The soft, quiet beauty of Sean Mahan’s figurative paintings provides the tremendous initial appeal that lures us into imagery infused with an electrifying cerebral charge. Erudite and incredibly thoughtful, Mahan carefully constructs his creations to incorporate a plethora of subtle, yet remarkably incisive social commentaries. By combining aspects of his personal history, astute observations, and a multitude of diverse inspirations ranging from texts by the great philosophers through to the dissention at the heart of the punk movement, he explores ideas about advertising, consumerism and the identities we build for ourselves around material possessions. The accumulative effect of Mahan’s thought provoking visual cues generates feelings of nostalgia surrounding the obsolete and a distinct captivation with the warmth emanating from his youthful protagonists. It urges reflection about what we conform to in contemporary culture and inspires viewing aspects of our materialism and also our potential for growth as human beings, with fresh perspective.
Sean Mahan is a social realist figurative painter from Neptune Beach, Florida. He has been exhibiting his art around the world for over a decade at venues including, Thinkspace Gallery (USA), Outré Gallery (Australia) and Indie Fjord (Norway). Sean has also created cover artwork for numerous bands, such as, LAPêCHE, Between Two Waves and Twelve Hour Turn.
WOW x WOW is incredibly honoured that Sean has contributed to several of our recent group exhibitions and we simply had arrange a chat to find out more about him and his wonderful artwork. Sean gave an exceptionally insightful interview and we really hope that you enjoy the read.
Hi Sean, thanks very much for making the time to have a chat, we really appreciate it. To get us started, can you give us some background on what has lead you to this point in your professional life, be it your formal training, hard work, serendipity, etc.?
Thanks for having me! I’m happy to be included on WOW x WOW! A little about my background? I was lucky to be encouraged from a young age to practice drawing. My Father is an Architect and a great painter and he supplied my sisters and I with lots of materials to get creative with. I pursued art further and went to Savannah College of Art and Design to study illustration in the early 90’s. At that time illustration was elevating into fine art. I got interested in the idea of removing illustration from its role in advertising to see what was left after deinstrumentalizing it. I was playing and listening to lots of punk/hardcore music and there were a lot of strong feelings at that time surrounding an authenticity of voice that hasn’t been corrupted by making it more commercial. We were scrutinizing the relationship in music between its intrinsic value and its exchange value and so it was natural for me to translate those same ideas into visual art making. I developed some great friendships with bands and labels who were moving in the same direction. Making paintings for record covers is what really got me pursuing painting more seriously, and I loved the connection between music and art. The two have a special way of informing each other.
You’ve stated that you’re deeply interested in human nature; the identities we form and the potential we each achieve. Talk to us about when and how this interest began and how it has informed your creativity and development as an artist over the years.
Questions about human nature were being addressed in punk and I think that is what really sparked my interest when I was young. There was a strong lean towards a more pro-social benevolent view of human nature inspired by anarchists like Kropotkin. I also remember reading a lot of Erich Fromm as a teenager. His ideas about our alienation from the natural world and our attempts to escape our natural freedom through authority, conformity, and destruction resonated with me then. I was looking at our consumer culture as complicit in shaping our aesthetic culture, slowly narrowing what the objects around us look like as it becomes more evident what sells the most. I thought this was a similar kind of conformity to what Fromm was talking about, and we were hiding within it somehow. This related to my artmaking because I wanted to salvage some intrinsic beauty that had been discarded for a market that functions on co-opting our impulses. In doing so, it emphasizes one small part of our human nature over the other parts, and I think our culture is deformed because of it.
I am fascinated by the beauty in household objects from the 50’s and 60’s and I include them a lot in my paintings. I’ve tried hard to figure out where this fascination comes from. It may partly be that these were the objects around me as a child and they remind me of a certain kind of comfort. But more than that, I think they sit in an interesting point in history that represents some kind of balance between handmade and extreme division of labor, between the durable and disposable, between beauty and accessibility. They also sit at a point where consumerism was really starting to take off. Advertising began fetishizing these objects and they began to be more like a subject themselves, with a life of their own. I started experimenting with this idea in paintings, but instead, I’m fetishizing the obsolete objects of our past rather than something new. I’m advertising for salvaging what’s good from the past rather than incessantly chasing after the disposable, literally and figuratively.
The protagonists in your work are almost always children, surrounded by well-considered symbolic content. We’d love to hear about your intentions behind focusing on young subjects and how you approach the symbolism in your imagery.
I like painting children because they represent the potential of human nature. They have a possibility of flourishing that hasn’t been too fixed. They reflect something natural within us that hasn’t been too distorted by our environment. I like to highlight different kinds of tension between them and the objects they encounter. There is a kind of isolation in our attempts to individuate ourselves by surrounding ourselves with objects, as opposed to individuating ourselves in relationship to others in a community. We look for a kind of unity with brand rather than a more direct unity with others. I like to hint at that kind of alienation coupled with the hope that these children aren’t yet fully trapped. Other symbols I like to use like flowers, threads, and birds, help to tell the story of potential, flourishing, entrapment, etc.
How political do you feel as an artist? Do you hope that viewers find a critical message within your work?
I think as an artist I can depict how our political environment feels and it can remind you of that feeling within yourself. Art can possibly inspire more self-reflection on that feeling. I think it is harder to use art to direct political action. I feel more suited to inspire reflection rather than action.
You’re very well read, with knowledge in the fields of philosophy, critical theory, cognitive science, ethics, etc. Which of these fields have had the most impact on the themes you’ve been exploring in your work? We’re very interested to hear about some specific examples.
In thinking about human nature, it opens up a lot of questions. Is human nature progressing? How strongly are we restricted by it? Can we transcend our evolved impulses through reason? Is our perception inextricably tied up with our human interests? I like all these questions and I think all are involved in art making.
For example, Nietzsche had the idea that in art we indulge in delusion to draw out truths. But, the truths that we draw out are filtered through our perceptions as human agents who have specific, evolved interests. Those interests shape where we place our conceptual boundaries. It may be the case that I can never say anything true as an artist, while you may be able to find something true in it. That makes my job as an artist strange because I’m continually trying to get my hands on something that is fluid, while trying to anticipate what you may draw out of it that is more concrete. It’s sort of a hard thing to describe, but I think we all experience this in art. All of the symbols in art signify something we relate to, but the symbol loses its meaning over time the more we exploit that symbol towards certain ends.
In the end, I think we have evolved to prefer to see certain things, but those preferences get shaped further by our background understanding that is formed by our environmental experiences. I don’t think there is any fixed thing that we will all find beautiful, only moving reminders of beauty that we remember to feel when we encounter the right reminder.
What have been some of the greatest breakthroughs you’ve experienced within your learning as an artist? Those moments that have opened up whole new creative avenues or that have led to you taking large leaps forward in your development?
I think really good art happens over time as you synthesize things from your environment and land on a few random accidents. You save the successes from each painting and drop the failures and eventually you have an accumulation, a vocabulary of elements that make up your style. Then you have to use that vocabulary like a vehicle to carry meaning or feeling. I’m not sure if I’ve had standout breakthroughs, more a slow flowering of things I like to see.
I started drawing and painting on wood in the early 90’s because it was readily available around me and I liked participating with the grains in the wood. I also started working then with a commercial mural company, along with the artist and good friend, MOMO. The more I learned about working with latex mural paint, the more it started to bleed over into my personal painting. Now I rarely draw, I only paint with acrylics that act very much like the latex paint. Painting very large scale also made painting in the studio seem very comfortable and less overwhelming.
After 15 years, I stopped doing commercial murals to paint fine art in the studio full time. Although, a couple of times a year I work on installing MOMO’s murals. They are completely opposite from my paintings, but we both approach artwork with a kind of planned precision and attention to detail, so it is a delight to paint with him and very inspiring.
We’d love to hear you talk about a favourite creative experience and how it earned that status.
Recently, I had a show in Norway that corresponded with the music festival Indiefjord. The gallery and venues were in the countryside town Bjorke on an extremely beautiful fjord. The organizer Silja Haddal-Mork is from Bjorke and each year she imports artists and bands from all over and they show in the most picturesque grass-roofed farmhouses from the 1700’s. Silja is one of the sweetest people I have ever met and she is somehow connected with sweet people the world over. I met her through making some cover artwork for bands on the record label EardrumsPop, and it seemed a great fit to have a solo show along with the festival. The small town has totally embraced the festival and they are now all big indie-pop fans, even all the grandmas come out to enthusiastically see the bands and the art. It’s very inclusive and fun.
What are the best, and also the worst pieces of advice that you’ve ever been given about your art or career?
I don’t know, I haven’t been given much advice. One of the things I love about making art is facing the creative choice. I get to choose to create something new and unknown, free from the regular restrictions of life.
When I met Brandt Peters a long time ago, he told me not to stop painting. I don’t think he realized it, but that was very encouraging to me. I try to follow his example and encourage others too.
In order to get a better understanding of the personality of an artist, it can help to get a peek behind the curtain. Would you be willing to share a story from your own life, possibly one whose memory you find yourself returning to for inspiration, or maybe just a tale about a hardship you’ve overcome which has helped define the person and therefore artist that you are now?
I think the only thing worthwhile in life is being caring and considerate. My Mother was a Girl Scout troop leader and I spent a lot of time with the girl scouts, going to their meetings and campouts. I also was in the Boy Scouts and I got to see a strong comparison between the two. We were being socialized in starkly different ways. The Boy Scout leaders were demeaning and militant and we were always competing against each other. In the Girl Scouts we made crafts together, sang songs about friendship, and were encouraged to be sweet and kind. Girl Scouts was clearly superior to me, and I think these ideas around socialization still inform what I like to express in art.
What is your relationship with the history of art and do you feel that it is important to have a good understanding of what has come before? Can you talk about some of the artists from the past who you feel a kinship with or who have inspired you?
We had a large library of art books in our house growing up. My dad worked to teach us art history. His favorite artists were Vermeer, John Singer Sargent, and Andrew Wyeth. So we looked at lots of portraits. I studied art history in college as well, and got a minor in it. I was always in love with the printmaking of Kathe Kollwitz. She captured a darkly sad social realism that was very inspiring to me.
If you could own one piece of art from any of the world’s collections what would it be and why?
Oh! I want to own a beautiful piece of architecture and get to live inside something designed by someone like Arne Korsmo. He designed the home of the 60’s designer, who I love, Grete Prytz Kittelsen.
What’s next for Sean Mahan?
Right now I’m participating in group shows at Thinkspace Gallery, Spoke Art, Haven Gallery, Outré Gallery, Antler Gallery, and WOW x WOW. I have a mini solo show coming up this summer at Outré Gallery in Melbourne, Australia and a solo show at Thinkspace Gallery in 2019. Also just out, I painted the cover for the band LAPêCHE’s record ‘The Second Arrow’, and I’m painting the cover for the band Sunshine State’s new second record.
Thanks again for having me, I really appreciate it!