by Liza Roberts
photographs by Juli Leonard
On a treeless, dead-end street of storage units, warehouses, and tinted-window flex space, the studio of acclaimed Raleigh artist Shaun Richards sits anonymously. High-concept, large-scale contemporary art like Richards’ – art that is at once vivid and conceptual; art that has received both critical acclaim and an avid following – seems an unlikely product of such a charmless place.
But once a visitor enters, takes a paint-splattered seat and is surrounded by Richards’ interior world made visual, the unlikely exterior recedes and then vanishes. Striking images of people, animals, and words are hung from clotheslines, tacked to walls, propped everywhere. Many are outsized, all bold but delicately rendered. And it begins to make sense that this quiet young man with loud ideas can make anything he wants, wherever he may be.
It’s still in here: No music, no sound but the half-hearted whir of an inadequate fan, and the kind of flat indoor heat you forget about in a world of constant AC.
The image he’s working on is also still: a watercolor of a lawn chair overgrown with kudzu. It looks like nothing else in the room, and indeed, watercolor is a new medium for him. “An old lady medium,” he says, and therefore challenging, and therefore daring. He is painting gray shadows between the leaves with a watery brush, his eyes intent, head bowed.
He has embraced, as an artist, “the psychology of the things I’m drawn to instinctively,” he says. In recent years that has included the worlds of marketing and advertising, and the ambiguity of gender. Last year’s Concession Stand series featured stylized words – “sloganeering” – painted atop and within portraits and other images: a skull, a tank, a Polaroid camera. Words like “Collusion,” “Epic,” and “Concession” were intrinsic to the images they illustrated.
Richards says he is interested in “those negotiations we make at the margins,” and in questioning “notions of beauty, artifice, ethics and identity.” His pieces often comprise many layers of paint, sometimes a dozen or more, as well as layers of collage, sometimes pages taken from books.
On the wall before him now is a finely detailed, practically life-sized oil of two dead deer, one atop the other. Road kill. The theme here is “bystander,” or “the happenstance of circumstance,” as he puts it, “how things left alone will right themselves, and how we’re all grappling with the world around us.” A deer – or two – run across the wrong road at the wrong time. A chair is forgotten, and then overtaken with vines.
Some of these pieces will comprise his part of a group show at Flanders gallery this month.
Richards, now 34, found his footing quickly in the artistic community when he moved to Raleigh in 2007, winning an artist-in-residence spot at ArtSpace right away. Flanders Gallery then began to show his work, and his Bootleg Romanticism won “Best in Show” at the Raleigh Fine Arts Society’s 2008 North Carolina Artist Exhibition.
The judge of that show was Larry Wheeler, director of the North Carolina Museum of Art (and a Walter contributor; please see Wheeler’s Letter from the Art World on pages 28-29).
Wheeler made a visit to Richards’ former studio shortly thereafter and has been a strong advocate ever since, buying a piece from
Concession Stand for his personal collection and keeping in regular touch. Deutsche Bank, the City of Raleigh, and Allen Thomas Jr., who serves as chair of the Contemporary Art Museum’s Foundation board, all have Richards’ art in their collections.
But even with blue-chip collectors such as those, it’s not easy making a living as an artist. “Most of my life has been hand-to-mouth,” Richards says, even now. He recently created and sold 100 small paintings for $100 apiece – a back-breaking effort he spent months to create – in an effort to raise the money he needed for a new computer, taxes, car repairs and supplies.
Richards says he’s constantly aware, as he works on a particular piece, that “there’s no guarantee what I’m working on is going to make me any money.” He tries to make art without worrying about that kind of equation, and generally, it has worked: “The universe has given me what I needed when I needed it.” Still, a day job is a necessity, and so Richards spends most mornings and early afternoons working with industrial designer Matt McConnell, who creates everything from large-scale public sculpture to lighting design.
But once Richards is done with the paying job, the studio, and the meticulous, time-consuming work he does there beckons.