How to be a Realistic Artist: An Interview with Shannon Lucy by Marcus Mamourian

How to be a Realistic Artist: An Interview with Shannon Lucy by Marcus Mamourian

Once, as a child, I visited Basel, in Switzerland. My mother took me to see the old Paper Mill, one of Basel’s supposed landmarks. Here, I was told that I would bear witness to the process of a minor resurrection: dead material becoming a dynamic medium. That didn’t mean much to me, paper was for cuts and Clive Barker chapter books. I was thinking of life, not resurrection. Outside, I saw other kids with their peers, they had just been released from grade school. They looked European, they were having fun, playfully shoving one another. I desperately wanted to distance myself from my parents and enjoy youth with the other kids. I am sad reflecting on this memory, I don’t know why. Years later, I would learn about a mysterious event called Art Basel, which saddened me even more. In good faith, I could not recommend that anyone visit Basel. These are my memories. 

When Fyodor Dostoevsky went to Basel in 1867, he visited the painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1520-1522) by Hans Holbein the Younger. He was saddened, he was disturbed, but in a singular way, different from my own fit of the spleen in Basel. “He stood before it dumbstruck,” wrote his wife Anna. She worried that he would fall to another one of his epileptic fits, but he did not. It was not the Swiss air but the depiction of Christ that disturbed Dostoevsky. In the painting, his hands and feet are rotting, his flesh is corrupted. He does appear as God, not even made in the image of God, but of a dead “man”. It was a bloated, drowned man, fished out of the Rhine, which Holbein used as a model.

This life-sized image (30.5 cm x 200 cm) did not break Dostoevsky’s faith, but it did momentarily shake it. This is how faith is reinforced, forged over time, like a Bowie knife—and then it becomes painfully sharp, with the ability to deflect oncoming attacks. Christ was, and is—as the Eastern Orthodox Church confirmed at the Chalcedonian Council in AD 451—both fully man and fully God. When God became man, he too felt grief, agony, and anguish. Holbein shows us that it is divine to rot. 

This poetic encounter followed Dostoevsky across Europe and back to Russia. When he returned to his desk, he wrote seven chapters in a creative flurry of a text that would become his most personal novel, The Idiot (1869). It is often called a failed or confused masterpiece, but the two extended scenes that include Holbein’s painting are memorable. The image itself acts as a mirror to reflect the interior lives of the male characters—Mushkin, Rogozhin, Ippolit—the holy fool, the materialist, and the nihilist. For Dostoevsky, this base image of Christ was a litmus test for true believers.

When I first saw Shannon Lucy’s paintings on the internet, I felt, perhaps, something similar to Dostoevsky. I saw my own private bloated Rhine corpse. Lucy’s paintings portray humans in bizarre situations, like a woman sleeping under her plastic mattress cover, with Lucy herself as model. There is something pseudo-religious about all of them, esoteric snapshots into the homesteader’s psyche, sacred and profane, pastoral and perverse; objects imbued with desperate life. These paintings are clues to her own puzzle, which is, of course, also everyone’s puzzle. Through them flows a consistent current of submission, to faceless, dominating figures, which reminds me of the act of true faith. To submit totally—this suggests a will that is much stronger than any will that desires domination.

Shannon Lucy, By the Fire, 2019, oil on canvas

Lucy’s avatar on Instagram is her most talked about painting: a glass bowl of taxidermied goldfish sitting on a gas stovetop. She’s called it her Mona Lisa. Some have likened her paintings to those of Balthus. I relate Lucy’s work to images from a few obscure Russian and Ukranian blogs run by teenagers, which I followed in high school, before the Tumblr purged itself with a Terms of Service update.

Lucy returned to exhibiting her work this year, after a twenty-year hiatus. Thus far she has had three solo shows, with another scheduled in Paris for whenever things get back to normal. I recently spoke with Lucy about painting.

 

MARCUS MAMOURIAN: I first found your work through Instagram. Do you get that a lot? Is it weird having a new following on the internet?

SHANNON CARTIER LUCY: I was into hardcore music since I was 12 or 13, and I would go to these weird, underground shows, always trying to have my finger on the pulse. I’d wear something and then stop once it got trendy. I always tried to be a step ahead. So in a way I really respect people who found me on Instagram when I first started posting. Then, as with anything, once you start to get more attention or followers, it just becomes this element. Of course I love it, I’m only human. But at the same time I trust the first followers the most. I don’t want someone to like me now just because I got attention in some magazine.

MM: The day-ones.

SCL: Right? Even though bonafide, authentic people can find out about a painter that way, it also brings other people who are like, “Oh, now it’s cool?” Old friends are like, “Hey there!” I’m like, uhm, well, I’ve been around. I’ve been the same human, I just wasn’t in the New Yorker. I see that element of life and I don’t really like it—not that I’m famous.

MM: I feel you can’t have a cool Instagram if you have too many followers. I like it when people delete their accounts when they get too big. Something very bad happens when you reach a certain number.

SCL: That’s so funny. I mean I’m not quite like that, but I see it.

MM: It’s extreme.

SCL: My boyfriend makes obscure black metal. When he makes a record, the label puts out like 200 copies and I’m always like, “You know you’re never gonna make like this?” And he’s like, “Yeah, but it creates this element of something special. You’re only making one painting, right?” It’s like how the Wu Tang made that one copy of their album. I see what you’re saying about Instagram, it’s like a little club.

MM: Black metal is a good example because it’s an art where the word “underground” is kind of tied to its whole existence. So the idea of making “popular” black metal isn’t really a thing.

SCL: Yeah, but on the other hand, I’m like, No! I want everybody to see my painting! So we argue about that sometimes.

MM: Did you expect all the press and positive reviews you’ve gotten since your return?

SCL: Not at all. I’m not being phony. I really went in feeling so humble and I know humble people aren’t supposed to say they’re humble. I just happened to get a gallerist, Francisco at Lubov, who’s so wonderful. I’d been fucked over by a couple gallerists in the past, so I had very low expectations. He asked me the week before the show what I wanted out of it, and I said something like, “Well, how about exposure?” Then I started to get messages from Francisco, “so-and-so wants this painting.” I was like, “What?! How is this happening? That’s great!” I keep telling my friends, “It’s just painting!” What is this rockstar shit happening?

MM: Does everything feel unfamiliar coming back to the “art world”?

SCL: I’m so out of the loop. I don’t know who’s who or what’s going on. Since I don’t have any stake in the outcome of all of this, I feel very free. As a young person coming up in New York there’s that pressure to be as cool as that artist in a shed, who’s then all of a sudden making $50,000. That doesn’t exist for me anymore. My perspective is just so much different, I can just feel good.

Shannon Lucy, Bathtime, 2018, oil on canvas

MM: Your paintings all have this sort of narrative running through them. They remind me of screencaps I take when watching movies. Do you take inspiration from video?

SCL: I often save film stills to work from. I’m generally not into fine art as much as film actually. I go through phases when I’ll obsessively devour films, so it makes sense that it would influence my work. Regardless, the paintings come from somewhere mysterious, deep in my psyche. That’s the ultimate source of the paintings, of course. I’m just translating my version of the world for others to see.

MM: What films do you like?

SCL: I like Michael Haneke, Bresson, Lucretia Martel. I love the movie Shoot the Moon with Diane Keaton. Visually, Fassbinder-era German films inspire me, also 80s Eastern European porn films.

MM: You and Bresson both have this focus on hands. Given that they’re historically one of the most difficult appendages to paint, do you think there’s something special about them that draws you to them? Or is it just that you use a lot of objects, and hands happen to hold objects?

SCL: Yeah, I realized I have like three different hand paintings for my show in Paris at the end of the year. It’s weird, I don’t analyze it. Maybe it has to do with the fact that the hands are holding stuff, like a playing card, and the alternative is setting it on a table. You know what I mean? Maybe the hand makes it more animate, more engaging, and gives it more of a story by brining it to life.

MM: Has the way you paint changed since your show at Lubov?

SCL: So as of right now I’m making a painting of an iron on the ground that has blood on it. It’s going to be totally different. Before, all that work just came out, after all those years. I was vomiting it basically. Then when a gallery decided to show, there was so much art that they could choose from about three shows worth of paintings. There wasn’t this really organized thematic thing. Even though there is in general with my work. Now I really get to go, Oh yeah, I’m going to do this. I see how my paintings are getting more overtly violent versus inherently violent. With this next show there’ll be blood. Before, people were like “I see this inherent, subtle violence.”

MM: Your first paintings were so emphatic about their violence, almost because the violence wasn’t directly represented. So the fact that it’s half-hidden makes it even more palpable in a way.

SCL: I’m still going to keep it softened. It won’t be cliche violence. Cliche violence is either in the news or it’s fetish. I’m going to try to keep away from that kind of language, but make it a little more obvious. The stories won’t be more obvious.

MM: Do you think through those stories when you’re making a painting?

SCL: No, it’s just what I’m drawn to visually and how it makes you feel. So I have no idea what the narrative would be. That’s really up to the viewer. And I love hearing what writers say. I can’t write about my art like that. I am kind of afraid to write about it—at first when I had to write an artist statement I was like, No! now I’m going to be ruined!

MM: That’s the sad part about artist statements. They take all the mystery out of it. If it really can be put into words, why make it? 

SCL: They do take the mystery out of it. But that’s how the art world is set up, right? If reading a press release is necessary to understanding a show, I kind of look down on that. It’s kind of a weak thing. The writer could be great, but come on. The art’s not doing it. So in my statements I try not to explain anything, and just say where I’m coming from. But I can’t criticize because not everybody is a total weirdo artist who is just channelling shit. It’s a blessing when you’re getting attention and paid, but not when you feel like an outsider from the world because the outside is where this stuff comes from, and that’s not a positive or enviable place. You know, it’s what they say, the artist’s blessing/curse.

Shannon Lucy, Day at the Beach, 2019, oil on canvas

MM: Do you believe in “outsider art” as a real concept? Like a Henry Darger complex?

SCL: I was always really into outsider art. Probably because my dad is schizophrenic. He’s not an artist, nor has he ever been—he was a jock and went to Vanderbilt. But once he got sick, his apartment turned into this big art installation. You walk in and all the walls are covered with words and diagrams and drawings, there’d be basketballs on top of things. We’d have to find hotels where they would understand and allow him to do that under the condition we would paint over it when we left. I really value outsider art, it’s a real thing. The real ones are unfortunately or fortunately the mentally ill in a lot of cases. I worked for this woman Colleen in the Lower East Side who discovered Henry Darger, she and her friend were there when they went through all the shit in his apartment.

MM: Did your way of just “channeling shit” change over the years? Do you control it more now than when you were younger? 

SCL: Once I got my shit together, getting sober, I was so scared that it would ruin my “crazy.” But drugs are not the “crazy” that’s there. Drugs have nothing to do with it. If anything they just suppress and delay it. It’s a real spirit. It’s a real, beautiful spirit that can create and see the world. If anything, drugs just fucked that shit up for me. Like my friend was like, “The light went out in your eyes.” You get to be kind of more crazy when you’re sober. Just embrace it.

MM: Did you worry getting sober would hurt your practice?

SCL: Yeah, of course. I got scared one time when I first stopped doing drugs, I was in recovery and I wasn’t in the mood to paint—little did I know it would be years before I painted. I still lived in New York City and I was reading some self-help book on the train and someone said to me, “Oh yeah, that’s a great book. But self-awareness kills creativity.” I almost cried right there on the train. I knew I needed a total reworking of my being and psyche, but I wasn’t ready for that. As time went by and the art came back, I was like, what a bunch of bullshit!

 MM: Some people can be high a lot of the time and make good art, but most can’t do anything. Were you making anything during that phase of your life?

SCL: No. I’m 42 now that I was in my twenties. I didn’t really make anything. When it got really bad, I was trying to get through the day, trying to quit everyday. It definitely hurt me. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything because the depths of connecting to my psychological and spiritual and emotional experience. I don’t know how I would’ve found that any other way. Nietzsche said he wished tragedy on everyone for that very reason.

MM: Does being a trained psychoanalyst make it harder to be a painter?

SCL: They’re two separate things. Any question that’s guiding me towards finding meaning in my paintings—it’s a different part of my brain. It really is like a channeling—viscerally—not so much from a logical place. I do have the personal insight to go, “Oh, I see how that informs that.” But we can probably all relate to chaos in our childhood or breakups or confusion with everyday, mundane life. Like this Corona thing. You have to face yourself all of a sudden. Not to say I don’t feel so bad for people who get sick, who this really effects, but we just had a tornado come through Nashville and I was like, I’m so sorry all these people got displaced, but I’ve been displaced in life and it’s a beautiful thing if you let it be because life ends up getting better after.

MM: What are you working on right now?

SCL: it’s just an iron on a carpet with blood on it. It’s not finished. It’s going to be for a show in Paris in the fall. I’m really excited. I love the French people. I love French philosophy, so I project that on to everybody even though I’ve mentioned it to the gallerist, oh do you read Kristeva or Deleuze and Guattari? And he’s like, no. And I’m like okay, it’s not all French people.

MM: Yeah, I didn’t want to say it because of the Deleuze-industry that so thoroughly permeates art writing and seems to have run out of steam years ago, but it’s definitely possible to see some of Deleuze’s ideas in your work.

SCL: Someone else said that. But I heard Deleuze and Guattari weren’t even well-known in their own country?

MM: There’s like a whole industry now around their work because of how they blew up in like the late nineties in comparative literature and philosophy departments in the US, but the “industry,” that’s only a recent development. I was just thinking about representation, how you’re making figurative art, paintings that show real, physical human bodies in the world. But you’re also “representing” themes—like sex, or violence—that aren’t “there.” So it’s like, you know, two levels away. So the “things” in the paintings come in the form of this aggressive affect rather than pictorially or from language. Which is then interesting because the paintings themselves aren’t abstract—more commonly associated with affect—but figurative. If that makes any sense.

SCL: Oh, wow. Interesting.

MM: It’s interesting but also a distraction. One more thing—no one mentions fear when they write about your paintings. But for me, fear is always tied up with sex and violence and aggression—the other themes present in your work. Do you think there’s fear there also? 

SCL: Absolutely. Someone said there’s self-confidence, self-assurance in the work, which for some people might seem like the opposite of fear, but I feel like the fear exists alongside the self-assuredness. Because we can embrace fear, the fear never not going to happen the same way grief is never not going to happen. But I think once your heart breaks one time, the second time you can kind of watch it happen, watch the break. There’s that hovering other part of you that knows what it’s like to have a heartbreak. And then the further down the line you go, you keep having fear but you also have the self or the part of the self that’s watching it happen. So I feel like in my paintings I do want to show the fear cause I feel like life is all fear to some degree, but I also want to show the view that I have now that I’m seeing it happening, I’m not being drowned by it. I mean I can depict it, which alone is a way of getting outside of it and overcoming it. Fear runs through every single painting honestly, and confusion—not confusion like delirium, but confusion like soft kind of doubt of the world and the way the world is. Like, here I am over here and this is just…aren’t you all seeing how kind of weird the world is?