Shane Darwent is in two shows right now—at the Front Gallery in May with his friend and mentor Andy Saftel and in a three-person show with Roger Halligan (co-owner of Front Gallery) and Aaron Cowan that opens on May 16 at Tanner-Hill Gallery. He gave me a studio tour and talked about his work, which rotations among photography, painting and sculpture.
His photographs at the Front Gallery are lush arrangements of near-abstract color in scenes most people would never give a second look: a pile of painted tires, a concrete pad with the outline left behind after someone apparently spray painted an old iron red, New Year’s Eve confetti in the light of day. And then there’s Cavity Mountain, a landmark of his youth.
“Cavity Mountain was a beacon that helped us navigate our way around this rural landscape, but it was also this pilgrimage for kids in the town of Hiwassee who would come up and spray paint their stone poetry on the mountain top,” Darwent says. “In the past I might have thought ‘that’s tragic, this is a beautiful rose quartz rock outcropping that’s covered in spray paint,’ but I’ve kind of become obsessed with this unfortunate beauty.”
Last year, at Artifact Gallery, he exhibited photos whose beauty is similarly accidental but more iconic and ironic. One shows a huge blue fiberglass pool liner suspended on edge.
“It almost looks like some crucifixion scene or some kind of odd taxidermy display,” he says. “It kind of makes you call into question what a pool is, or it’s a pool that’s sort of like escaped.”
Another photo in this series shows singer Susan Boyle on a billboard with a message of hope and perseverance, but she’s next to a dust devil swirling around the bare earth of a denuded hillside. Along with the irony, there’s an embrace of sorts that feels pretty far from ironic detachment. Growing up outside Charleston, South Carolina, Darwent saw marshlands destroyed for new homes but realized those homes were feeding his family. His mother was an accountant whose clients were buying them, and his father was a concrete construction worker who was building them.
“This is the world that we’re living in,” he recalls thinking. “So I might as well try to find some beauty in it...and start to see it from a different angle.”
The paintings he will show at Tanner-Hill Gallery are in a similar vein. He makes paintings inspired by classic American signs and advertising that have been so overused in recent years that their retro aesthetic has become a commercial cliche, which he wants to avoid.
“I was still fascinated with the surfaces and by what happened with those things,” he says. “So I began making the paintings as a way to scratch that itch but hopefully have it take on its own life. And be able to play around. With the photographs I can’t really play with the narrative.”
One painting in this series is a frenetic mash-up of crass promotional images, but the result is rich and playful. The color scheme came from a billboard he saw driving down to Finster Fest in Somerville, Georgia. A swath of canvas is given over to a few dozen iterations of “click click click” from a car ad that presented a series of clicks, spaces and period and ended with the hollow promise, “You just bought yourself a new car. Log on today.” There’s also ad copy about meat and cheese from a Krystal ad and the very large words “HUGE BLOW.” It all takes on a hint of self-portraiture because Darwent’s birth year, 1983, is also in there, along with his very large phone number.
Then there are his sculptures, so intricately detailed that they resemble dioramas, which he calls “sedimentary compositions.” One, titled “Coming Soon,” is like an imaginary archeology of new signs coexisting with the old ones they replaced—a liquor store sign, next to a drug store sign, overshadowed by the superstructure for a highway billboard.
“I wanted time to be open in it,” he says. “The biggest, tallest sign, you can’t tell if it’s still under construction or if it’s crumbling as well.”
As his work shifts back and forth among photography, painting and sculpture, running underneath is a curious sense that documentary and imaginative work are on an equal footing. Even the collage-y paintings and mash-up sculptures faithfully record the real-world items they play with.
“All those beautiful, amazing moments are already out there,” he says. “My job is just to pluck it out of its surroundings and re-present it.”
Front Gallery: by appointment, call (423) 280-0531 or (423) 243-3778.
Tanner-Hill Gallery: opening reception May 16, 5:30 p.m.