SHERIDAN — Shelby Shadwell — a Wyoming artist whose latest exhibition will be on display in Sheridan College’s Whitney Center for the Arts for the next month — uses his artwork to confront his fears and anxieties, he said.
He likened his process to cognitive behavior therapy. His art often forces him to endure exposure to subjects and objects that make him uncomfortable, which eventually eases his discomfort.
Shadwell — an associate professor in the department of art and art history at the University of Wyoming and a two-time recipient of the Visual Arts Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council — said he developed that approach to art through close attention.
As a young artist, when he lacked inspiration or struggled to settle on a direction for his work, Shadwell said he’d practiced technique — sketching, with a granular attention to detail, whatever he was looking at, be it a poster on his wall, building interior or landscape. But those sketches, which he thought were only technical exercises, started to yield new insights. Identifying all of the tiny details he wanted to capture in his sketches required a “meditative” focus on his subjects, Shadwell said, and that focus helped him develop new impressions of whatever it was he was looking at.
The ability to capture those impressions gave him a means to portray fears and anxieties initially seemed mundane. The day-to-day anxiety many people experience often has no dramatic — or even clear — source, it’s a nagging unease that follows them through their ordinary routines.
He drew conventional scenes and seemingly unremarkable objects, but highlighted details that instilled a kind of ambient dread in many of his pieces. Shadwell said he sketched trash bags he hung on his studio wall, for instance, and found that their random folds and creases suggested vaguely menacing shapes — a bulge in one bag almost resembled a face.
“I’m trying to imitate what I’m observing to a great extent,” Shadwell said.
But Shadwell said he wants to play with, and even laugh at, his anxieties through his art as well. He’s an avid fan of horror films, which he said prove exploring fear can be fun, too.
His latest exhibition, “COMEDIE (which, phonetically, reads as “comedy” but also spells out “come die,” Shadwell pointed out), features works that deal with fear and anxiety but also try to play with those themes.
Notably, many of the works in the show are patterned after jokes, specifically, internet memes.
Memes, Shadwell said, are the “fast-food jokes of our time,” recognizable formats that get endlessly reproduced and recycled.
Shadwell structures some of the drawings in “COMEDIE” like memes but packs them with contrasts and discontinuities that transform the familiar patterns into bizarre artworks; a drawing of a tarantula sprawled on top of a diaper (whether the diaper is clean or dirty, Shadwell noted, depends on the viewer’s interpretation) is accompanied by the grammatically-muddled declaration, “When I say a opinion it become a fact,” for example.
And Shadwell’s imitations of those “fast-food jokes” that tend to be hastily composed and forgotten take the form of intricate, large-scale charcoal and pastel drawings.
“I am the world’s slowest meme generator,” Shadwell said.
Memes — like trash bags and insects and diapers — are disposable, everyday objects that, under intense scrutiny, become evocative and surreal markers of more abstract impressions.
In Shadwell’s eyes, at least.
Shadwell’s “Comedie” exhibition will be on display in the Edward A. Whitney Gallery in the Whitney Center for the Arts through Oct. 17.