Visual Arts

Making it All Come Together: an interview with Shawn Rossiter

by Dee Moffett

DM: You are having two shows almost back to back. You’re about to take down one called Venice & Tuscany at the Halles Gallery and now you’re having a one-man show at Chroma Gallery. But when I look at the works in the two shows I’m surprised by how different they are.

SR: Yeah, the Italian show was all landscapes, done in the manner I guess I’m best known for. There were paintings done in my rather fauvesque style but there were also some others that were the tightest things I’ve ever done.

DM: And yet from what I see of your work for the upcoming show they are very different: abstract, loose; pastels rather than oils. It seems a big change. What made you decide to work in this way?

SR: I don’t know. I think if you ask an artist a question like that there are probably a dozen answers.

DM: Okay, how about one.

SR: Well, poverty.

DM: Poverty?

SR: Yeah, I was broke (believe it or not this AoU gig doesn’t pay that well). I couldn’t afford to buy more canvases or paints so I was rummaging around my studio looking for something to work with. I had this set of 120 sennelier demi-pastels that I had bought in a more flush time. So, they were just sitting around, and paper is much cheaper than canvas, so I just went to town with them.

DM: Other reasons?

SR: Sure, if I free associate I’m sure I can find all kinds of things that came together to have me doing what I’m doing.

DM: Okay, let’s free associate. . .

SR: Well, if I think about it, there were all kinds of things around me that influenced me. Down at Chroma gallery I’m surrounded by artwork and its always seeping into what I’m doing. I think Jennifer Worsley ‘s exhibit of pastels this Spring showed me how marvelous the medium can be. And I’ve been impressed for sometime by
Holly Mae Pendergast — the sparseness of her work. I think I see that in my new pieces: using the simplest means to get your idea across and not covering it up with a lot of reworking.

DM: Do you think you are influenced a lot by other peoples’ work?

SR: I don’t know what you would call it, but I think everything influences you and that doesn’t bother me. I think of an exhibit in DC — I must have seen it last winter or fall — of de Kooning’s sketches and studies for his Woman series. I think that exhibit probably lay dormant in me until I picked up those pastels and then it came rushing out. You see the earthy quality of drawing in his work and that’s something I’ve been enjoying with these pieces: the basic pleasure and vitality of the act of drawing. I’d noticed this before in my work — where an exhibit I’ve seen years before comes out in my work much later. With these new pieces, I would say I was even influenced by exhibits I hadn’t seen yet.

DM: ?

SR: Well, this summer while I was doing a lot of these pastels I knew I would be going to southern France and Barcelona in September. So I was anticipating seeing the Picasso museums there and that probably slipped in. I remember saying to Darryl Erdmann [Chroma gallery owner] when I showed him some pieces that I was anticipating Picasso. Anticipating ripping him off. Picasso once said that he steals from everything. I guess I’m of his school. I even steal from myself.

DM: What do you mean?

SR: The charcoal lines scraping out sections that are then filled in with color goes back to some abstract things I did in oils when I first started painting back in ’97.


DM: Any reason why you chose to work abstractly now?

SR: It’s not exactly new. I’ve been working in a series of black and white non-referential paintings for about two years. All the while I’ve still done my landscape work. But I think there probably was a change. My wife had a baby in June and that changed everything. It was a big change, and I think I was searching to develop a means to express everything going on. For instance, body parts. In that first month or two there were body parts everywhere. Bare breasts, baby’s bottom, fat little shoulders . . . It was this mass of flesh, often joined at the breast. And that came out in a lot of paintings.

DM: And you think this is what made you switch from landscapes.

SR: I think there’s a lot of landscape in these pieces too. Maybe it’s the view of a landscape from an airplane, or the dry, cracked mud you find in southern Utah, or the swirling lines of tar used to patch our roads. All of that is part of the landscape, right? I think a lot of that gets into these works of mine.

DM: So in the end, they’re all landscapes for you?

SR: No, not everything. There are some different figures and everything going on, but I think what I am saying is that even when I’m working “abstractly” I think the landscapes I have done for so long are influencing them. Maybe for the show I’ll even put some of the more “traditional” landscapes I’ve done recently. To see how they look together.

DM: Do you think these new works are your new style?

SR: Oh, I don’t know. I never see my “styles” as so different as people seem to. I think that where we’re at — after the twentieth century and all its stylistic changes and developments — is that we’re swimming in a pool of stylistic options and there is no historical determinism to say which is the one we should be doing. I tend to work back and forth [between styles] and they tend to affect each other. Maybe they will eventually fuse, I don’t know.

I started working on paper as an experiment with how to get a quick landscape study done. I was using a few charcoal lines and some broad swatches of color. In the end, these pastel works are not extremely different — charcoal lines with large swatches of color. For me, whether landscapes or more abstract work, I see my work in terms of a strong line, strong rhythmic color uses and interacting planes. And I don’t care much if it bothers people that I haven’t found my style. I’m still young, after all. I’m enjoying it and every once in a while I get something right.

DM: So what would you say to the people who say you don’t have a style of your own?

SR: I’d probably quote some lines from a song by Dan Bern. It’s what you might call the theme song for my work, or even my life. There’s a line that goes:

“If you must put me in a box make sure it’s a big box,
With lots of windows,
And a door to walk through . . .”

“Venice & Tuscany” will be on view at the Halles Gallery through October 4th (814 East 100 South). Chroma Gallery will present a one man exhibition of Shawn Rossiter’ s work in October and November. A reception for the artist will be held October 16th from 7 to 9 pm and an opening reception for the exhibition will be held during gallery stroll, October 17th from 6 to 10 pm. Chroma Gallery is located at 1064 East 2100 South in SLC.

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