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Shawn Thornton: Roadmaps to reality

Shawn Thornton
An orderly grid competes with a careening network. The Dali eyeballs and the oval with three toothy grins keep things light and edgy all at once. Photo provided by the artist. All the paintings are all 11 x 11 inch oil on panel.

The conversation began simply enough–an email with a couple of images attached, announcing an exhibit by an unfamiliar artist in a cafe. The images were great, so I suggested we meet at the cafe. Artist Shawn Thornton hesitated because of his health. The 29-year-old is recuperating from brain surgery and chemo to remove a tumor on his pineal gland.

Here’s part of his answer:

I was plagued for years with vivid, chaotic mental imagery often to the point of blacking out, and much of the symbology in my paintings came out of that struggle and the ordeal I had in dealing with the physical plane that became perversely abstracted to my mind for years. I lost a lot of simplicity. Needless to say I faced some pretty horrific medical negligence as well. So I have a lot to get straightened out with my current prognosis and all the logistics that come with getting sick without healthcare and currently no employment. I think that I am trying to rival Sarah McEneaney as the most tragic artist in Philadelphia- bad things that happen to good people.

Shawn Thornton
The mechanical man has a path amidst imagery that reminds me of Candyland, pills and radioactive potions.

So I went to the cafe without him. The six pieces in the exhibit are intense and layered. I would call the work visionary, but Thornton, who is 29, doesn’t think so. Roberta said it reminded her of the work she had just posted recently by Paul Laffoley with its technomappy qualities. Visually, I thought of hallucinatory Huichol art as well as W.C. Richardson gone wild.

There are spiritual phases-of-consciousness qualities–layers of body parts and mechanical connectors–as well as cartoony bits like the oval with three big grins. The video-game quality sometimes is menacing, sometimes cheerful. Some of the imagery comes from computer chips and circuit boards and lots of it borrows traditional mystical symbols. But it’s the diagramatic pathways that led me from one painting to the other that cement this work together as a coherent statement.

I emailed Thornton a bunch of questions.

Libby: Did you have any trepidation that you would lose that ability to create what you were creating, or was the payoff overwhelmingly in favor of the surgery? (I mentioned that some saints who had hallucinatory visions were thought to have pineal gland tumors).

Shawn Thornton
There’s something cartoon-like here and the colors are cheerful. The pink shapes hint at a human identity, and seem more vulnerable than the perky oranges, for example.

Shawn: I am really no saint but I can attest to having had many an unwelcome vision. In my experience there is an inexorable amount of physical pain and confusion that would accompany these episodes. It was for many years the most dehumanizing pain I could imagine having to endure.

I have not read anywhere while doing research on the subject any connection to physical maladies and hallucinations, nor have I read any medical data to suggest that pineal tumors could induce a state of mental psychosis. In contrast through looking at metaphysical data it is quite undeniable that pineal dysfunction could implement a host of mental and physical aliments. Our medical understanding of organic brain dysfunction falls far behind, which I presume is why I was mistreated for years for lack of empathy in the medical community. I was not permitted a brain scan for six years though I determinedly expressed my concerns that I had a brain tumor and had symptoms consistent with a brain tumor diagnosis. I wonder if “seers” in the past had similar types of physical ailments.

I hardly consider my art work to be prophetic, even visionary, but I think that there is a strong connection. I am interested in finding enlightenment through the dregs of my fractured health and sanity prior to my diagnosis. I am interested in how the landscape of the [Buddha] would change if a mandala was constructed by a schizophrenic or a brain tumor patient- Joseph Campbell, “the shaman swims in the same waters that the psychotic drowns in.”

Shawn Thornton
A self-portrait–eyes and ears and symbols of our bodies as a system merge with mystical symbols; photo provided by the artist.

When you have something degenerative ailing you every moment, especially when it is drastically misdiagnosed, you are left on a intimate quest to personally obsess over many things, like how am I going to illustrate my struggle when words prove to be hollow and misleading. In this I will note that I started painting on the self portrait with my finger emulating a gun as to commit physic [sic.] suicide four years ago. My eternal bearings had gotten so shocked that I began illuminating these inner planes because I had become unable to navigate the physical world. Quite literally I felt as if my internal maps were becoming contorted and convoluted, deteriorating like the anatomy of a Borges story about labyrinths. …The pineal gland in birds is close to the surface of the back of the skull and is known to serve as their internal navigation system. I am thinking what damage has been done to my eternal maps and did this play a role in my confusion in navigating what had once been so innate all of my life prior.

Everything in the paintings are done by hand without the assistance of rulers or measuring devices. This is a crucial process for me because trying to get back on balance is primary to my practice. I find that the puzzling together of parts in a painting composition stimulates higher brain functioning the more seamless and complex the interweaving elements become. This is like meditating for me.

A lot of serendipity is evolved in the evolution of my work. A lot of archetypes are unearthed and unlikely physic infusions made by linking modes of representation… .

Libby: Do you have any art school training, and if so where did you go? Were your problems so overwhelming that art school was out of the question?

Shawn: Did I go to art school? Yes. I graduated from VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University] with a BFA in painting in 2000. I studied there with Melissa Chaney and Sharon Horvath, both currently teaching in philadelphia at UArts. They are both marvelous human beings and excellent teachers. I was equipt with much of the framework for my paintings because of their diligence and insight in teaching.

Shortly following my graduation from VCU, I started to get ill. I effortlessly tried to continue my painting practice for a couple of years but painting subsequently would exacerbate my episodes. I had to stop painting for two years following my first stint at Skowhegan in 2002. At Skowhegan I think that they pitied me a bit and gave me a job baking desserts in the kitchen. I have returned every summer since. Also during that year I met Astrid Bowlby at Skowhegan and remain very close with her.

The following year Gabe Martinez and Roxana Perez were participants. Then in 2005 Sarah McEneaney was a resident artist. It is nice to have a wealth of Skowhegan connections living in Philadelphia.

Shawn Thornton
The medieval musicians have wandered into a world of heirogyphics and technological infrastructure.

I resumed my painting practice upon coming to live in West Philadelphia during the fall of 2004. Between variations of my being able or unable to function properly, I have worked on those paintings that are represented in the show at the Satellite Cafe for about 5 years (half of them being currently unfinished). There were stints when I could not assimilate let alone paint. Prior to that I was doing larger works. I had just come into to this mature style when I started to get sick, so questions like- how many paintingss do you do a year? or- how long does a painting take you are kind of difficult to answer?

Libby:How has your work changed since the surgery (if there is any work yet)? It seems so close in time to all that has happened to you recently that in a way I realize this is an unfair question. So if you can’t answer it, can you answer how you foresee going forward with painting?

Shawn: I have not felt it up until this point. How I am suppose to feel? healthy and cured? I do not know? I am concerned about being alive and if I will survive. My prognosis is good but I do not feel much in the way of change. Compositions and myriads of painting processes are etched deep in my psyche. Their trenches are illuminating and that I have experienced so much during this ordeal I do not worry about where I am now going to draw my inspiration from in the future, though as an artist, I am always mindful and concerned about the evolution of my work regardless of my health. There will always be life predicaments that can inform newer works of art. Undoubtedly my situation will change, but I can not have many grudges for the loss of any pain and suffering in my life and I am eagerly awaiting these days of healing.

Libby: I asked at Satellite and they said there was a lot of interest in the paintings but they weren’t for sale. Can you talk at all about that?

Shawn: The sale of my work? …Where do I begin? sell for cheap so that they will sell and persons that appreciate the work will appreciate them in an intimate setting to their liking? sell for a lot and they will not sell despite the fact that they took so much time and effort and there are so few? (Also people will think that I am pompous if I price the show high).

I am looking to have a substantial body of work to exhibit in a couple of years hopefully at the interest of a gallery space that can sell the paintings for what they might be worth. In the past I have given my work up to dear friends that appreciate the work, but now I want to hold on to the paintings and try to do something a little more monumental with them! I really do have a strong intrinsic desire to show the work and to communicate. it is inherent to art to want to share it with others. that is how the show at the Satellite came to be. It had been such a long while since I had the opportunity to share these experiences that I was at a precipice in my wanting to exhibit them. It is a small attempt that I am hoping will grow in the future.

The exhibit is up through September at the Satellite Cafe on Baltimore between 49th and 50th Streets.