Studio Visit: Shanna Waddell

By Christopher Davison

Shanna Waddell lives and works in Philadelphia and is represented by Thomas Erben Gallery in New York. She makes large-scale, visionary oil paintings that engage cubism, abstraction, 90’s grunge, cult worship and false utopias. After an interplanetary visit to her studio, we conducted the following question and answer session in April 2013 by email.   


Christopher Davison: The gestural flurry of your paintings teeters between cosmic bursts of energy and more fixed representations of objective reality. Can you talk about how you find your balance between abstraction and representation?

Shanna Waddell: Recently, I have been dealing with Cubism as a formal structure to house gesture and subject within my paintings.  As I do have interests in abstraction, I want to feel out where abstract expressionist painters were coming from, and as most of them were coming out of cubism, I am using these languages as a springboard to place gesture within a structured framework of sorts.  As for representation, it lies in affinities: winged people and angels, applied to such people as River Phoenix, Satan, and Kurt Cobain, who serve as a type of flying resurrection.

CD: Do you start most paintings with a specific representation already in mind, or do they begin with more abstract formal concerns?  

SW: Usually, I will start with the subject or idea, for example: Kurt Cobain’s head. Then I think of what I want him doing, like flying or wearing a crazy leopard sweater or funky jeans. I often have in mind whether or not I will be including hands or feet. Then I work out the space and how I will be painting the piece.  Color considerations run alongside the planning. The planning for my paintings is done in my head and usually takes three to five days of flipping around content, structure, and color.  I know when there is a good cycle of painting coming up when I start cleaning the house and going to the grocery store, and then flying to the studio in a fury to translate the ideas into work.


CD:  That’s nice to hear you say because I really believe there is something to that pre-work cleaning, cleansing phase. On the outside it might look like procrastination but before a heavy phase of production it seems to be essential. I love the visual of you flying into the studio “in a fury.” Can you talk a bit about the relation between the physical act of painting and the scale and materials you work with?

SW:  I work mostly on large-scale paintings: around 69 x 96 to 96 x108 inch canvases. Since moving my studio to Amber Street Studios, I have been working on large-scale drop cloths as well. I choose the size of the canvas then go into the idea.  When I paint the canvas almost disappears. It becomes about translating.  Lately, I have been into making my work look as if it is otherworldly and explosive.  Once I feel I have accomplished the idea, I tend to want to move on.   As for materials, I work with oil on canvas about 98% of the time.  There is a skin like quality that you get in oils that is hard to achieve in acrylic.  I also like that there are different drying times, as well as getting wet into wet qualities, surface build up, etc.


CD: Is there a relationship in your work between the soaring, otherworldly aesthetics and the all too worldly fate of cults and other false utopias? Do the paintings reveal what can only truly exist in imagination?

SW: I was listening to NPR the other day. They had a guy explaining that if you are over the age of 18, get along with others, and are in good physical standing, you can take a spacecraft to Mars. The only catch is that you can’t come back.  You live on mars with the other people who decide to live on the planet as well.  He also went further to explain how the early settlers who went out to sea on a ship didn’t know whether there was land to settle on or not.  I am interested in how people aspire toward a utopia and continually find what underlies the opposite of their aspirations a delusive contentment.   In the Heaven’s Gate cult, a subject that I have worked with in the past, the followers got engrossed with the idea of taking their lives to ride an alien space craft that followed Comet Hale Bopp to the “Next Level.” an uncertain afterlife. I wish for my paintings to reveal the process of aspiration that the Heaven’s Gate members strove for.  When one looks at my work, I hope to direct the viewer with a slow revelation of the initial allure and intrigue, with color and energetic gesture, then with what lies behind: people with shrouds over their bodies hoping to ultimately arrive at the “Next Level.” I am not against aspiration. I am fascinated by the process of hope and how humanity and this world too often get in the way.