Lynn Maliszewski: Let’s discuss the specifics of your work. Your more recent images have central landscapes flanked by abstraction. The landscapes themselves are either particularly famous, such as Disney World or K2, or more obscure. Where do these places come from? Are they connected to you personally?
Shane McAdams: It’s not something I wrestle with at all but it’s probably an apparent contradiction. Since I’ve started coming to the studio full-time, I have been the boss of me and occasionally things go all over the place. The first time I combined a landscape with one of the abstractions was kind of like when Sting can’t think of lyrics and he just picks a bunch of random words out of the dictionary to try to spur something…
LM: Does he really do that?
SMA: It may be an urban legend, but I heard Frank Black does it. Originally it was a device. I had always thought that my work was very much about nature. It was purposefully without my hand. I had gone through painting as this dialectical thing that we all do in the Midwest. We go through art history and start painting, trying to recreate a photograph to demonstrate some sort of technical skill. Then we get into our Paul Klee phase. By the time you get to New York, you realize we’ve all gone through the same dialectical phases or stages, we all do the same crap, and history cynically ends. So when I got to grad school I went religiously the other way. I was born again and started to take my hand out of it. It wasn’t about trying to find creativity, it was about withdrawing from it. It was like finding out a slice of bread was more beautiful than any crap I’m going to create with my own hand. When I was at the gallery, I would muse over things like, ‘What if you inserted carbon dioxide under pressure into a sheet of glass?’ It was all about material experiments, trying to break the back of these materials. The work looks clean but there is a jokey-ness to it. I am using nature to break my dilemma at the end of history.
LM: So you acted as a facilitator for the medium to meet the canvas, allowing for nature to assign variety rather than your own conscious thought.
SMA: Exactly. It was totally conceptual. It wasn’t projecting what was going to be a great abstraction, it made itself. One of the big problems I had, and maybe this is vanity, is that people would look at them and say, ‘Oh that’s gorgeous, it’s so Eastern.’ Most of them were purchased outside the conceptual framework I was seeing them in. I’ve had so many curators tell me that I can’t control that. Maybe I’m conservative but I want to be using the same vocabulary as the people viewing my work. If I’m not communicating at all, it doesn’t work for me. I want someone to look at it and at least enter a conversation I’m interested in. Thus I painted the landscape back into the abstraction. That imagery was almost arbitrary. I wanted to see what the chocolate and peanut butter tasted like together. My first choices were intentionally the most deadpan things ever. I tried to pick iconic, such as the Frederic Church view of Niagara Falls, Mount Denali and K2. These postcard landscapes were distilled to their essence and I added none of me into it. I think I’ve moved beyond it by becoming more comfortable with the imagery. I haven’t come to total terms with how I paint them but what I am doing now is thinking about the significance of the image in terms of place or how it might be a symbolic stand-in for landscape.
LM: So not what one place is historically or culturally, but rather how it might relate to one’s own understanding of place?
SMA: Kind of. It was more so how I related to them. I took two trips back to back to capture the landscapes for this work. I went to Disney World for one day and took 300 pictures. It was the most surreal day of my life. I went there in the early morning, got a car and it was 110 degrees with heat radiating off the concrete. I wanted the fakest landscape I could remember. Right after that I took a four-day trip with my wife on a circuit of all the places I used to live when I was a kid. We went from Albuquerque to Gallup to Window Rock to Monument Valley, to the Grand Canyon through the Helena National Forest to El Paso, Texas, and then we flew home. I don’t know if everyone sees that it’s personal. It’s not always communicated but I wanted to see how I dealt with imagery that wasn’t already completely branded. It has moved beyond that, too, so that part’s evolving. I don’t have a boilerplate answer for what the landscape means because it has changed into something almost phenomenological in how the imagery relates on the surface. It’s become intuitive now, which is weird for me to say. I think contradiction is ultimately a sign of a lack of defensiveness. I’m enjoying what I do and I just do what I want. I don’t need to have this constitutional, airtight boilerplate defense of what I do.
LM: Boilerplate answers are dangerous because you are liable to plug your output into an equation, which can be helpful and harmful. Evolution is important and, to me, is the product of a successful studio practice. One should grow in their practice like you might with age, with knowledge.
SMA: You get in this weird place where the work slows down because you’ve defined it. It’s kind of like being a human in a way. I remember I had a class on ‘The Great American Novel’ in college and the big theme the teacher kept going back to was whether we like broken people or whether we like the protagonist who’s always got it together. He went into this idea about redemption. Human beings, in America especially, love redemption. We love people that have fallen and gotten back up. The people who have learned to define themselves, who are thirty and have that answer to the questions we worry about, are less attractive than the person who is suspicious of said perfection. We like people that show humanity because they’re trying and failing, and that’s alive. It keeps moving, it’s vital. I think, in a way, I had my shit more down when I wasn’t making exactly what I wanted because it was more premeditated. Now, the truth is, I just make something and I make it because I’m the boss of me. It’s a paradox: the more alive someone is, the more apt they are to make contradictions because they’re not going to calculate their thoughts. The reason we love redemption stories is because they remind us people have to be redeemed because we are broken. If someone says, ‘this is exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life and that’s why it doesn’t vary. I figured it out,’ that’s got to be a lie. We’re really just primates and we like throwing our poop against the wall. If it looks too good, someone’s probably twisting their mustache. I guess that’s just overanalyzed, but I know that I’m more into it now than I ever was but, because of that, I throw a lot more crap against the wall.