Q & A with Shawn Mayer
Interview by Steffi Cummings
Currently featured in The Function of Attention at Art League Houston, Shawn Mayer is a digital artist with a BA in Music and a BFA in Drawing from the University of Missouri. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Texas Dallas where he is pursuing his Master of Fine Arts Degree in Arts and Technology. Shawn is also an Artist-In-Residence at UTD CentralTrak; a residency program based in Dallas, which focuses on bringing artists together to challenge contemporary notions of artistic practice, creative expression and the use of technology in this process.
Q. What inspired you to pursue the towel series currently on view at Art League Houston?
A. Firstly; I think it’s important I recognize my current education. If you had told me only two years ago that I would find intense enjoyment out of photographing towels, I would have looked at you suspiciously. My time at UTD and the CentralTrak program has significantly expanded my understanding of what art can be. It has forced me to reconsider the limitations of different mediums and what I can do with them to create new art. It’s been incredibly thrilling and challenging and I’ve loved every minute of it.
The inspiration for this particular series has been stewing for a while now. In the last two places I have lived the towel rack has hung directly opposite my toilet. Due to obvious bodily necessities, I have had, not surprisingly, a lot of time to spend looking at towel drapery. Recently I came to the realization that I have most likely spent more collective time staring at towels than I have spent time staring at any piece of artwork hanging in a gallery. This troubled me, but also fascinated me. So of course I was compelled to photograph them. Not a big jump, but certainly an odd one. I had briefly considered drawing them to practice the technique of replicating cloth, but something about the photograph of the towel got me more excited. It wasn’t about practicing technique. It was about me trying to come to terms with the idea that I spend more time staring at apparently unimportant objects than I do recognized art. The photograph allowed me to work that out.
Q. What is the significance behind the folding of each towel?
A. At first I wanted to simply photograph my towels on a daily basis and see how the drapery changed. It was a fun experiment, but it was missing something. I started to shape and place the towels in various ways exaggerated from their initial draped forms. They are sort of caricature. I like to think of many of them as figures. I believe that’s why I’m drawn to the towels. I start to see shapes of the human form in them. By purposely placing the towels I can more effectively get that idea across to the viewer.
Q. In the exhibition, the photographs are hung at different heights. Can you talk about that?
A. I don’t really see them as being hung at different heights. For me the towel rack is also very important. It is the unchanging element and I try to keep it at the same height throughout the photos to emphasize that this is the same space over and over again. Personally I would love to do an entire wall squished full of these photos edge to edge with the towel rack hanging at the same height throughout.
Q. Since the main theme of this exhibition is boredom, is this a reoccurring theme in your work?
A. It’s funny. A lot of my recent work of late has be described as banal and every-day. I try to fight that description, because I am so excited by what I’m looking at and I want others to be excited too. I would certainly agree that a lot of the work comes out through boredom: driving during a transit, sitting on a toilet and trying to fall asleep. I think waiting for something can be an incredibly dull experience. It’s when I’m waiting that my mind tends to be distracted by things like towels on a rack.
Q. How does this series connect with what you are working on in the Artist-In-Residence at UTD’s CentralTrak Residency?
A. I am a Student Residence at CentralTrak currently developing a Graduate exhibition that will be displayed in the Gallery. The idea behind the exhibition will be heavily informed by the work I am currently doinghere.
Q. Which artists are you inspired by?
A. The list keeps getting longer and longer. It’s hard to keep track of some times. Off the top of my head I would say Saul Leiter, Matthew Brandt, John Stezaker, Todd Hido, Lee Friedlander, Steven Shore, and lots and lots of others. I’ve recently fallen in love with Takeshi Murata’s digital still lifes. Gosh it’s hard to make lists.
Q. What exciting things do you think are going on with photography today?
A. That’s a big question. For me, and this is probably the Grad student in me, the most interesting thing happening today is how the definition of photography is being rewritten. This is partially due to the creative minds of artists like Matthew Brandt, but also due to mass culture and technology. Twit pics, selfies, and Instagrams have changed the way we take and view images both digital and traditional. It’s very chaotic and I’m thrilled by it. Speaking of Brant, he is a part of a current show at the International Center of Photography called “What is a Photograph?” that attempts to analysis the definition—I would kill to see this right now.
Q. What projects do you have coming up?
A. I have been working on some interactive projects related to the animated gif file format. Although; at the moment I’m working on a series of photographs slightly related to the towels involving popcorn ceilings.
Q. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
A. I honestly can’t say. Five years ago I was a substitute teacher and working at a BBQ restaurant. I would love to be working in a creative field and doing personal art on the side. Either way I want to keep making art. There’s a moment while I’m working when I get into a zone that feels so exhilarating. I don’t want that to stop. Kind of cheesy to hear myself say it, but it’s true.
Q. What advice would you give to other artists trying to get their name out there?
A. I’m not an expert in this area, but I think the best way to get your name “out there” is to meet people who are already there. I have always been afraid of gallery openings. Large groups of strangers scare the hell out of me. I’ve had to get over that fear and introduce myself to people and to do it frequently. Also don’t wait for someone to come along and offer you a show. This is a pill of advice I’m trying to take for myself. If you have work you want to show, find a way to show it. It can be anywhere. I had a completely empty apartment about seven months ago and I’m kicking myself for not organizing a pop-up gallery of work. Don’t just take opportunities, make them.