In the studio with Shawn Campbell

By April 30, 2021
Shawn Campbell, Untitled, 2018; mixed material object. Image courtesy of the artist.

I make my way towards a brown garage in a well-kept neighborhood full of spring blossoms on the north side of Atlanta. I enter the propped open side door and feel as though I’m somehow in the storage room or workshop of a Fun House repair man. Bright overhead shop lights remove the eerie quality of what would be a dark, crowded two car garage; however, the space is filled with large mechanical objects complete with whirligigs, light and colors. On one wall there hangs a large pair of blue jeans, the artist’s own, stuffed, belted, and wearing cowboy boots. The torso is missing and instead, a metal pipe runs up to a wooden box with the Marlboro logo painted on and an extension cord running out. I don’t get close to that one.

Calder and Picasso on view now at the High Museum
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Shawn Campbell, the artist responsible for this “fun house,” is sitting on a blue jean couch wearing a train conductor’s hat and watching the local news. I point to a slide projector sitting atop a large polka dotted, yellow sculpture with the words “HOW DO YOU DO?” and he offers to plug it in for me. Slides of Howdy Doody progress and begin to animate his choppy movement across a small screen embedded in the wooden sculpture. Most of the works are interactive and there is something to be seen from every side. On the far wall hang a few paintings, one of Wile E. Coyote in a scuffle and another of Buffalo Bill, a black bar crosses out his eyes and the words “I AM COMING” lie beneath his portrait.

Shawn’s recent work could easily fill a large gallery space; it is exploding all around me. The works are large, and he explains that frequently he has to limit his sculptural output and remember to alternate back to painting in order to conserve space. What is most gripping about the work is its uncanny prop-like nature. This is all theater, debris of a great American play that is the history of this country. The legends we are told about American identity or Manifest Destiny, and individualism can be seen in all of these works through iconography and cliché phrases. They are props with functions and representations of the larger, darker story.

View of Shawn Campbell’s studio. Photography by Emily Llamazales.

Emily Llamazales: Your developing body of work, Western Theater, is full of American symbolism, mythology, and historical figures that once enthralled the minds of young boys and now haunt those of us that learned these embedded history lessons of manifest destiny. What led to your research on the American cowboy and what has kept you fixated on the mythos? Do you see yourself making work around this for a long time?

Shawn Campbell: I became interested in the myth of the American Cowboy from a couple pieces I made in a past body of work. This ultimately led me to connect the dots surrounding cowboys and I became fixated on the myth with its mix of truth and legend. The myth of the American Cowboy has been transformed, manipulated, and altered to fit mainstream uses so many times that factual details have been lost or confused. I do see myself exploring this topic for a while. There is just so much material within the myth that I am still researching and exploring, it’s enough to keep me busy for the foreseeable future.

Calder and Picasso on view now at the High Museum
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EL: Your sculptures are richly engaging from all sides. Often there is a small video display on one side, a paradoxical message on the other, light up images or objects, and sometimes a mechanical or moving part as well. The messaging and images are representative of those that we encounter continuously in the American news cycle, military industrial complex, or propaganda writ large. What is your approach to using such recognizable imagery and open-ended phrases?

SC: I have always been drawn to images and the ability they have to communicate across cultures and languages, even if the meaning is lost or transformed into a new one. I find, for my work, that recognizable images can bring connections from broad points of view. These connections also exhibit relationships that have developed with recognizable images over time. Mixing open-ended phrases with these images gives way to the blurring of information within these topics and how there really isn’t a black or white answer. 

View of Shawn Campbell’s studio. Photography by Emily Llamazales.

EL: There is a lot of machismo surrounding the cowboy and Americana at large. It is certainly nestled in your work as well. How are you wrestling with that idea and is it ever personal?

SC: You can’t have the American Cowboy without masculinity which is something that I am always wrestling with in the work. It’s vital to the myth of the American Cowboy, especially in modern depictions of the myth. Propaganda has turned and reworked the idea over the years to present masculinity and the Cowboy in a myriad of ways to attract the target consumer. There are always personal aspects of my lived experiences in the work. These experiences have an interesting relationship to masculinity because of my size. My masculinity is something that I never have had to consciously display, a benefit to being a foot taller than a refrigerator. Because of this, the aspects of the showmanship of proving one’s masculinity in the myths surrounding the American Cowboy are something that I am still working on and distilling into a more cohesive understanding.

EL: What are you looking forward to in or outside of the studio? Is there anything you’ve been reading or following closely lately?

SC: I am looking forward to the new normal of post-COVID, making some bad things and hopefully a few good things in the studio. I have no idea what it will be. I have been slowly reading and re-reading Fractured Times by Eric Hobsbawm, Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power by Anna C. Chave, Wild West Movies by Kim Newton, and Tobacco’s Global Death March by R.T. Ravenholt.  I am always looking at art and archives but lately I have been going back to a handful of artists like Cady Noland, Lygia Clark, Donald Judd, and Joseph Beuys.


Shawn Campbell is an artist working in Atlanta. Campbell’s work utilizes a variety of mediums including photography, sculpture, video, installation, and painting. He received an MFA from the University of Georgia and is a 2019 Idea Capital Awardee.

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