Shawn McNulty is an active contemporary painter in the Minnesota art scene. He defines his style as “the idea of recognizable shapes and structures within an irrational environment with emphasis on form, color, and composition.” His art is has reached numerous collectors all over the world, among whom are former President Bill Clinton and former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura. His work can also be found in the prestigious corporate collections of Hi-Wire Productions, M-Tech Information Technology, and Net Perceptions. He is a founding member of the 26 contemporary artists that created Rosalux Gallery in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is maintained by artists. Rosalux has become a major part of the contemporary art scene in Minnesota.
DP: You’ve said, “My style explores the relationship between man-made structures and the natural world; the idea of recognizable shapes and structures living within irrational thoughts and emotions.”
Can you share more on “…recognizable shapes… living within irrational thoughts and emotions?”
SM: My process starts with very spontaneous layers, and eventually I begin to see specific characters in the piece created by the forms. I nurture these shapes while allowing the other portions of the painting to continue to develop in a spontaneous fashion. I find this the best way to describe the end result because I can see the detailed characters existing in the irrational environment. The Abstract Expressionists believed they were throwing their emotions directly and purely on to a canvas. I use this technique as the first step in my process, but then I interpret the results and reshape them into what I see. It’s a relationship between my subconscious and conscious. The conscious part always gets the final say in the matter.
DP: Growing up in Minneapolis, I can imagine winters of grey skies. Perhaps many of them. And lots of snow. Yet your work is bright and feisty. Relationship? A reaction against?
SM: There are grey skies in the winter and usually more snow than I ever need, but it’s preceded by a fantastic display of reds, oranges, and yellows in the autumn. When spring comes around, the greens of new growth are far more vivid than somewhere that lacks a seasonal change. Everything is appreciated at a much richer level when it is taken away from you for a period of time and given back. Even in the dead of winter I can see the colors that were recently there, and those that will be returning.
DP: How do the man-made and natural environments influence you and your work? What drives your explorations?
SM: This goes back to the process of throwing down raw emotions on the canvas, which I view as the natural or subconscious part of the piece. Then I build something out of it that exists in the environment, and this is the man-made or conscious part. The piece is finished when this symbiotic relationship is created. Frank Lloyd Wright designed structures that were specific to the natural environment. That type of relationship is an influence to me because I believe it’s where we need to be as human beings.
DP: Within this relationship between man-made structures and the natural world, do you see hope, joy? Doom, tears?
SM: I see hope in my work. To give a very literal example, I see innovative architecture that fits into the land it resides almost perfectly, as if you can’t imagine the man-made structure not being there. We have to work with nature, similar to how I have to work with the subconscious layers on my canvas. I am hopeful of the continued progression of clean alternative energy sources which may be the most important relationship between nature and man. What I try to avoid seeing are the housing developments of beige and off-beige clones that suffocate a piece of land. In this case, the environment becomes a prisoner to man and is forced to live in a state of learned helplessness.
DP: I love that you explore this human/nature relationship, yet through Non-Objective Art, Abstraction. Why not paint realistically? Buildings, buses, birds, oceans?
SM: I was a photo realist at one time. People might not guess that when seeing my work. I like the idea of having to learn the rules before you can break them. I recently explored a style in which I used an image transfer on a canvas from a photograph. The process would involve many mistakes and pieces of the image would be missing, so I would rebuild aspects of the work back up with spontaneous characters. This concept was almost a reversal of my current style, starting with the most detailed layer and ending with the spontaneous layers. I believe that all artists should start from the same traditional area. The beauty of an individual style is the progression of getting there. There’s a lot of instinct involved in my work, and though I could put a piece together in a traditional sense that would illustrate the concept in a literal way, it would be forced and awkward from my perspective. Many of the Abstract Expressionists reduced their forms to almost nothing. I feel I’ve reduced my forms to a point that feels comfortable. I would rather people develop personal interpretations for my work instead of trying to see what I see.
DP: Your work has many vibrant, pure colors. You mention on your web site that Diebenkorn influenced you. Many of your color tones bring to mind a more playful Diebenkorn. Now that you are an established artist, how do you see that influence? And artist influences in general?
SM: Richard Diebenkorn and Hans Hofmann were big influences, especially in the early stages of my style. Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series is fantastic. His subtle, ghostly geometric characters are wonderful. With Hofmann, I am most drawn to his textures and color palette. You really have to see his work in person to appreciate the textures, and I feel that holds true with my work as well. Currently, I feel I am exploring my own ideas exclusively, but I sometimes revisit those artists and it’s always comfortable. It helps me to take a step back and visualize my progression. It’s also interesting to view their early representational work, and see how their styles developed.
DP: Bright colors fill your work. What is it that so enthralls you?
SM: I get this question a lot. The color selection is very instinctive. I am more interested in the relationships of the colors to each other than the colors themselves, and there are not many that are off limits. I have toned down the brightness of some colors in recent years. I’ve been opting for more oxide and chromium colors, especially in the yellows and greens. Bright red and intense light blue will never disappear, and they can be found in almost every piece. I don’t draw attention to myself personally, but I do through the work. Many people need to communicate with many people on a daily basis to express themselves, and I only need a canvas and a medium.
DP: With major scientists around the world confirming global warming as fact, and Hurricane Katrina being a tragic example, how do you see artists responding? How should we respond?
SM: Global warming is quite the heated debate right now, even amongst some scientists. Regardless of which data you want to believe, it’s hard to argue with the fact that man-made greenhouse emissions are not good for the planet, and we need to find alternatives that need to eventually become the standard. Imagine a hybrid vehicle that runs on 85% ethanol fuel as the DVD player, and the gasoline-fueled vehicle as the laserdisc player. Laserdiscs aren’t produced anymore because there is no demand. Even with major tragedies like Katrina, it’s hard to change human behavior. Recycling needs to be made as convenient as possible and standardized nationwide. Anyone with a platform, including artists, has a chance to help convey this idea.
DP: After all that deep stuff, what makes you laugh?
SM: Humor is as vital as oxygen. I find random absurdity in a sane environment to be the most humorous, similar to Monty Python. I suppose one could compare this idea to my artistic process. I also enjoy the intelligent satire of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Occasionally, these two comedic ideas can be found in the same concept, and that was Minnesota’s own Mystery Science Theater 3000.