in our identity formation, a control and direction imposed. There are also some natural objects in the paintings, like flowers, that are being compromised, suggesting an imposition on flourishing to our full potential. I also like using vintage objects because I’d like to fetishize the obsolete. Kind of like doing an anti-advertisement for anything new to interrupt our compulsion to keep buying and disposing.

For “rendered problematic” I also wanted to present objects in a way so that they become the real subject of the painting. A subject/object reversal of sorts, suggesting how we objectify each other, make each other instrumental, and how we romanticize the objects we buy.

SH: If you could go any place in time and not disrupt current events or future events, just to participate in the world and observe it – where would you go and what would you do?

SM: Maybe go hang out with Carl Sagan. We could go get some vegan boba teas and hang out next to a waterfall and see where the afternoon takes us.

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