Whitehot Magazine

Interview with Shaun McDowell

Shaun McDowell on motorbike, with Hannah Barry
Photograph taken by Lucy Britton, 2011, outside the Hannah Barry Gallery in Peckham
James Capper's work Tread Toe can also be seen in the background
Courtesy, the photographer & Hannah Barry Gallery


Interview with Shaun McDowell

Shaun McDowell is a painter living and working in London. He has recently opened his solo show New Paintings at the Hannah Barry Gallery in Peckham, South London, which will run until 20th April 2011.

Lucy Britton: Nice motorbike. How long have you had it?

Shaun McDowell: I’ve had that one for almost a year now. I’ve had two other motorbikes, both of which got smashed up. Yeah. I’ve had quite a lot of accidents.

Britton: You’re a reckless driver?

McDowell: Was. The two last motorcycle accidents were actually other peoples’ faults. But really, you have to take responsibility as a motorcyclist. Other times I have been really reckless. I’ve flipped cars and that sort of stuff. I’ve got this scar …

Britton: That’s extreme! Doesn’t it put you off?

McDowell: Not really. That’s my famous scar. I was in Corfu on a scooter, drunk, had a smash. I was in a coma for most of it so by the time I came round the most painful things had been done. Now if I see someone coming quickly like that my heart flutters and I’m really ready and tense. And first of all I thought, shit this is dangerous, because I was panicking, but actually it’s just a heightened sense of “take note”. Still, the last time I was in hospital was the first time I didn’t have a real, almost, pass out episode. It just brings back being in hospital in Corfu, how severe it was. And that was in 2005, just after I graduated from Chelsea. 

Britton: It seems like you do have regular experiences in hospital – you say “last time I was in hospital” so casually…

Shaun McDowell, "New Paintings" installation view, 2011
Courtesy of Hannah Barry Gallery

McDowell: Ha, yeah. Well I’m 30 on Saturday. Painting’s dangerous too - one of the things about painting indoors is that your eyesight degenerates. You lose your eyesight.

Britton: Have you felt it already?

McDowell: Yeah, over like 5yrs I’ve noticed it. But if you go out to the countryside and work with a horizon, and you start to get it back a bit. It’s no wonder that artists wear glasses, a lot of them, who paint inside. I painted this piece outside, but everything else was painted interior. For this show there’s been a short but quite intense period of activity. And I see progression in these works. All of these works, though they have a resonance with other works, have progressed.

Britton: This might sound like a back-handed compliment but it isn’t meant to be - I was surprised by how much I like this show. I generally find painting quite problematic. I often find it quite contrived or shallow – and I don’t mean anything to do with the surface or perception. I hate it when people say “oh I could have done that” – that fact is they didn’t – but with painting I rarely see anything that genuinely engages me. But I enjoy these works and I like how they work together in the space. I’ve heard the show described as feminine…

McDowell: Feminine? Really? It doesn’t strike me as necessarily feminine, though some works more than others. But that’s working on an assumption of what femininity is, regarding culture and my upbringing. So it’s just an idea, like other egoic ideas.

Britton: Egoic ideas?

McDowell: Well the ego is a projection, it’s an idea. It’s an assumption of who you are and what that means. And I think I’ve always found the dissolution of those concepts freeing, in a sense. Because they’re not real, they’re just a thought. And it’s something that’ll hold you. It’ll stop you as an artist going beyond what you assume. If you’re judging your mark so much it can be painful. I would always want to be in a sense of freedom, creation is essentially free – it’s movement, it’s accepting essentially how something grows; it just grows this way. If you’re judging it too much, you’re stopping it from where it’s going to grow. I want the most out of painting, and out of life, and out of being an artist, so it’s always important to recognise what I’m doing.

Britton: You’ve talked about your work in terms of a means of trying to access certain experiences that attract you, and that painting another person helps to foster that sense of “the moment”. This value of capturing a moment, and the uniqueness of an instant is quite reminiscent of photography, and the magic that happened around the idea of early photography. I’m interested then in why you paint? 

McDowell: The process of photography is different – for me it’s more solitary. The painting experience is far more egoically challenging because it seems so easy to take a picture – just that click, so I don’t get too involved with my ego. With a painting, there’s a mark and there’s a question of what am I doing here. That’s the kind of question…if we have one question in life it’s surely that isn’t it – what the fuck am I doing here? And what’s it about? What is this? So taking an oil stick and a board and having this potential, and nothing fixed, is just a wonderful experience.

Shaun McDowell, Untitled, 2011
Oil stick on board
Courtesy, the artist and Hannah Barry Gallery

Britton: Ha, that was quick - we’ve got on to the meaning of life.

McDowell: Ha yeah – what does it all mean!? I think the really funny or interesting thing is what does meaning mean? I don’t think meaning means anything. Except love and fucking joy, basically. And trusting in the creative act, which is this moment. A concerted effort to trust with the body, not just the mind. I think what’s really interesting is Jesus gave up his body, gave up fully to sensation. And he said you can do this, you can be at one with God. You can trust sensation – it may hurt, physically, emotionally hurt, but you can trust it. That’s something about philosophy, psychology, ideology that’s missing … psychology rarely takes into consideration sensation, because it judges straight away. It says that crying needs Prozac. But really, all these sensations we have are just what we have and that’s what we do. Psychology and the way people administer mental health – it’s usually thought management, CBT, you name it, and sometimes it’s very helpful to stand back from those thoughts, but I think where it’s going to go is to really embody the whole sensory being, which is body too.

Britton: You seem very interested in the body, and you often paint a model. But I certainly wouldn’t describe your work as figurative – would you?

McDowell: The making of the work has a figure involved but I think the notion of “is this figurative” really depends on what the viewer sees. I think it goes beyond the idea of a single person or a single identity because, you know, that person has inspired these marks but the marks don’t sit within the borders of what I see. We always bring something to the painting, but what adds to the idea of a figure here, I think, whether you can see that or not, is the fact that at times it has been what you could call romantic or erotic, and the energy or the marks are inspired from that. So if the work ever looks romantic or erotic it has to have a figure involved in that emotion.

Britton: You were involved in the Lyndhurst Way squat. How did that all start up?

McDowell: There were a couple of moments. One of them was in bar in Camberwell where I met Bobby [Dowler] and he was talking about living in a squat. My parents used to squat in the 70s and I grew up with squatting not having an association with culture – it was just, if you wanted a house to live in, that’s what you did. But it was sort of fashionable at the time. When I met Bobby, and found out he was a squatter, I was really interested because he didn’t seem like he fitted into that kind of scene. So I went to his house and I had some tea and a smoke, and maybe it was the first or second time of meeting him there and he said he was thinking of doing an art show there. I remember scoping out the property as soon as I saw it and I was like, fuck. I used to cycle down that road and I would always think if I could afford any houses it’d be one of these, and Bobby was living there for nothing. I was really impressed by the space and could see the potential, and I thought, you know what, we’re gonna put on the best shows in London. I wasn’t interested in galleries or being represented by a gallery because from what I could see, they didn’t seem interesting. There were artists around there who were really exciting too, like James Balmforth, Christopher Green, and people living in that house. We all very committedly took up different positions of what we were going to do. I was doing building and some kind of organisation, James basically re-wired the whole house, Christopher Green was doing a website, Bobby was caretaker of the property, always liaising with the landlord, and managing to work it so we were able to have it for a whole year. We did the whole programme that Hannah [Barry] had set up. That was Hannah’s involvement. We had very specific ideas of what we wanted to do with it, and Hannah’s idea was that we were going to straight away set up a programme, state the intention and committed nature of what we were doing.

Britton: And how have things developed since then?

McDowell: At the end of Lyndhurst Way…it was really hard work. Really, really hard work, psychically and emotionally. And it was a bit of a wild house. So at the end of that programme I was quite glad. I remember about mid-way through I said to Bobby, this place is my dream and my nightmare. It was so sublime, the house was beautiful – although it was derelict that just added to the beauty, with big windows, and the kind of creepers growing on the outside. Really tall ceilings. On a summer’s day it looked amazing. But it was really hard work. So I didn’t want to do curating after that, and decided that now I’m just going to be an artist. It’s been exciting days, since I first started showing in Peckham. I think it’s exciting for anybody who’s been involved to see what’s going on here. The next step for us here is to be more recognised on the international stage, which we are starting to do.

Shaun McDowell, "New Paintings" installation, 2011
Courtesy of Hannah Barry Gallery



Lucy Britton

Lucy Britton is a research practictioner and project manager based in London.

view all articles from this author