You may have read Joe’s recent blog about the art of Shawn Huckins and how he owed him an apology for his initial judgement of Huckins’ work. I must admit, I also owe Huckins an apology because, like Joe, when I first saw Huckins’ work I thought, “wow, some guy getting famous by photoshopping famous paintings. Horrible.” But that’s not what Huckins does at all, in fact Huckins recreates these classic, typically American paintings and adds a modern element to comment on the current social state of the country. It’s incredible the shift in perspective that comes when you realize that his work is actually painting, you go from thinking that it takes zero talent to just digitally add text to or erase part of an image to not being able to fathom the skill that goes into painting imagery, text, and a faux-photoshop grid so cleanly. Huckins is a master recreator and his painting skill would be impressive without the addition of any other elements. But he pushes his work by slapping short form text or juxtaposing some modern element like a low battery signal or loading wheel over top of it. Now I must say that I believe juxtapose is the most overused word in all of art but I use it here because Huckins’ work is a true example of juxtaposition. He merges something that is inherently historical with something inherently modern, both elements are extremely recognizable but exist in opposite parts of our memory. This synergy and contrast creates an interesting commentary presents itself differently for each viewer and the skill that goes into creating it is just mesmerizing.
Within a matter of minutes I became obsessed with Huckins’ work and the skill behind it. One of the most impressive things to me aside from the illusionistic quality was that his paintings are acrylic. Most of the paintings he recreates are done in oils so to add to the challenge of recreating them by doing it in a different, arguably harder to use paint just blows my mind. This work has truly blown me away and it looks like his next series is going to be a new but equally exciting body of work. So when Huckins responded to our Instagram story about Joe’s blog, I knew that I just had to get an interview with him. I was fortunate enough to do so and the interview did not disappoint! Take a deep dive into Huckins’ origins, process, the historical and modern significance of his work, and so much more. Enjoy!
1. To start out, I always like to ask about background. So, what got you into art? How did your schooling experience in the U.S. and Australia help form your art career? What drew you towards Colorado as a place to set up shop? Overall, what helped shape you into the artist that you are?
I didn’t have many friends growing up, so I occupied my time by drawing in sketchbooks. I would draw my favorite baseball players, my toys, and characters from my favorite Disney movies. Typical stuff a young boy would be into at that age. My grandmother passed away in 1993 and to much surprise, she had an oil painting kit hidden away in the closet. My family gave it to me since they knew I was into ‘art’ and drawing in my sketchbooks. I remember how good the paint smelled, but that was the only joy in my short stint of oil painting. I had an incredibly difficult time using this new medium. It frustrated me too much, so I made this awful barn painting and put the oil set away and returned to my sketchbooks. I didn’t paint again until college. I had some great professors in college who reintroduced me to painting. Funny how paint is easier to work with when you learn how to manipulate the medium. That’s when my love for painting grew. I went into college as a film major and I eventually changed it to architecture. Next, I changed it to graphic design. I travelled to Australia as an exchange student and that experience made me realize to do what you love in pursuing a career. When I returned, I finally declared myself a studio art major.
My partner, Matt, and I have traveled to Colorado numerous times before because we had friends there. We both were born, raised, and went to school in the Northeast, so we wanted to experience a different part of the country. Matt received a great job offer in Denver, so we packed up and moved in 2011.
2. A large majority of your work features recreations or references to public domain references, most notably historical painting. So what drew you towards historical painting as a reference? And, more specifically, what drew you towards American painting?
I use American painting because I like to comment on American social norms, since I am an American. It feels more genuine and authentic if I comment on a society that I grew up in and observe on a daily basis. (The only exception is the series ‘Happy Go Lucky’ which is a historical French painting for my first international solo in France in October 2019). As a child, my favorite subject in school was history and I loved learning about the colonists, the redcoats, and the main characters that formed this country. It was so fascinating to me and I constantly imagined what it would be like to live in that time period. Sometimes, I feel like I was born in the wrong century, or maybe in my previous life, I was a colonist.
3. On top of historical references, you mix in a lot of modern imagery. What inspired the mixing of historical and modern imagery visually? Is there a specific narrative that you're after? What are your thoughts on some of the interpretations of your work?
The texting series initially began as a challenge from my cousin. Long story short, my cousin and I went camping one weekend and we began talking about my art career. He told me he was a skilled painter, but that I don’t (or can’t) paint people and if I did, I would cover their face. He was right. The portrait was intimidating to me. To prove him wrong, I went home and began practicing portraits by copying old American portraits, specifically the paintings of John Singleton Copley. I did study after study and it was challenging. One of the study paintings slipped beneath a tracing of the acronym ‘LOL.’ I saw the old portrait beneath with the contemporary text on top and thought that’s an interesting contrast and I wanted to explore it further. The visuals came first, and the questions came later.
My work addresses the evolution (or de-evolution) of language seen today is our mass consumerism, tech and social media driven society. Technology influences how much we know and what we believe, as well as how quickly and intelligently we convey our ideas. But does how we communicate govern the value of what we communicate? The physical act of typing very fast on small devices has undeniably impacted spelling, grammar and punctuation, encouraging a degree of illiteracy that has become the new social norm. As goes our grammatical literacy, do our social and cultural literacies follow? Are we in a continuing state of the debasement of language?
4. Moving onto your process, realism in acrylics is no easy task, especially considering a lot of your reference paintings are done in oil. So what made you lean towards acrylics? Is realism made through a lot of layering or expert color mixing? Are there any major challenges to recreating oil paintings in acrylic?
Oils were the paint of choice in college and we were required to use them. In my senior year, I took the final painting course, Advanced Painting, and the professor introduced us to acrylics. I’ve known about them, but never employed them. He showed us how to manipulate them and create glazes, etc. That’s when I was introduced to Golden’s Open Acrylics. These acrylics stay wet longer, so they mimic the playability of oils. I was able to create smoother gradients with this brand just like I could with oils. And the best part was they clean up much easier. After graduating from school, I moved into an apartment and my studio was in the second bedroom. I didn’t want to have solvents and dirty, flammable, stinky rags in the apartment, so I used acrylics exclusively. I was able to create the same thing with acrylics and they dried a little faster than oils, so I put my oils away. My process is exactly the same as if I were to use oils. I create a warm under-painting and then follow it with finalized layers of paint, ending with glazing on various parts of the painting. Lastly, copying old master paintings has really taught me how to paint and how to mix colors. I give credit to college for introducing me to the basic elements of art and to how to find your voice, but I credit the old master’s with teaching me how to paint. The best way to learn anything is to copy what you see, feel, hear, etc. I always love hearing people compliment me on my ‘oil’ paintings and seeing their reactions when I tell them they are acrylics.
5. Your process is obviously heavily planned out, so how do you know about what's going to come from your work when going into it? It appears that masking out what will later become the phrases or modern elements is an early step of your painting, does this give you the freedom to just work on the main image and address the other stuff later?
Everything is planned before any paint touches the canvas. My initial process begins on the computer. I play around with text and compositions to be used in the final painting. Once I’m satisfied with the overall layout, I will draw the concept (including lettering) onto white canvas. From there, I will mask off the text with tape and complete the underpainting with warm, earth tone colors (ie, burnt umber, yellow ochre, and burnt sienna). I will then add the subsequent layers of finalized paint until the portrait, or landscape is complete. Finally, I will peel off the tape to reveal the white lettering.
6. How do you mask out or address the elements of your paintings that are overtop of the main image, but not fully opaque? Is it done just over the base painting or with some other technique?
The white lettering is masked off until the painting is complete. I like to retain the bright white canvas for the lettering as it really pops against a usually dark background. Sometimes the text will be ‘frosted,’ so the entire painting is painted with no tape mask. Then, overtop the painting, I will mask out the negative space text and apply a thin wash of white paint. The creates the effect of being able to see the portrait behind the text (see “Follow The Money: Young Robert E. Lee (Based On Money Face Emoji)” as an example).
7. Keeping on the theme of your process, I want to ask about your faux-photoshop work. How do you lay out these paintings? Are you figuring out layout elements digitally or are you all paint? How rigorous is laying out that grid? Is that portion masked and painted separately? How do you go about that?
The computer is the main element in getting the composition just right. It will not be drawn to canvas until I’m satisfied with the digital mock-up. This is the only part of my process that’s digital. After that, the concept is drawn to canvas and the computer is there to only play NPR or podcasts while I work. The most challenging parts of a painting are the small details, such as lace as an example. For those parts, I will draw, in reverse, the details on trace paper with a soft leaded pencil. Once the base layer of paint is complete, I will rub the trace drawing onto the canvas to place down the details.
8. We've talked a lot about process and while I still had a few questions, you're very open about your process! How important is being open and transparent about your process to your work? Do you find that this helps combat people thinking that your work is just text slapped on old paintings in photoshop? Does hearing stuff like that ever discourage you?
I’m totally open to sharing my process, as I love learning about other artists’ experiences as well. I think it’s especially important with my work because people do confuse it with photoshopped images and that’s a bit discouraging. They override and judge my work before really learning the process and they don’t seem to realize I paint the entire thing. That’s why I include many details on my website, so viewers can see the brush strokes and canvas texture to get a more tangible experience.
9. Your coming series Stone Faced, to be released in June 2020, appears to be a little bit different than work you've done in the past. What can you tell us about what this work entails? How does the process of making this more, we'll call it surreal, work differ from your previous work?
I’ve been doing paintings about ‘digi-speak’ text for the last decade and I think it’s time to move on. I’ve said what I needed to say and I’m heading in a new direction. I’m also looking for a more raw experience with my painting, so I’m using the computer less for my compositions. I’m still asking questions myself about the new work, but in short, this new body of work entails our fragile American society by comparing a once prosperous society, but is now in ruins. Are we immune to destruction and extinction?
10. Finally PLUGS! You've certainly got a whole lot coming up so please tell us where people can find your work and any shows/events coming up. Anything and everything, fire away!
Solo exhibition at K Contemporary in Denver, June 2020.
Two-person exhibition at Susquehanna Art Museum in Harrisburg, August 2020.
Solo exhibition at Stephanie Chefas Projects in Portland, October 2020.
Solo exhibition at Modernism in San Francisco, November 2020.
Feel free to shoot me an email at email@example.com to join my occasional newsletter to learn more about the above events and to receive the advanced previews.