Shawn Huckins Explores Our Current Social Collapse Through Yesterday's Art

A detail of Shawn Huckins's portrait of George Washington.
Shawn Huckins
A detail of Shawn Huckins's portrait of George Washington.
Artist Shawn Huckins is obsessed with history and visual representations of power. And he's having his own powerful moment right now in Denver, with work in Lavender Mist, at the McNichols Building, and a solo show at K Contemporary.

That show, Fool's Errand, which opens June 6, takes a look at the past and how it influences our present, which Huckins views as one of impending social collapse. In this group of paintings, he gives a nod to classical Roman sculpture, overlaying those images on re-created paintings from the founding of the United States — portraits of revolutionary figures like George Washington and Samuel Adams, which represent an aspirational vision of the country rather than a self-imploding one. Some of his images are traditional 2-D paintings, but others are violently ripped from the frame, as paintings become sculptural objects about decay.

Westword recently caught up with Huckins to find out more about his work and Fool's Errand:

Westword: How did you wind up making this body of paintings?

Shawn Huckins: The idea began to simmer last winter after I returned home from Europe. I loved viewing the replicated Roman sculptures at the Palace of Versailles, and wanted to somehow incorporate them into my work, whether it be by painting them or adding sculptural elements to my work. Additionally, I was looking for a break from my standard "text" paintings, and wanted to explore a new direction, even if temporarily. My work — right out of college, even — deals with the discourse of American culture and society. I’ve tackled issues such as mass consumerism, the de-evolution of language and influence of social media, the erasing of a democracy, and now the lifespan and fragility of our American society.

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"Mrs. Anne Fairchild Bowler"
Shawn Huckins
What contemporary issues were on your mind as you created these?

Coincidentally, the idea for this body of work was realized before the COVID pandemic broke out in the U.S., and having the first gallery opening since the stay-at-home closures were lifted was pure kismet. It’s no secret that our government is in disarray, and I wanted this body of work to reflect what happens to societies when previous mistakes are ignored and we continue down the path of chaos. I wanted to challenge the idea that our society is not immune to destruction.

Talk about the process for each painting.

My process for creating each painting is quite similar to my previous work. It begins with quick computer sketches to realize a composition or idea before taking the energy to create it on a tangible surface. Although my work initially begins with the computer, this body of work was more of a hands-on approach, as I completed many more studies to make sure the paintings "worked" and to make sure the new sculptural elements were comprehensive. Some of my studies wound up being included in Fool’s Errand, because I love being able to show the process that leads to the realized paintings. For example, "Study in Blue" is a study for the larger installation "Watson and the Shark," and "Hand Study" is a study for the painting "Samuel Adams."

The works you're exhibiting reference art history and representations of power across centuries. How do you see those representations from the past relating to this historic moment?

I see these American portraits from the eighteenth century as the foundation of our values. It’s easy to contrast our way of living to centuries past as being more intelligible and civilized. We live in a very different time than our Founding Fathers did, and we would appear to place our priorities in very different places: what entertains ourselves versus what serves our society. Clearly, a society must be politically free to indulge in the luxury of such introspection. But has the complacency of our political freedom blinded us to the potential our ancestors fought for?

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"Watson and the Shark"
Shawn Huckins
Some of your works break with 2-D conventions and appear to destroy the canvas and the frame. Talk about that aesthetic strategy.

Adding structural elements to my work is a new process for me and was incredibly enjoyable. Up until this point in my career, I fell into the realm of just two-dimensional painting, so this new body of work was a fun challenge. I was looking to push myself into a new medium, and hopefully I will continue to incorporate sculptural elements into my work. The painting you are asking about is "Mrs. Anne Fairchild Bowler," and was the very first painting I had the idea about for the show. The theme of the show is about a society’s immunity to destruction and extinction. I wanted to juxtapose this beautiful portrait of a woman of high status and have it cave and surrender to the weight of a fragmented three-dimensional Roman head…the fall from grace. I wanted to convey that no matter your status, once there are cracks in the foundation (foundation symbolized as the eighteenth-century American portraits from our nation’s beginning), then the remaining parts that make a society thrive start to suffer, and ultimately bring us to a colossal tipping point.

What do figures like George Washington, Samuel Adams and Daniel Verplank mean to you?

No one specific portrait is more important than the other, although I use George Washington to portray the message of the show more boldly. They all relate and unite in telling my story of how I view our current trajectory of a nation. The figures are all from a high societal status (or from powerful families), and I believe that conveys my message better. ... Everyone, at some point, will succumb to extinction if we do not learn from our previous mistakes.

How does this exhibit relate to the rest of your work?

As I mentioned before, my body of work, no matter which series, is centered around the discourse of American culture and society. The common threads that link each series are things I observe from an artist’s perspective that I believe are slowly deteriorating our foundational American values.

Fool's Errand opens with a sold-out reception on Saturday, June 6, at K Contemporary, 1412 Wazee Street. The show runs through June 29, by appointment and timed entrance only. Register at K Contemporary's website.