An Interview with British Painter and Curator Shaun McDowell in his Studio in Redhill, Surrey.
Shaun is a multifaceted painter and curator who first found his feet exhibiting in a squat in Peckham, South London. An expert colourist and mark maker, he works by his own sense of spontaneity and intuition. Shaun doesn’t work with stories or ideas, but instead enters his studio and lets the painting direct itself. I was first exposed to his work in the Critic’s Choice pages of the Financial Times a few years back, so was thrilled when his gallerist and collaborator Hannah Barry introduced us. As both an artist and curator, Shaun has always been interested in connecting artists, bringing different styles and personalities together for inspiring collaborations across the capital.
Shaun began his career with a foundation course at Reigate School of Art and Design, before a Bachelors in Fine Art New Media at the Chelsea College of Art. In terms of medium, he began working with acrylic and painting with his hands, but later moved onto oil paint mixed with turpentine for a thin wash, which he applies to the boards he paints on, using brushes as wide as his torso. Unable to simply concentrate on painting, Shaun has also dabbled in sculptural work and has adopted many different curatorial roles, beginning with a renovation of the infamous Lyndhurst Way squat in Peckham with Hannah Barry after leaving art school.
At the renovated Lyndhurst Way squat, they curated a programme of art exhibitions, sculpture shows and film screenings, which brought together a diverse array of artists in Peckham, whilst also encouraging a creative migration South. This collaboration ended with the Bold Tendencies exhibition, leading to Hannah Barry setting up her gallery, within which Shaun held his first solo show Confessions and Love Pictures in 2008, a series of life/study figurative paintings completely driven by passion. Since then, he’s always remained involved with Hannah’s projects.
From there, Shaun went on to have successful exhibitions at the Parasol Unit, Old Street as well as at the notorious Shoot the Lobster, New York. Within his dual existence as artist and curator, what I find so beguiling about Shaun is his fascination with space as he sees potential in unexpected locations from squats, to industrial estates and even Italian ruins. Currently, he’s illustrating his expanded sense of the art practice by bringing together a broad spectrum of talented young painters, photographers and sculptors in his industrial space in Redhill, Surrey known as Dynamite Projects.
Represented by Hannah Barry Gallery, but also part of the Artsy.com line-up, Shaun has ambitions to work more in Italy as well as continuing his current projects in England. Later this year, look out for the opening of his solo show in the Titanic Building, Belfast.
Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to follow your passion for art?
I’ve always been inspired to make and create.
What piece of your artwork would you like to be remembered for?
My works of art are each precious to me for different reasons. For example, the works inspired by the presence of a lover are precious for capturing that unique moment in time and for a recognition of fatality that occurs amongst the passion.
Can you tell us about the process of making your work?
At the moment I always apply paint onto a dry painted or primed surface. Each mark may have a radical impact, because layers are formed through sponataniety, coloured inspiration and daring. I don’t approach work with a fixed vision. The uncertain and precarious nature of making art is fresh and exciting for me - there should be risk.
How do you balance your dual existence as curator and artist?
Barely. The expanded vision is fulfilling, but the administrative side of things is very consuming.
If you could be born in another period of history, when would it be?
18th Century Venice, for the music.
How would you define beauty in 140 characters or less?
There’s someone I can think of, but I wouldn’t say her name - we haven’t even kissed.
Do you have a favourite book, film or painting, which inspires you?
I love intense films, ones that are unpredictable, but have sensibility. A film like Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard, which is concerned with patience and kindness, commitment to helping the weak and vulnerable. It suddenly bursts into a gratuitous fight scene with sound effects that emphasize the snapping of bones in a most enjoyable fashion.
What is your greatest indulgence in life?
Good company and my motorbike on a sunny day.
Can you offer some insight into the South London art scene?
In the past people laughed at the idea of even visiting Peckham let alone setting up a gallery there. Now, everyone wants to associate themselves with it in some way. The Peckham scene was particularly exciting for me in its initial stages. Now the real work is to maintain Peckham as a place that can support the local creativity, which is challenged by the onset of bulldozers and mundane developments by uninspired councillors. Hannah Barry is doing a great job of doing that at her gallery.
What fictional character from literature or film would you like to meet?
Maybe the Stainless Steel Rat? I like a spot of mischief. Or maybe Tank Girl, she could drive my truck any day.
Do you believe that true creative expression can exist in the digital world?
Digital format is simply another tool or material for shaping. I’m still waiting for that masterpiece to appear. Regarding the current internet adoration; I’m no more interested in it than art that celebrates Morse code or the TV set.
What do you wish every child were taught?
I’d like to see the spectrum of children and young adults who are involved in visual arts as being more inclusive and complete. The support needs to extend but they don’t really need more “teaching”. Children are naturally wonderful; adults often need to do some “unlearning.”
Have you ever had a moment when you questioned your career entirely?
Not really, I’d die without painting… or kill someone.
What is your favourite art gallery and why?
So far I like the Louvre in Paris - Poussin, Poussin, Poussin. But I’m yet to visit the Prado in Madrid - Goya, Goya, Goya.
Who would you most like to collaborate with and why?
Perhaps I would make an art film that included motorcycling and hang out with Vale. It’s a shame that the Italian motorcycle racer Marco Simoncelli died, he was a great performer. I’d like some words of advice from the masters.
What is your daily routine when working?
I run or cycle, then meditate before hitting the studio. That’s the serene time-affording version anyways. Other days it’s – wake up, down coffee/yerbamate, work through the night and then repeat.
What has been your most inspiring travel experience?
The momentum of New York is inspiring. It's the feeling of being a lone stranger in that city, which is full of potential.
What advice would you give to a young person following in your footsteps?
Work hard, follow your heart, breathe deeply and never mind the bollocks.
Do you find that London’s culture inspires or influences your art?
Since moving back to Surrey and opening a big studio I’ve had a strong sense that London is just too small for me. I want the interactions that a city has to offer but I think the countryside of another land is calling.
Why do you love what you do?
Painting is always new, always fresh, colour never ceases to dazzle - I’m always seduced by it.
Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste.com