Interview with Aaron Sheppard

Aaron Sheppard is on the brink of a solo exhibition opening October 30 at Western Project in Los Angeles. He recently took the time to discuss his new work, Las Vegas, and friendship.

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CACBlog: Thanks for taking the time for this interview. I’ve been thinking about your work (and you) since before we moved to Vegas. The first time we met was at a party at Brian [Porray] and Kyla [Hansen]’s house over a year ago, and I knew who you were even before we shook hands (and maybe hugged?). My sense is that who you are—your body, your persona—has always been critically and psychologically linked to all of your production, whether performance, painting, or sculptural work. As example, in the recent interview you did with Scott Dickensheets for Desert Companion, you described your relationship with painting,

It’s using your body, your thoughts, using the things that come naturally to you—it comes through in movements, which are recorded in the marks you make on the canvas.

Without letting the cat out of the bag, for your upcoming exhibition at Western Project (LA), I know you’re fabricating a monumental cast aluminum sculpture that has required you to learn casting techniques. Would you discuss how these new procedures–sequenced, particular, coded, new movements–have affected your relationship to your other process(es)? Which is to say, casting doesn’t seem natural to anyone; it’s hot, awkward, tense, and potentially dangerous. Different than painting, in so many ways.

Aaron: “Hot, awkward, tense, and potentially dangerous,” as you refer to the casting process is not all dissimilar to the fashion I utilize other materials, which came as a surprising irony to me. I was intimidated by the material. My ignorance developed unfounded fear and expectation. Previous to this, and a few other smaller pieces I have been working on in metal, I had limited exposure to the material: a friend and I used to build lofts out of wood and metal for artists living in Brooklyn (Studs on Studs was our company name); and volunteered for The Wooster Group, crawling underneath and helping to make adjustments to their custom stage design (volunteer rather than paid, since while in undergrad at the Corcoran I refused to learn metal for my obsession with wood and clay).

“Knowing is half the battle.” Once safety concerns are met and procedures are understood, all that’s left is to create.

I have appreciated learning casting techniques taught me primarily by Eric Pawloski. This process requires a team of others to help in pouring and moving/lifting. I owe much to Diana Mateer, Shannon Eakins

and Emily Kennerk as well for their assistance. Diana and Cliff (at WP) edged me on, insisting that I learn the process and create this piece (“Phal-Fem”) myself rather that paying out to have it done, which I had been looking into. I am grateful to them all and for the experience and plan to do more with metal! (I have ideas for incorporating metal and wax into my paintings. Inspired by the material itself to actually paint with metal, as well as to create other castings.)

I provide an image for the original inspiration, etching by Franz Von Bayros, for “Phal-Fem”…

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Responding to all of your diverse approaches collectively, would you discuss the discrete roles of your different ways of working? Which is to ask, really, in your remarks that I quote above you delineate painting as being a performative act, but it is an act that for you resolves itself on the canvas, as an object created with certain materials, methodologies (however expansive that field may be), and histories. I guess my question is, when you discuss movement associated with painting, do you find yourself thinking about painting in ways similar to, perhaps, Viennese Actionists or Gutai group? Does your work in that way of being a record of movement—of event—share a kinship with someone like Hermann Nitsch or Shiraga Kazuo? Kazuo’s Challenge to the Mud (1995) and Nitsch’s Aktions both comes to mind, for example.

It’s a more spontaneous fluxus, happening attitude, I think. With a pinch of Suckdog or Nike, “Just do it” and perhaps a slight romantic simmering aroma of modern William S. Burroughs putting holes into doors and ex-wives heads. I wish my balls were as big as Mother Flawless Sabrina’s otherwise it would be like that.

Various materials find their way in, and ways of slinging a paintbrush will change when I paint. I don’t have one specific method for creating. I go with my gut. I’m a paint whisperer. Sometimes the paint won’t talk, just like in life some conversations are meaningful, others are just small talk… I want to connect with the material and listen to its passion. This process involves performative full body acts at times. Just as performing live in front of an audience the performer is fueled by the energy of the house. That energy changes with the weather, sometimes quite literally.

I may buy material and stretch canvasses with distinct intention of what I plan to happen on the canvas, other times I don’t, other times still that might change along the way. Ultimately, I must take time with each composition and be open. A lot of paintings get painted over like this, but layers and veiling is what I am interested in anyway. My focus for many years has been to focus on not overwhelming each composition. Unlike people, diptychs, triptychs and a series might develop. Cutting the arms and legs off people in this world may not be the best way to improve someone’s attitude, but often that IS the case with painting.

I’m searching for creating profound moments that can be had between me, material, other viewers and the final work (“me” more as conduit”. I think Philip Glass and David Byrne each said something about they’re just being the thing that taps into the underground river source… that’s it!)
[I sound hippy, oh well.]

At the end of that same interview, you’re quoted as saying that your hopes for your works is for them to potentially bridge your experience with the viewer. You state, “what is really the essence of your story and mine when they come together?”

I love the notion of coming together in/with/for the work. How are you envisioning the space at Western Project as an environment for this kind of engagement? Do you design the space to encourage different or perhaps discrete stories to exist simultaneously, or will your work offer a single spatial narrative that frames this meeting? In terms of time and the psychological space of your work—of the story and its essence—when is a good time to visit an exhibition of your works? Crowding into the opening? Alone on a weekday afternoon? Both? Neither?

This is not one installation piece. This body of work is intended to be no more or less effective at one time versus another. The gallery space has two sky lights so I must say that I am interested in seeing how the changing of light will have its affect on the works, especially considering there is an abundance of neon in this work as well as many sculptural elements. I do see connections between individual pieces mostly based upon formal elements, especially concerning light, in the work.

It’s difficult to talk about this show hypothetically concerning how it is to be curated.

This is a bit of a departure from the other questions, but hopefully returns to and reframes some of the ideas about (your) persona that I approached earlier. Would you comment on how the community in Las Vegas has supported your work, and how you reflexively support them? The Desert Companion article does a great job of talking about the literary and visual references in your projects, but I guess what I’m curious about (and what it doesn’t address) is how much you are invested in a close-knit group here. You share a studio with Justin Favela, teach multiple classes at UNLV, attend every opening you can, and seem to know everyone. Actually, I’m pretty sure you do know everyone. Does—or can—any of this directly translate to how you approach your practice as an artist?

Community and street culture overwhelmed my senses in the metropolis. New York was a writhing parasitic beast with adornments, attachments, extremities coming out it’s pooter… and cooter. This Ouroboros lived underground, in the shadows of fame and its main nutrient was the constant of reinvention. Its heart pulsated with the tracks of the subway and as we walked from car to car, stumbled from cab to cab, intro/extroverted understanding of our collective consciousness was had. We saw our present and future selves unite while ever riding upon the beast’s scales; scales of such extreme judgment as to hit the back of the head of total acceptance. We supported one another with a quick cliff notes version of zen doing and being and instinct and passion. Spontaneity was the body’s intake and exhale brain floss, our action/reaction, our rock n’ roll beast’s heroin.

Vegas has turned me into a blues singer and stripped me of the New York rock-stardom I arrived with because Las Vegas is death. I turned my back to the collective beast. It was left in the dust one Sunday morning and was slain by my works becoming individuals of their own. The sparks of performative happenings had seeded their own physicality. The non-physical became object. My children had birthed me as their pitiful parent. Sitting in sweat under a pile of neon flashes, I sing to my barefoot children and to fat mid-westerners in search of a win. I sing of memory of the beast, that their Momma is the beast that will one day return to us. In the faces of my children I see tears as love letters to energy of the past, pooled reflections addictions afflictions showing us all clutching to the present. They are veils of layers of iconic imagery, of color of slaps across her beastly ghost of a face…

“God’s away on business…” Tom Waits won’t walk the streets of Vegas as skulls panhandle like sluggish bugs under the feet of the wanna-be-gangster fortress while strippers on stage have forgotten how to cry. East on Freemont Street is where Coney Island pops up like urban daisies. Can’t see the ocean but nobody ever goes in anyway… but you sure as shit hear its waves roaring, floating at this 15/95 hub and screams of ecstacy and horror flood over the sound of semis… cuz the boys and girls are riding machines called slot and tables called crap. Not to mention the smell…

A date once in a while can do wonders for a man.

You are right. I do know many people here in Vegas. (Not anything near to the socialite I was in NY.) I enjoy differences in people and NEED people with whom to bounce energy back and forth.

From 2006-2009, while engaged as grad student at UNLV, I felt I was VERY closely engaged with my school, city and larger global community. Along with David Sanchez, Justin Favela, Mary Margaret Stratton and many others, we created an event called ‘Lustre Flux’ where we engaged local talent on stage at The Thunderbird Lounge at The Aruba Hotel. Many of us performed and showed works at various venues around town including regular involvement at The CAC. We would regularly drink and sing karaoke at The Champagne Lounge, Stakeout each Friday, bowling at Gold Coast Mondays… We would sit each night beside our pool and philosophize underneath police helicopter spot lights, shooting stars and the occasional UFO. Big impacts upon local community can be noticed and felt here unlike other places, perhaps since The Strip dominates most all else. Community and team efforts were big with us at The Pawnee House, where Lake Newton, Dave Sanchez, Favy Favela, Brian Scanlan and others lived over the 3 years.

Much of that changed when Favy and I obtained our studio downtown during the summer of 2009. We focused on creating a working environment in which we could spend most/all our time creating. I have removed myself from my good pals. I have met some of my best life friends and loves in this town as well as some of the biggest pains in my ass. I still try to keep in touch. Favy is a great pal to have around as we work side by side regularly in the studio. He has turned into one of my best critics.

I feel extreme solitude now since graduating, a hermit in my cave. The Vegas death surrounds me and I’m thankful for most of it. It’s romantic, eh? It is very hard to be your own boss but for the past year alone with my works, I know I’m giving nearly all of my attention to what I want to now. I am getting to a place now where I want to engage with people coming over to my studio more as I also want to frequent seeing my colleagues’ work. A better balance.

This is a transient town. Similar to when I lived in Washington DC, people come and go. I feel Las Vegas is to Los Angeles what Washington DC was to New York in that respect. Every once in a while an artist will move to LA but ALL of us talk about moving there. Las Vegas defines “identity crisis,” it is afraid of losing its talent. In being Vegas-centric, this town holds back and lacks support for its local artists, living up to the adage, “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas”.

In line with this, we’ve also spoken very deeply on numerous occasions about pedagogy and the crucial role of art education. I’ve never attended one of your classes, but my sense is that you are deeply committed to teaching and your role as an artist-educator. Building off the questions above, what attracts you to teaching? As a performative, experimental space it seems singular and as a shared learning community it seems—especially in Las Vegas—a vital resource and necessary forum for artistic exchange. How do you engage with or navigate these notions in the classroom?

Teaching undergraduate art holds a HUGE responsibility. I’m constantly assessing myself to ensure that I’m upholding my end of the bargain as educator.

On the other hand, I do not believe in fudging information. If I am not knowledgeable about a certain aspect or artistic practice I make sure that I acknowledge it to my students. I will do research and find specific information pertinent to particular individuals in my class as I see fitting. I have as much to learn from my students about art, and I am constantly, as they do from me. The main ideas in “The Ignorant Schoolmaster” by Jacques Ranciere apply to this thinking as it does in much of art-making itself. Teaching and obtaining tenure is hypocritical unless each educator is required to pass along their own areas of expertise by way of the school supporting each teacher as artist within their practice doing research first and foremost. Many programs do work like this.

Being employed by UNLV it’s not politically correct for me to say, but I don’t believe in liberal education. Not everybody needs to learn how to draw. I say, know what you want and learn by doing it. Do not get distracted by irrelevant requirements. School is overrated and public libraries are underrated. Intern with professionals in the field, perhaps. The UNLV curriculum is far too lenient and takes advantage of their students by not providing goals and direction for more direct success.

Last question. We’ve discussed it at least once, although it’s come up in various conversations I’ve had with others about you, but you’re well known for your cracker salad. Any chance you’d like to share the recipe with our readers?

You need a bowl. Crackers…and a plane ticket for my Mom or Grandma to fly out and make it for ya.


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