Following the Trail of Breadcrumbs with Sean Mahan October 16 2018

Sean Mahan is a social realist figurative artist from Neptune Beach, Florida. He works with graphite and acrylic washes to create paintings that depict poignant moments of human nature in its complexity and tenderness. With a background in painting sprawling murals, Sean has taken his meticulous rendering skills to a more intimate scale.

Ahead of his show A Trail of Breadcrumbs, Sean spoke to us about the formation of his practice, the subjects of his pieces and his connection with objects from the 50s and 60s.

Can you share with us how you came to your current art practice? What seeds were planted in your childhood that led to the flourishing of your career?

I was encouraged from a young age to make art and learn art history. My parents value the arts and both are creative in their own ways. My mom is a very skilled seamstress and my dad is an architect and painter. Along with that, my mom has a strong D.I.Y. outlook and always modelled the attitude that there was a creative solution to any problem. She fixed our cars, repaired our computers, did plumbing, wiring, and sewed a lot of our clothes. Both shaped how I look at art and gave me the idea that it was worth pursuing.

Your body of work predominantly features children – particularly young girls. What is the reason for this characterisation? What do these children represent?

I like to explore themes around human nature. Children can reveal more directly some things that are innate within humans before environmental influence has had a chance to fully shape us. I'm fascinated that we are able to be considerate and kind to one another when a big part of nature is largely brutal. On the other hand, in our culture, girls often get socialised to preserve some of that consideration and kindness and they can remind us of that feeling. They can be a symbol of that reminder when the environment around us is competitive, cold, and constrained by market forces.

The facial expressions of your protagonists are often a focal point in your pieces. They always seem to be deep in thought, and often demonstrate a maturity beyond their years. What research goes into the making of these expressions? How do you decide on the emotion you want to convey in an image? 

Thank you, I'm happy that you recognised that! Growing up, my family hosted many different exchange students and I got an early insight into how emotional regulation varies across different cultures. I was seeing different value put on restraint, calmness, warmth, excitement, etc. I think in the US there is a value on high excitement and passionate anger to show how much we like or dislike something. These two emotional extremes parallel how we are marketed towards. The loudest and quickest way to engage our impulses is the most effective way to capture our attention to sell us something and it drowns out subtlety, and other quieter impulses. These subtleties and quieter impulses are also part of what makes us flourish and I would like to meet their deficit when making a painting.

Your characters tend to engage with objects and flowers. What is the message of these interactions? How do you choose your objects?

I am endlessly interested in the strange distinctions we make between subjects and objects. We objectify others and view others instrumentally, while imagining objects as having a kind of personality and magical promise beyond their utility. We identify with the objects around us, with this brand, not that brand, hoping to embody some of those object's imagined personalities. There is a kind of subject/object reversal that I think we live out and I like to try to reflect that in paintings. We are also constantly encouraged to desire something new and the new object is fetishised. In response, I am trying to fetishise the obsolete. In a sense, I'm illustrating my own advertising campaign to encourage desire in using and repurposing something old rather than something new.

Speaking of which, you collect household objects from the 50s and 60s. How did you become enamoured with these objects? What is your favourite item from your collection?

There is a concept in ecology called 'environmental generational amnesia' – the idea that each new generation has a degraded conception of what the 'normal' health of the environment is, because the base line for their definition of 'normal' is becoming worse as time moves forward. I think you could conceive of something similar happening with product design. There is a kind of degradation of aesthetic as the market selects against subtle variation in colour and design in favour of what sells most and what is least expensive to make. For example, I have a special appreciation for the beauty of sewing machine design. If you try to buy a sewing machine today, most likely, you can buy a white one with more emphasis on function than style. When 50 years or more ago there was much more creativity and variety in design. It's visible in some areas more than others of course, but I think it's not hard to see what I mean.

My favourite sewing machines are the Macousette children's machines from the 60s, Necchi Supernova from the 60s, and the Alpha from the 50s, among others.

Your pieces have a decidedly cinematic quality. What films, directors or cinematographers have influenced you?

When I was growing up, my best friend's dad owned a vintage movie theatre. We watched almost every movie that came out in the 80s, sometimes several times if they were good! My first job was working at that theatre, and I had the chance to see even more when I was working, which undoubtedly had an impact. 

One movie that immediately comes to mind, that I like, is Mon Oncle by Jaques Tati. He employs some funny and clever themes of alienation produced by modernity that I really love.


Tell us about the works for your upcoming show, A Trail of Breadcrumbs. What inspired the conception of these artworks, and what lead you to pick this title?

I wanted to make a series that were all visually connected by the passage of time in one day, pausing at each meal or snack. Each pause is also visited by songbirds who are following "a trail of breadcrumbs". I was looking for a way to continue my exploration of the theme of human nature while quietly telling a story that exemplified its ambiguity. The songbirds are featured as a symbol of ambiguity, being in between – above and below, past and future.

We are both constrained and constructed by our past experience and yet free to flower in infinite directions. We're both endowed with the gifts of millions of years of natural selection and seemingly free to reason against them. We are the "rational animal", a unique subject amidst a universe of objects. Like the songbird, we exist in between. We can both follow "a trail of breadcrumbs" towards something sweet within us and towards something sweet that we create ahead of us.

As a widely-read individual, how does your research into topics like philosophy, ethics, cognitive science, influence the work you create?

For this series, I re-read Simone De Beauvoir's book The Ethics of Ambiguity. I love that book! I wanted to deepen my thoughts on the intersection between a naturalistic, deterministic conception of human nature and an existentialist open-ended future. She has such an interesting point of view in that book and it was a big influence in building the concept for A Trail of Breadcrumbs.

Thanks again for talking with me about the exhibition, I'm excited to show this new series!

It was our pleasure, Sean! We can't wait to share your new works with everyone.

A Trail of Breadcrumbs by Sean Mahan
19 October – 4 November
Opening 6pm Friday, 19 October
Facebook Event