Sean Downey is a surrealist, figurative painter based in Boston, MA. Drawing from and combining a wide array of source material and imagery, Downey’s paintings appear surreal and chaotic. His works immediately force the viewer to attempt to discern the narrative structure of each piece. Interested in presentations of non-linearity and personal vs. collective memory, Downey is engaged with the trajectory of contemporary visual culture. He utilizes visual juxtapositions and understated humor to confuse and undermine the narrative reading of his works. He is currently experimenting with different surface mediums for painting, creating surfaces that, like the paintings themselves, disorient the works from immediate understanding.
Downey is a co-founder of kijidome, an artist collective and project space in Boston, MA, and is currently a Lecturer in Fine Arts at Brandeis University. He received his BFA from Kansas City Art Institue and earned his MFA at Boston University. He has shown in group and solo exhibitions across the United States, including the group shows Interiors at the Dorchester Arts Project and A Somatic Fall at Ess Ef Eff Gallery this past year. I spoke with Downey over Skype where we discussed his interest in visual juxtapositions and nonlinearity, his approach and process when creating a piece, and his current body of work.
How did you first become interested in art and start creating work?
When I was a little kid, my dad was an architect and my first present was a full-size drafting table where I would just spend all day drawing. Initially I wanted to become an animator or something like that. I think it was in third grade when they took my class to this art gallery. It was the first time that I’d been inside a gallery, and I saw Jacob Lawrence’s paintings. That experience sort of solidified something in my mind about becoming an artist. From then on I basically knew that was what I wanted to do. In high school I was going to the Kansas City Art Institute for summer programs, and then I ended up going to school there. I always knew that I wanted to do it. I would be doing video, sculpture, printmaking, all of this other stuff, and I just settled on painting eventually.
The subject matters in your paintings are surreal and disorienting. Has this subject matter remained a common thread throughout these other mediums? How did your interest in this develop?
There’s always a bunch of things I return to, and I’m interested in trying to combine disjointed things that don’t necessarily hook up very well. I have a strong interest in film and literature, but I’m most interested in forms of film and literature that are nonlinear. Painting is very different because it shows you everything at the same time, but I think I try to use these visual tropes and tricks and visual juxtapositions to get a sense of nonlinearity, even if there is a narrative element to it.
These works are very narrative-provoking. Can you talk about how you approach these different elements within the paintings and creating the nonlinearity within a piece?
I’m very interested in the form or potential of narrative, not necessarily storytelling. There’s this thing that I remember from a long time ago – I read this Kierkegaard essay and he talks about starting a book halfway through, or beginning in the last third of a play. My parents were mountaineers and my dad would go on these really long hikes. This was before the Internet or anything, so they would bring these paperback books and they would tear them into thirds so each person would get a third and would be reading the books out of order. There’s this thing where if you drop yourself into a narrative like that or into a scenario, you immediately try to orient yourself within it. I think that in a lot of ways the way I try to work through the paintings is by presenting myself with a scenario, and then the making of the painting is me trying to orient myself within the painting and bring in things that might be missing. I usually start with a small visual idea, which then grows as the painting goes on. I don’t even necessarily wait for a good idea before starting the painting. I come in with a certain set of parameters or scenarios, or even a space, and then begin to build within that. There are things that I return to pretty constantly, and I end up grouping things in my head into genres like film.
A lot of the most recent work comes from this one specific movie that I don’t have any particular sort of attachment to, but it sort of visually fulfills all these things I need. It’s the movie The Money Pit from the 80s with Tom Hanks and Shelley Long, but it has these parameters in that it is filmed on location and it only has a few characters. I’ve watched that movie in slow motion with the sound turned off and I’ve gathered hundreds and hundreds of stills from that movie. The way the movie progresses, you get a sense of the space of this house because it only really takes place in this one location, so through the narrative you get a sense of the architecture. I’ll go looking for a specific room I remember in a scene in the house, and I’ll start a painting in that room, building out the narrative of the piece from there by bringing in outside stuff at the same time. So the narratives of my paintings usually start from a tiny little grain and they build out in that way.
Where do these additional source materials or additional references come from?
I have a huge collection of photos I’ve scanned over the years. They range from very autobiographical - like family photos or things that I remember - to things that are of my family but I wasn’t there, to film or architecture stills that feel familiar but aren’t a place that I’ve ever been to. They move from me, from my own personal memory, out into this collective memory that isn’t mine at all. Which is the way I’ve thought of film for a long time because I remember movies from my childhood as concretely as actual events. The sources for these images are not always crystal clear ideas, but they proceed somewhat intuitively. They tend to be more and more almost generated from the same group of images that I break apart and reconstruct over and over again.
Can you talk about your work process?
When everything goes perfectly, I’ll have an idea, I’ll make a drawing, I’ll scale it on a painting, it progresses as it should, and maybe a few things change. But that is pretty rare. Usually I do that and then I change my mind. Or when I see that visual idea up on a larger scale in the flesh, then I’ll realize that certain things are missing from the original idea and I’ll start to bring things in from that point on. In some ways they progress pretty traditionally. I have an active drawing process and I’m always making drawings and recording ideas, trying to catch ideas on a daily basis. But a lot of it ends up happening in front of the painting, which means that the painting can stay open for a really long time. Or I think the painting is closed and I’ll set it aside for three months and then things happen. Sometimes I have to live with the painting for a really long time before I am able to see what needed to be there that wasn’t there originally.
I’m curious about your use of color, which I perceive as oppositional and also has a certain sourness to it. Can you talk about how you approach color in your works?
I think it develops over time and it changes from one body of work to the next. Sometimes I’ll start to get fixated on a certain palette for a while. I think a lot of that ‘sourness’ comes from a couple years ago when I saw the de Kooning retrospective at MoMA. There were these early de Kooning paintings that had these acidic sour yellows and pinks, and I wanted that in my paintings. The way it made its way into my paintings didn’t look anything like de Kooning’s works at all, but it was a way to bring a new color idea into the paintings.
Color is a place where I’m most interested to hear how other people react to it. I think it’s a very subjective sort of thing and I often choose color in a somewhat utilitarian way. I think color in that way is kind of clunky and idiosyncratic. It feels that way for me because the thought process that I’m going through choosing colors is often imprecise until I see it on the canvas. I don’t have a very good color imagination that I can project, so I have to test it and see it. So the colors in the paintings often change a lot over time. I’ll often repaint things a slightly different color because I got it wrong the first time.
I definitely use color a lot of times in the same way that I try to use flatness, anamorphic things, or disjointed compositional things as a way of distancing the painting from being a window. Instead, I am making it slightly alien and removing it from its source to become this other active painting element that’s not trying to get you to what it’s representing. I’m trying to have it be it’s own thing sitting up there on the canvas.
How does humor enter into your work?
I’m always thinking about humor. I think of it not necessarily in terms of telling a joke, which I relate more to storytelling, but I think of humorous visual juxtapositions. I really don’t like serious painting. I come from a background that makes me very skeptical of serious painting and people who paint very earnestly and really believe in it. I feel like I do that, but I also hold a lot of skepticism toward it, and understated humor is a way to subvert the nostalgia of painting a little bit. It’s not a nihilistic humor, it’s more visual slapstick.
What informs your work?
I look at a lot of art, and probably the artists that mean the most to me are artists whose work looks nothing like my own and usually they aren’t painters. I look at a lot of filmmakers. David Lynch has had a huge influence on me over the years, not only because of the way the films appear and the way that he uses humor, but also the way he generates the work. He’ll start from a visual idea and build this whole film from a very single, precise visual idea. I’m also mostly interested in sculpture and video, in terms of things that feel like a challenge for me. In terms of what informs the work, in addition to my own drawing process and reading a lot, I’m really interested in history, and what cinema and photography did in the late 1800s to our whole collective imagination and our collective understanding of space, time, and the way things work. I look back at that quite a lot as a way to inform what I’m doing today, especially because I feel like we’re in the midst of something as revolutionary in terms of our collective imaginations and our visual environment as they were then. To me there are a lot of parallels between what was happening in the 1870s and what’s happening now in terms of visual culture.
There are all these sort of huge things happening right now that people can’t even keep up with visually, but the responses are intermingled with the technological advances and they’re happening at exactly the same time. I’m not necessarily trying to make paintings that are about that because I think a lot of work that sort of attempts to capture that actually feels just really dated six months later, but I’m interested in the feeling that it generates in us as people, and then trying to have some of that feeling in the paintings.
What do you think about making painting within the age of digital media – is that something that you are thinking about and that affects the work?
I like painting specifically because it’s sort of antiquated. I’ve been even experimenting with 3D-modeling and augmented reality and, with the paintings as well, sort of playing around with them. The thing that I keep running into over and over again when I use software is that I feel like I’m having to navigate somebody else’s idea. Painting, because it’s so primary – it’s kind of just mud that you’re pushing around on a surface – it’s limitations are also the things that make it possible to feel free when you’re doing it. There’s all the baggage of your knowledge of the history of painting of course, but in the actual act of painting it’s the fact that I have to make something from the ground up; that if I want it to look like a modeled object or if I want it to look like a flat gradiated color, I have to make it do that. In making it do that, I feel like I build into it an experience over time that is more than it would be if I could do it instantaneously with a button. There’s something to me that’s still very relevant about the act of making the thing from the ground up. But I also really love a lot of work that doesn’t work like that at all.
What is the most challenging part of painting?
For me the most challenging thing is trying to work mostly in the dark, in the sense that I don’t necessarily fully know what the meaning of the work is when I’m making the work. There is a level of trust that I have to commit to the work in that way. I’ve had work that I’ve made where I fully knew what the idea and the meaning of the work was, and that’s like the worst work that I’ve ever made and I don’t like work like that at all. I like work that has some kind of opening within it. But it’s very challenging to work in that way because there’s a lot of bad painting that happens along the way. There are a lot of bad paintings that have to get painted over and a lot of weeks that you commit to painting something before you realize that it was going off on the wrong path and you have to repaint it. I do wish sometimes that I like just had a clear specific idea that I could just repeat over and over again. That would be really great and would be really relaxing because I feel constant existential anxiety about art making.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a body of large paintings that are still working somewhat off of The Money Pit, but also trying to create this more alien experience within the paintings. I’m also making a bunch of these ceramic pieces that are sort of masquerading as paintings. There was one in the show at Ess Ef Eff Gallery, and I realized after that a lot of people I talked to didn’t realize it was ceramic piece. It was a small under-glaze painting on ceramic “stretched canvas” that I made. There was no paint on it, it was just under-glaze painted as though it was a painting and then fired. I’ve been really interested in what happens when I make these paintings because the under-glaze acts a little bit like gouache and it feels that way when I’m making it. But then I fire it and it changes the saturation and the colors. It’s this other arbitrary force that I can’t control, after which it’s set in stone as it is. That has been influencing the color in my paintings as well because of what happens to the glazes in the kiln. The clay is almost like paint in that it’s this very primary material and it can do whatever I want it to do, so I can start it in the form of a painting and then I can bend it and twist it. But I’m not really interested in them as sculpture or ceramics, I’m primarily interested in them as surfaces for painting. Painting with a different material. And then the subject in those too is kind of complimentary to what’s happening in the paintings as well.
How do you see your work developing in the future?
I don’t know. I have an inkling, but it has to do with these sort of sculptural forms and the way that the paintings have been made has been implying these kind of ghost forms within the paintings themselves. I am still trying to toy around with the way 3D-modeling or the overlay of 3D images on top of actual paintings can work together. I say that with the qualification that this could be a total wild goose chase and not really go anywhere, but I’m pursuing it to see where it goes.
As a practicing artist, what is your relationship to teaching art at a professional university level?
I was really skeptical of it at first, but in the last number of years I’ve grown to really like teaching. It allows me to still be able to make my work, it allows me the time to make my work, and the university is also very supportive of the faculty making their work. But also, the interactions that you have with students keep these questions alive in your head so it’s much more difficult for you to come up with a clear answer and let that atrophy over time in the echo chamber of your studio. You’re constantly encountering people who are making those discoveries for the first time and maybe doing it in ways that you didn’t really think of. You’re giving to the students and then you’re also receiving from them by watching that process happen over and over again. I’ve grown to really like teaching intro level courses where somebody who has never drawn before is experiencing drawing for the first time. It’s this amazing thing to watch somebody learn this new language and have a way of talking to the world in a way they didn’t have before.
What is your advice for artists who are just beginning to develop their own studio practice and body of work?
I believe you have to figure out a way to do it every day and always make it a priority. When I was out of undergrad, I did so many different jobs – I was an art handler, a bike messenger, I worked in libraries, I was a ticket taker at museums – I did all of these things, but I always made sure that I had a studio space no matter what shitty neighborhood I had to live in to have that and made sure that I was in it every single day. You have to show up every day to the studio and find a way to do that. I lived in New York before moving here for this job, but you realize maybe in a heightened way that there aren’t any good excuses for not making your work. I mean everybody has excuses, but there’s somebody who has even more challenging excuses who is still making their work regardless. I think showing up everyday and having a space to make it is the most important thing absolutely.