Becoming Raindrops with Sean Mahan May 20 2020
Sean Mahan is an artist based in Neptune Beach, Florida. He focuses on figurative paintings using graphite and acrylic washes on wood, with a leaning towards social realism and depicting the complexities of human nature.
Interview by Viet-My Bui. Photos supplied by Sean Mahan.
It has been a year and half since your last show with Outré Gallery. How has your art practice developed in that time?
My painting practice evolves slowly. I like to explore an idea deeply before moving away from it. So, my painting approach is still very similar. Technique wise, I utilized iridescent paint more than I have in the past. It gives the raindrops a nice reflective glow. I still really enjoy the result of very attentive care given to rendering something — how you might care for something or someone you love.
Your painting technique involves gradually layering acrylic paint to achieve a smooth finish, which you have said is quite time consuming. Detail is rendered meticulously in your works. How did you arrive at this technique, and why did you choose this medium?
I think I must have developed a love for rendering from watching my father draw when I was growing up. He is an architect and back then, he hand drew the designs (before computer rendering). I still draw a lot in an isometric view, the way he drew his plans. Isometric view is a perspective with no vanishing point, so the receding lines stay parallel. I like the look of it. It has the same unreal look as the hand drawn product advertisements from the 50s and 60s. There is something that looks too good to be true about isometric view. It’s intriguing to me because it’s meticulously real in rendering, yet unreal in perspective. The record player in the painting “Memories Falling” and the shoes in the painting “Into the Flood” are drawn in this isometric view.
Your upcoming show, entitled Like Raindrops, inquires into our temporary and passing existence. What compelled you to explore this topic?
I’ve been exploring the ideas surrounding the intersection of a naturalist deterministic point of view and an existentialist point of view, especially as it relates to our perception of beauty. For example, I’m questioning what it means to pursue and create beauty if we assume the naturalist view that existence in the natural world is ultimately purposeless and ultimately directionless. Can we create the purpose for ourselves? Is there a better purpose to create for ourselves than beauty, warmth, and sweetness, etc.? Thinkers like Carl Sagan and Simone de Beauvoir posed the same questions, but I’d like to ask them visually. In the series “Like Raindrops” I am using the raindrop as a symbol to explore these ideas. I wanted to move my view from very wide to very narrow. From a very wide view, I see the raindrop as falling past, quickly moving in and out of existence, blown about and pulled down to dissolve away. From a narrow view I see each raindrop as a beautiful bending reflection of its surroundings, giving us a unique lens with which to see the world. I wanted to see each of our lives like a raindrop — both falling past somewhat pointlessly, yet uniquely beautiful.
On the topic of existentialism, how do you feel about your mortality? How does this reflect in the way you choose to live your life?
It seems reasonable to me that when I’m dead it will be just like before I was born. My consciousness is embodied in this specific body and when my body is gone, my consciousness will be gone. I find that inspiring, rather than depressing, because it reminds me not to waste this small amount of time I have. I want to use the time to be sweet and enjoy beauty.
The relationship between humans and objects has always been a focal point for you. Tell us about the significance of the chosen objects in ‘Like Raindrops’, and why there are only two objects in this series?
There is the record player and the shoes, plus I was also thinking of the raindrops as objects in relation to the human subjects. I suppose records have a way of capturing a moment for us to enjoy over time. In a similar way, the style of an object, like the style of a shoe, can capture the expression of a point in time. Another idea I was looking to depict in this series is how our memories are also like passing raindrops — reflecting our past and washing away with time. Our memories are captured in certain objects. We crystallize all the best parts there and let the worse memories dissolve away.
With planned obsolescence a pervasive force in modern day consumerism, one could draw a parallel between the ephemerality of human life and the life of the materials we consume. Your works immortalise ageless children and objects/ scenes from the 50s and 60s. What draws you to the past?
They are both ephemeral — only our obsolescence isn’t planned like the products that we get used to throwing away. But you are right, childhood, objects, it will all be gone in time. Our attention is being exploited to move our focus around quickly in the hopes that we will make irrational and uninformed decisions to buy something new. It’s exhausting and causes us to miss the beauty of things that have been carefully considered. I feel drawn to respond and pause on certain objects of the past. You could pause anywhere in time to enjoy it, but I have a special love for 50s and 60s product design. Probably because things from the 50s and 60s were being discarded when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s. It was fun to discover beauty in what people considered worthless at the time because they were interested in buying something new. I would collect these objects from junk shops and had beauty around me for almost no cost. Now a lot of these objects are collectible and expensive, but they still represent the idea to me of subverting consumerism.
Were there any books or lectures that fueled your research for this show?
Not specifically, but I finally read “The Selfish Gene” while working on these paintings. It’s an old one, but it has been on my list for a while. The idea that we are basically vehicles to support a collection of genes that are trying to replicate themselves is interesting to consider, and probably fits into the theme. Comparatively, I listened to a collection of lectures from Ursula K. Le Guin objecting to the reductionism in social biology to find some balance. She also has a wonderful way of talking about aesthetics.
In this current climate, staying connected to others is especially important. What do you feel is an artist’s role in connecting people and reflecting the human experience?
Artists can remind us of the feelings that we all share, and the values that we would like to hold onto together. And when we connect with someone by sharing an experience of art together, we can suspend our relentless ruminating thoughts and anxious feelings — even if only for a short time. It feels nice.
How have you nurtured your mind and body while staying at home?
I have been enjoying learning to play the classical guitar, and I am learning Swedish:)
Thank you for your time, Sean. We look forward to examining our own temporal existence (and ephemeral beauty) when your show opens.