What if Abraham Lincoln were born in 1992? How would the famous orator speak? Looking to tackle the hilarious disconnect between classic Americana and millennial culture, Denver-based visual artist Shawn Huckins has been working on a series of paintings titled The American __tier. The gay artist explores 19th-century American painting and photography through 21st-century lexicons, such as Facebook messages, tweets and, of course, the hashtag.
While each piece may appear to be a simple image caption placed over a classic painting through the use of Photoshop, Huckins created all of the paintings by hand. "I was sort of challenged by my cousin that I couldn’t really paint faces, so I started to practice doing the portraits," Huckins explains. "One of my rejected paintings got slipped underneath a tracing paper that had the acronym L-O-L on it. I just thought the contrast was really striking."
Some may recall artists such as Pee-wee’s Playhouse designer Wayne White, whose work involves colorful words painted over recreations of thrift store landscapes, but the style is certainly Huckins' own. We caught up with the artist to ask him to answer Out's 10 most burning questions, revealing his take on iconic artists, nostalgia, and why he'd sleep with Ulysses S. Grant over Honest Abe.
Out: When did you first envision your new project, The American __tier? How has it changed since then?
Shawn Huckins: The portraits that I used to practice from were sort of John Copley; people from 18th-century America. From there, I just started to mix-and-mesh 18th-century portraiture with current-day texting lexicons. I did that for about four years, and I started...I don’t want to say tired out, but sort of go in a different direction. So I moved on to the American frontier age, like cowboys and Indians and the Civil War, so that’s what I’m doing now with The American __tier. It’s a little more diverse, meaning that there’s more landscapes, and photography is more in my work now instead of just the formal portrait, which I’m still painting.
Who or what have been some of your inspirations throughout your art career?
The work of Ed Ruscha; he’s sort of like the pop icon. I was more interested in his earlier work; he definitely had a huge inspiration for my work and using text in my paintings. His favorite painting of mine is probably “The Standard Conditions,” which is an old gas station that is kind of at a diagonal perspective, and that was one of the first paintings that sparked an emotion in me.
When I was a kid, I drew these little sketchbooks and I would copy Disney cartoons and my favorite superheroes. Other artists are Wayne Theibaud: He has really beautiful colors in his palette. I also enjoy, obviously, the 18th century and 19th century artists, like John Copley and George Bingham.
What is the most exciting moment for you in the art process?
Gosh, there’s so many. My process is kind of lengthy. When I find a composition works well, it gets transcribed to a canvas, and then from there, the letters are taped off, and then I begin the painting. My favorite part is actually peeling letters off: It’s like peeling a scab off. It’s just really gratifying. You see the letters peeled and the painting almost complete, there’s a sort of a feeling of accomplishment.
Are there any modern slang terms that you particularly love or hate?
The one phrase I really hate and will never use is YOLO. I hate the Y-O-L-O. I think it’s so overdone. People use it for really dumb excuses, and that one really annoys me.
How frequently do you use social media?
I’m not really on it that often. It’s all self promotion, really. I don’t really care what people are eating, and I don’t take selfies and I don’t post pictures of my dinner, I just use it mostly for my artwork. So I have a Tumblr account and an Instagram and that’s it. It’s all dedicated toward my artwork. It’s never shenanigans—like people’s babies or people’s Starbuck’s coffee.
Your artist statement leaves the question of how beneficial modern slang is open to the audience. On a personal level, how do you feel about how language has evolved?
There’s sort of a charm in writing letters and the [type of] bigger, formal lettering you would use back in the day. I loved receiving handwritten letters from my grandmother—in old, grandmother cursive. It’s perfectly legible and beautifully written, and it’s intelligent and civil. You really don’t get that from today’s texting and social media, and it’s just sort of absent in a digital form. It would be really nice to go back to that way of age, but I understand that we’ve got to move on and that technology is the future.
And with technology, language evolves too, so if people find a way to show their emotions through texting or through emailing, that’s fine, but...I mean, it’s a language, it’s a code, it’s a completely different way of talking than even 50 years ago. It’s just evolving to greater lengths... Who am I to say that people aren’t connected now? I mean, they are: You can text someone across the world in 2 seconds and be connected. It’s just that the emotional value there is sort of absent today.
Pictured: A view of Shawn Huckins's Denver studio
"I was sort of challenged by my cousin that I couldn’t really paint faces, so I started to practice doing the portraits," the gay visual artist explains. "One of my rejected paintings got slipped underneath a tracing paper that had the acronym L-O-L on it. I just thought the contrast was really striking."
READ THE Q&A
If you had unlimited funding, what would be your dream art project?
Wow, I never thought about that one. Well, ideally, I would love to work large scale. My studio I built is not really small, just medium-sized, but it can’t really accommodate huge canvases. So if I had unlimited funding, I would buy a huge warehouse and buy this huge canvas and just work really large. Because there’s just something monumental about walking into a room and just seeing a huge canvas that just, like, dwarfs you. Right now, I don’t have the accommodations to do that, but eventually down the road, I would like to buy a huge warehouse and just work large. Like really, really large.
If you had the opportunity to branch out to other art forms, which would you choose?
I would really love to be a fiddle player or a banjo player. I don’t know if that’s completely random, but it’s creative, it’s artsy, and I just love like folk bluegrass music. I guess, to go back to the previous question, if I had unlimited funds, I would hire a private music tutor and have him come three times a week and just teach me how to play either one of those, because I just love the sound and the energy that comes from both instruments.
If you had a spirit animal, what would it be?
I never thought of that one. I really enjoy...golly. I would say a black bear because they’re innocent most of the time and they stand up for their children, well not children, their territory, when they have to. They’re tough when they have to be tough, but most of the time, they’re just innocent and goofy and just want to eat all the time.
Let's play Fuck, Marry, Kill with Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Robert E. Lee.
Oh gosh, they’re not very attractive. From the portraits that I’ve seen, I would say Grant is probably the most handsome, so I would fuck Grant, I would marry Abe, and I would kill Lee. I mean, ‘cuz Abe was the president, so you’ve got to marry him and be part of the White House.