Creative Spaces: Shane McAdams

Shane McAdams is the subject of MilkMade’s first installment of Creative Spaces. This new column will dig into the depths of creativity, highlighting the influence of each artist’s individual hub and their external influences. With an emphasis on process and industrial materials, McAdams explores his connection to time and place through means of abstraction. A recent integration of realistic landscapes has propelled his imagery into obscure terrain. Macro and micro components of the physical world challenge viewers to be more aware of what they absorb from their environment and what they project onto it. His practice is amplified by a desire to experiment with new materials, with a wish list that includes white-out, kerosene, and carbon-dioxide, among others. I spoke with him in his studio in Brooklyn, somewhat organized after shipping a large number of works to his recent exhibition in Philadelphia entitled Down and Out the Rabbit Hole.

MilkMade: You work regularly with industrial, less trafficked materials. Anything new catching your eye?

Shane McAdams: There are so many. I always joke that if I had $300 million it would be a burden because I would have to start tilting at windmills that I don’t have the opportunity to now. But if I had $3 million, I would be able to do what I wanted to now which is my bliss, and it wouldn’t be enough to start bringing down whole systems. So with $3 million I would hire an assistant to take all the ideas that are lined up that I can’t get to, material wise, and see what happens. That’s the thing I have a problem with. My show’s called Down and Out the Rabbit Hole because I start doing something, I get hooked on it, and I can’t get to things. I have drip experiments here, for example, where I dripped things in paint until stalagmites started to form. I want to do a whole three year thing on them but we don’t have lots of blocks of three years before life catches up to us. As far as material, yeah, there’s tons of things, too countless to name…bubbles, electromagnets, and just weird procedures. It’s more verb than the noun, whatever material will make the verb do something is what I choose. I hate resin, I use it because it works, it does what I want it to with gravity and pen ink. I have all these projections in a book. I kind of work with them until they stop working for me but I would like to have another arm, another me doing more material experiments. It’s a big part I find lacking that I wish I could get to more.

MM: You have an exhibition that just opened at Pentimenti Gallery in Philadelphia entitled Down and Out the Rabbit Hole. Have there been any particular turning points in your work in relation to this show?

SMA: It’s so cliche but it’s organic. I think that’s the biggest change. I used to work at an art gallery as a director. It wasn’t an awesome slacker job, which is what I should have done, because I wouldn’t have been as deeply swallowed up by the art world. For the first three years out of grad school I wasn’t as engaged in the studio. I don’t think it was conscious that I made really process oriented work. It took five minutes to make but thinking about how to present this Rube Goldberg process system to create a piece of art was the challenge. Thinking about the recipe was as important as the time it took to make it. It wasn’t labor intensive. I didn’t switch into painting back into the canvas necessarily as a result of leaving my job but it kind of organically happened. When I got busy in the studio after I left my full-time job in the art world, I completely stopped thinking about what the work was going to be. It didn’t’ have these existential dilemmas.

MM: What affects your visual experience?

SMA: The most inspiring stuff is the nerdy science-y stuff. As I paint more, though, I find myself wandering the new American Wing of the MET when I didn’t used to as much. If you paint a certain thing it’s probably expected. I look at more John Singer Sargent, more Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Church and Jasper Cropsey than I ever did before. But usually the most inspiring is weird nerdy internet stuff. Recently I got into these things called sun cups. Most of the things I think about are very basic scientific processes like binaries and feedback. What happens is the sun hits ice, say 13,000 feet on a glacier, and the ice starts sublimating, melts into vapor and disappears. If you get a depression that’s more depressed than an elevated area, it’ll keep happening with feedback and get deeper and deeper. It forms mogul patterns. So it forms these really organized patterns that start out flat but once someone creates a groove it’s more likely to continue into a pattern. Then I say how would I recreate something like that on my own with whiteout?

MM: What pushed you to actually make the plunge into deeming yourself an artist, and all that entails?

SMA: I’m still really uncomfortable saying I’m an artist, I think it’s pretentious. I still write and do other things. I have all my feelings out, they’re always out there. The truth about it is that my paintings aren’t me. Me is me, what you’re getting here is it, and this is either going to go into a painting, I’m going to write something about it, or you can talk to me. That’s just a removed manifestation, it’s a reflection of me. I’m just a person trying to figure a lot of things out and I think it’s limiting and a lot of people choose to limit themselves and put up barriers to certain parts of information from the outside world by claiming they’re a visual artist. I don’t want it to become my identity. I think that’s where people go wrong as personal philosophers. I even get embarrassed thinking I dress like an artist. I want to be so religiously sure that I am plugged into the world and feeling and thinking about it and processing it the right way. I’m happy to go make art, I just don’t want to delude myself into thinking that’s more me than me. I’m a thinker first. My brain is a pulsating true piece of art… that’s pretentious, that’s terrible. It’s like David Sedaris, who said he used to take methamphetamines and make performance art. He called his dad and asked if he wanted to buy a parcel in his brain, his visionary’s brain. He was so self confident from the meth, and I think that’s just such a resonating image, that the brain itself was the genesis of all things. I like the idea that that’s the piece of art, a cube of my brain.

MM: That’d be a whole other step of branding: owning part of the visual cortex and being assigned work from there, or having stock in the conversation presented.

SMA: Well that also spurs the question what is real and what is the product? We’re all looking. That’s the history of art: we try to look at something that’s written or whatever as some sort of distillation of personality.

MM: Almost like character.

SMA: We want the thing, but we’re still fetishizing something that’s not of the thing. The thing is actually a bunch of chemicals and synaptic connections.

MM: Even more dramatic that sometimes it’s those lucky breaks in connections that actually produce the real genius.

SMA: It’s weird because we’re post-studio-conceptual-art-world. The concept is everything and the concept is mental. Would you have anything made that is four degrees removed from the initial chemical firings of the brain? I think when you ask if I’m an artist, it’s so limiting and self-deceptive to say you’re an artist because it defies the whole idea of being in the conceptual art universe. A visual artist is just some weird attempt or some diarrhea of existing at all. It comes out in different bits and pieces. I think artists, because we read all this crap and Roland Barthes, should know that more than anyone.

MM: Great way to put it. What was the most recent aesthetic experience you had that either shocked or was memorable in any capacity?

SMA: I have to say what blows my mind anymore is really just quaint sunsets and stuff. I’ve kind of gotten really young again, or really old really fast. I’ve been in New York for ten years, pretty much nonstop, but am regularly going to Wisconsin now and it’s really…pejorative. It’s natural, there is lots of land and that feeling of being outside. Lately it’s been a lot of that, just being outside and being able to see horizon.

MM: I also wanted to touch on the space with you here. How long have you been in the studio and how do you get into it here? Are you particularly inspired here?

SMA: I have a studio in Wisconsin, which is my wife’s parents’ carriage house in the back of their home. My space is very important to me. It’s nice but I moved all over the place when I was a kid. Permanence has been irrationally important to me, and having ownership of a place has made me more proud than I think it does other people because I never thought I’d be in one place. I’ve been here for a little over five years. I came in as a share and then someone left and I got this bigger space then I took over the lease and I feel so much pride. I’m not territorial but I just have a sense of ownership that gives me a dopamine release that’s gotta contribute to making better art. I just love having my key. I looked at my key today and realized it was worn smooth today. I’ve never had a key worn smooth because I’m used to six month leases. And it’s very much my man cave. I come here and I have a TV, which most artists don’t have. If I had a place where I could watch a very important sports event it would be here. My bliss would be for the Super Bowl to be on and then also to be doing material experiments, which is how I start doing any process work. I say, ‘let’s dump some kerosene on styrofoam and see what happens.’ It’s like in Seinfeld where George Costanza is trying to combine sex with eating a sandwich because he wants this synergy of the two greatest experiences. That’s how I feel. The space is crucial. It’s scary because you realize that because you don’t own it, it’s a rug that could always be yanked out from under you. I thought about buying a place just because. If we ever move I’m always going to stay in New York because I’d feel much more comfortable going back and forth to not have to deal with something that is always impermanent. The whole thing with not liking uncertainty comes from moving around so much. I never had toys that stayed, that were on their dressers their whole life. My parents were just like bedouins, and you don’t accumulate anything. Everything we had was brand new, cheap shit, from wherever we were because we just started over and pressed reset every six months. I have to take the good with the bad, though, because when you divest yourself of materials you become very mental. That’s where I lived because I didn’t ever have Han Solo figures to worry about.

MM: Seems like a truly enforced meta existence.

SMA: I almost have a superhuman ability from the way we lived not to acquire an attachment to material goods. I had a guitar when I came to grad school and my friend was helping me move and he dropped it and it broke and I didn’t care. How many guys, if they had a guitar for fifteen years and dropped it, wouldn’t care? For me it was just a hammer, it was always just a hammer and that’s how I saw everything. It was a blessing and a curse. It’s a great drug not to be on. I don’t feel any ownership of anything…maybe my art, but it’s more so of a concept being discreet than the object. It might be more of a classification thing.

MM: Do you find form or function of the space within which you work more important or necessary?

SMA: It’s all psychological for me. For productivity I could use a better space, or different space, but I like this space because it’s my little nest and the only permanence I’ve known. There’s no secret organization in this particular space that does anything better for me, but it’s just my comfort zone. It very much relates full circle with my paintings. What does this place, as a functional piece of urban geography, mean to me? The spiritual versus the practical emerges. Practically, it’s nothing. Part of me believes in nothing about this, that you could erase it and give me another space of the same square footage and I’d make the same stuff. But part of me is recuperating from a wayward past and wants to hold this because I never had it. I think that’s a contradiction in me that probably prevails in everything. No one has that all worked out because the world is organized on binaries that don’t work together. Every arrogance is also a confidence. There is no resolution of those things because they’re by nature antithetical.

MM: The balance in important. You wouldn’t want to perfect one aspect and thus be rid of the other. The negotiation between these extremes is also ripe for new conclusions in your own practice.

SMA: I really don’t practically feel like this gives me anything. I always think I should get a better studio but then I’m like, ‘Aw, but that’s my special friend!’ If you’re an artist who isn’t from New York, you’re used to having space. Until I was like thirty and went to grad school late, I was a slacker kid who bartended and slept around and couch surfed. In Kansas City you would have had to be really antisocial and irresponsible not to have a place to go. If you had friends or worked at all, you were going to find a place to go because the space is so abundant. There’s always a basement to be had so you could always make work somewhere and sleep somewhere. So maybe part of my claiming this space was the lack of basements, the feeling of imposition after sleeping a day and a half on somebody’s couch in their living room. That’s the thing with any New York studio: once you’re there and start getting your system down, you get a learning curve and know how to get your wood up the stairs. It’s like you’ve built a ship in a bottle, you can’t take it apart and move somewhere else

Photos by: Maria Maltsava

See more photos here.

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