EK Interview: Mike Shankman

Here’s what I know about Mike Shankman. He’s a hard working dude. He is patient. He’s talented. He loves painting deeply. I’m not sure if there’s anything else I need to know. Oh, and I do also know his paintings are a real treat in person! He is currently solo-showing at the prolific 111 Minna gallery, so check it out if you’re in the area! You won’t be disappointed.

Where are you from and what do you do?

I grew up in Boulder, Colorado. I  currently do many things; aside from being an Artist, I am a dad, a husband, and a working stiff. My son, Nash, just turned 18 months old and my wife and I are gearing up for a new baby in November. One thing I don’t do much anymore: sleep.

What was your childhood like? How/when did you discover painting?

My childhood was wonderful, I played in the mountains and got in snowball fights. My parents always encouraged me to draw, I was as into it as any other kid. When I was 4 I drew volcanoes.  Beginning in elementary school, I took private art lessons from a wonderful illustrator after school once a week. She taught me to work from life in a range of media, including oil paints, and I began to see myself as an artist. In Middle School, I drew comic book characters and caricatures of my teachers that got me in some trouble. In High School, I drew girls. I wanted to go to art school for college but my parents wouldn’t let me. Frankly, I’m glad they didn’t; I loved college and got to study everything. My Junior year of college, I went to Italy for a year and studied painting. It was the first time I had ever dedicated myself to painting every day and I loved it. After that, I never stopped.

What is the inspiration behind your new series?

Superstructure is comprised of several sub-sets of work I have been developing, all relating to development and abandonment of the physical environment. I have been pulling from different sources over the years, but my immediate surroundings are the common thread. I painted urban wastelands imagined as urban ruins when I was living in Brooklyn. A sudden move back to Colorado found me searching for inspiration in the decrepit ruins of homesteads around the mountains of my childhood. A residency in Joshua Tree National Park took me inside mining ruins in the backcountry. As a Project Manager for a Design/Development firm in SF, I now spend a great deal of time walking job sites, homes that have been gutted to make way for improvements. Beyond the scenery, I am generally interested in landscapes as signifiers of social values, economic circumstances and environmental consequences.

Every artist has a limited amount of time on earth, which forces them to focus on honing a particular perspective in art. What does your work say about what you care about?

It’s tough to answer this question without sounding too grandiose. If I were a philosopher, I would be a humanist. As it relates to painting, I am inspired by nature but focused more on the relationship we (humans) have with nature than I am with the grandeur of the natural world. Our collective impact and collective imagination around the outcome of that impact has brought us to the point of morbid popular fascination with the end of the world. How will we destroy ourselves? Who will sift through the ruins and piece together our story? These questions fascinate and enthrall me, as they do millions of other people. I realize that this is Malthusian, that many of my paintings are dystopic, but I see beauty in entropy, and I also see opportunity for rebirth and renewal, which I try to include in the work I do.

Why use painting instead of photography to show the aftermath of a cataclysm?   

To see the paintings in person is (hopefully) to understand why I paint. These are not photorealistic images, but layered, dripping, moving colors and marks. Painting is all about building, puzzling, scraping, preening, and ultimately deciding to be finished, the process itself is as important to me as the subject. I don’t usually see the end of a painting until it hits me in the face. I am not a formalist, I do believe that context and concept are important to a work of Art; I have also never let this get in the way of painting. Plus, truth be told, I am a shitty photographer.

Describe your process for completing a painting (does it start with photo references, etc.)

Each painting has its own variations, but I do often use source photos to help compose an image. It is often helpful to use photos to help with the overall composition and later to carefully render figures or objects that anchor the piece, it is also helpful to discard the source photos when mixing colors, laying in marks and drips, and considering the overall nature of the piece. Some pieces begin with a sketch, others go right into painting. I have a few small rules, every artist has them whether they like to admit it or not:

Regarding colors:

I generally like to start with bright colors to create underlying vibrance.

I almost never use unmixed colors.

I almost never use black – mixed purples are much darker, deeper and richer.

I have recently found that highlighters generate a more vibrant color than paint, so I use them.

My favorite color is orange.

Regarding tools:

I do not use projectors or grids, I do not want my paintings to be bound by any source photograph’s proportions or shapes. This sucks when painting very large – if I do any murals, I am going to have to break this rule.

I try to use walnut oil to keep my studio as solvent-free as possible. I do glaze my work, so I am not entirely chemical-free.

I work on the wall, floor, easel, and desk.

I use google earth when I can’t leave the house, it’s like having your own satellite.

Nothing is completely off-limits – there is a time for string, straight-edges, tape, straws, knives, brushes, pens. I don’t spend much time at all trying to conceal my unintended marks – the various marks are sometimes more interesting than the brush strokes.

How many new paintings are you showing at 111 Minna?

33. By far the most work I have ever amassed in one room (or two).

What’s your favorite piece and why?

I have a few:

Exurb is my first triptych, I google-Earth’ed a suburb near where I grew up in Colorado and cut the image into three. Each of these panels can be flipped around and the piece somehow still works as a painting, albeit an abstract one. I can credit Richard Diebenkorn with the idea that aerial landscapes are abstract paintings, this piece was painted upside down, right side up, and panels flipped in every arrangement possible before it was done. There are only 144 arrangements possible, so this was not hard to do.

Interstate took this idea one step further:  I mounted these panels on velcro inside their frame, so they can be physically moved around and switched. There are over 11,000,000,000 possible configurations of this piece (don’t worry, there are numbers on the backs of each panel to get you back to the first configuration).

Superstructure is my largest piece to date. The painting was inspired by Gustave Caillebotte’s The Floor Scrapers, and by the rough framing of my largest Project Management job last year. Walking through the skeletal framework of a house is just visually stunning, the light, shapes, shadows and colors are all over the place. I don’t often paint figures, but there is carpenter stooped over a set of plans in the next room we are looking through the dotted line that will be the wall between us and him. The piece has a bit of a curvilinear perspective and it eats passersby. It’s the first thing you see when you walk into the show, I have not released the image, so you’ll go to the gallery and see it for yourself.

What does the future hold for Mike Shankman?

Your guess is as good as mine. I do know that 1) I’m having another baby in November, and 2) Painting will go on.