THE INTERVIEW IN|DEEDS: Shawn Stipling

The British artist Shawn Stipling, born 1967 in Chester, Great Britain, studied photography at the University of Wolverhampton. His works, he says about them himself, are often of sparse content. He reduces the elements he uses until only what is ‘active’ remains. He describes this reduction as essential, because it not only allows for better control of each of these elements, but also – as a crucial aspect – excludes any oversight through ‘conscious choice’. Precision also has a function for Stipling, because it emphasizes that even the smallest details, e.g. of a millimeter or less, are intentional and not random. The close observer also recognizes that every nuance is well-considered by the artist and not the result of luck. Shawn Stipling lives and works near Cambridge. The artist is represented by galleries in Germany, the Netherlands and the USA*. His current solo exhibition in Berlin Varying Ideas of Almost is to visit until February, 22nd, 2020 at Galerie Pugliese Levi (Auguststraße 62, 10117 Berlin-Mitte).

ART at Berlin - Shawn Stipling - 2018

Shawn Stipling, 2018

Shawn, where were you born and where did you study?

Iwas born in Chester, in the north west of England, in 1967. I studied Photography at the University of Wolverhampton from 1986–9.

What are you thinking about at the moment; what are you up to right now?

I am currently thinking about scale. Up until now I have focused on smaller works which have required the audience to view them at quite close range. Whether these have been the slightly larger works on card or the smaller panel paintings, they have all used minute but distinct details to encourage the viewer to move closer to the work. The intimacy created by this closeness contrasts with their initial austere appearance and is the key to how they function as paintings. Increasing the size however, changes everything. Working at a larger scale opens up all kinds of new and exciting possibilities but it is also changes the way the work relates to the viewer. I am experimenting with new techniques and finishes to take advantage of the scale and to realise ideas I have had in mind for some time.

How did you get to art? Why art? 

Art was never really a choice. I grew up in a house surrounded by my father’s abstract paintings and those of his artist friends. I always knew that I was an artist – I spent my entire childhood drawing. As I grew up I naturally gravitated to other creative people as friends, whether artists or musicians. I just never realised how problematic and time consuming it would be to find my own artistic direction. Looking back I can now see why it took so long but also, how the diversions along the way have been crucial in shaping me. 

What makes you happy these days? What frightens you?

A breakthrough in the studio is an amazing experience. I don’t think that many people realise just how much time and energy goes into exploration to produce the art they see on the wall. The works are really just the tip of the iceberg. So to arrive at the point where you have solved a production problem is a truly satisfying moment. What frightens me is the constant not knowing when the next breakthrough will come.

Please let us know more about how you discovered minimalist art for yourself?

Sometimes to find your own way you need a trigger. For me it was a trip to the Serralves Foundation in Portugal in around 2003. At the time I was still struggling with abstract expressionism and had not even considered minimal art or even knew much about it. In retrospect, I can see that I did not really understand what I was doing at the time nor why. I was just beginning and had fallen into abstract expressionism as a kind of default position.

The building that was about to change all that was designed by the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza. A neo-modernist, smooth white rendered art museum set within a large parkland at the edge of the city of Porto. The kind of architecture that you just do not see in the UK and therefore my first real immersive experience of this kind of pared down aesthetic. I cannot remember a single piece of art from that visit but the building itself had a profound effect on me. Something very powerful switched on that day and I realised, at that moment, just why I had always struggled to find a direction in my life. The Serralves Foundation contrasted wildly with anything I had experienced in the UK before. It was unashamedly modern, stylish in a way I had not previously encountered, beautifully considered in every detail and devoid of nostalgia or a sentimentality for a previous age.

I came to realise that what interested me most about this minimal form of architecture was how it could evoke such a powerful and emotional response with such limited means, and with predetermined decision making at its core. There was no improvisation here, no serendipity, no colour, texture or gesture. It was shiny and new, and yet, at the same time, it was as expressive to me as any Rothko, Pollock or De Kooning.

So I took these attributes and began to weave them into my work.

ART at Berlin - Shawn Stipling - First Contact 2018

Shawn Stipling, First Contact, 2018

How do you protect yourself from too much inspiration these days – how do you manage to stay focused?

The biggest problem with looking at other people’s art is the risk of finding somebody exploring possibilities that you already had in mind for future development. This can be incredibly frustrating and can really push you off track. However, like all artists, I do enjoy visiting exhibitions and looking at what other people are up to. 

Fortunately, when I started out, I realised that there was always going to be a big problem when working with simple geometric forms. From my limited experience, I could not see anything I could make that had not already been done by either Ellsworth Kelly or Richard Serra – or often both! So I chose to work predominantly with line which seemed to be a much less explored area. This coupled with the fact that my work is based on ideas and principles taken from architecture still gives me a little protection against unwanted influences.

How do you assess the current development of the art market?

It seems to me that the Art Fairs are putting galleries under increasing financial pressure as their costs escalate. This has the unfortunate effect of forcing the galleries to choose more established artists in order to make sales. Thus restricting the development and exposure of the new artists coming through.

What is your next target?

I would like to continue working on my sculptural projects. I have made five or six wall and floor sculptures in the past twelve months. It was a challenge to move to 3D in terms of production, materials and finding suppliers, but the sculptures themselves were extremely enjoyable to make. It felt completely natural to work in this way and in my opinion, they are some of my best work to date.

Do you have a credo (confession of faith)? What does it say and what does it mean to you?

Every decision I make must have a logical reason for its existence which is in line with what I want to say. My work is about ‘human intention’ and ‘decision making’ rather than ‘serendipity’ or ‘spontaneity’. If I were comparing it to music, I would be thinking of music performed from a written score rather than something improvised like Jazz. It is odd that written music is universally accepted without question and yet, in visual art, to ‘pre-plan’ is viewed with suspicion as if it were in some way ‘cheating’ or ‘not art’. There seems to be widely held belief that art must be made in a burst of frenetic spontaneity to be considered authentic. I find this argument fascinating – swimming against the tide and arguing against generally held preconceptions is what gives me the energy to continue. 

If you would not have become an artist, what would you have become instead?

For many years I worked as a designer for other artists and art galleries whilst, in my spare time, working on my own paintings. It was a frustrating time and, if I had not become an artist, I would still be that designer trying to express himself through a medium which was never intended for personal expression.

I must add though that those years did teach me some extremely valuable lessons. I worked on hundreds of exhibitions for an enormous variety of artists with every imaginable style. For each show it was crucial to ‘get inside the head’ of the artist, to understand the strengths of their work and to show it to its best advantage. It taught me a lot about attention to detail and how the smallest decisions can be of paramount importance. 

How much of your work is planned – how much emerges intuitively?

Everything is planned but that is not to say that it is not intuitive. During the planning stages there is a great deal of experimentation, a lot of trial and error. All the creativity takes place here. I use no mathematical systems or systems of any kind, it is all intuitive decision making. It is only when I have finished with these decisions that I start to take measurements and plan the piece, discarding anything superfluous along the way. 

Very often I begin with a challenge to myself. Such as the Vertical and Horizontal Shift series where I wondered if it were possible to make an expressive painting using only horizontal lines and nothing else. Back in the studio I found that there were many possibilities even with such an extreme limitation and this is where intuition really drives the work forward.

What are your artworks about?

Human intention, human expression, human connections, the environment we construct around us. That which is us and only us.

ART at Berlin - Shawn Stipling - 140 - 2016

Shawn Stipling, 140, 2016

What role does humour play in your works?

I really don’t think about it but I realise that it’s there. I guess it’s quite subtle, a knowing wink to the viewer perhaps, a nod or a smile. It’s part of that human connection I am after.

Do you believe that art has a social responsibility? What do you believe it can cause?

I don’t believe that art has any responsibilities. It is the only true freedom we have left and artists should be free to explore whatever they want. I do believe however, that art has an enormous, if indirect, effect on society by influencing the designers of our physical and digital environments: the buildings, the interiors, the furniture, the information, the clothes, the television and films we watch. Art’s influence is everywhere and, although many people are not directly interested in art, they do buy clothes and watch television. 

Which artists are you interested in?

I am interested in many artists, although mainly those involved in abstraction of some kind. Recently I started looking at the work of Robert Ryman and Anthony Caro. A recent visit to Dia Beacon, close to New York, gave me the opportunity to see many of Ryman’s works in the perfect setting and they were as wonderful as I had hoped. Caro though was a revelation because I never liked his work until watching a very long interview on YouTube. I found that I liked him as a person and what he was saying interested me, so I gave his work another try. I made the effort to go to his art and was rewarded by learning something new. Now I look back and cannot understand why I did not see his vision in the first place. That is what is so good about art.           

What should your art cause/evoke in your audience? 

Often my work is described as minimalism. However it is not the minimalism of Donald Judd and Carl Andre. Because, although my work is very minimal, it is reduced for a very different and specific purpose. The fewer elements I use, the greater control I have and therefore the possibility of chance interfering is reduced. For me, it must be obvious to the viewer that what is seen is intentional. ie. The presence of a human mind making specific decisions which another human mind can relate to and recognise. It might seem counter-intuitive – to avoid the possibilities which chance can present – but personally I find it a far more powerful experience knowing that subtleties – in art, architecture, design and music – are there by intention and not by accident. That is the driving motivation of my work.

Has your art changed over the years – if yes, how and why?

Yes greatly, although it was always abstract. Before the visit to the Serralves Foundation and the consequent interest in modernist architecture I spent the previous three years unsuccessfully trying to make abstract expressionist paintings. After Serralves I worked on a series of very complicated cut-out works which were somewhere between abstract expressionism and modernism – if you can imagine that? They were a strange mix. Very successful in a way but strangely unsatisfying to me. They were still too fussy and too reliant on chance. It took another big push to reduce everything down again. This time I took everything out until only line remained. As soon as I did this I knew I had reached the beginning of my work.

ART at Berlin - Shawn Stipling - 93 - 2014

Shawn Stipling, 93, 2014

How far would you go? Are there taboos?

Only as far as my work requires me to go. My only taboo would be to make my work easier to digest in order to make sales.

What was your most uncomfortable moment?

Uncomfortable moments are a regular experience for an artist. This is when you step outside of your comfort zone. Sometimes you make mistakes, and not everything you make should have to be good. Sometimes they are just a way of getting to another, better idea, further down the line, like a bridge. I have exhibited some unresolved pieces in the past. I do not regret it because I think they were good work in their way, and I needed to show them, but it was uncomfortable for sure.

Do you have a project which you would like to implement?

I would like to make a large site specific sculpture. Preferably in a city where it could relate to the architectural surroundings. 

Are you interested in what collectors are doing with your artworks? 

I heard that a collector in Switzerland bought a work of mine and it was the only artwork they had in their entire minimalist apartment. An architect in London has a painting of mine opposite an American artist I admire. I would like to believe that they are still being enjoyed by their owners and provoking interesting conversations with their guests. 

ART at Berlin - Shawn Stipling - Varying ideas of almost 2015

Shawn Stipling, Varying ideas of almost, 2015

What are, from your point of view, the attributes of really good art?

To challenge the audience enough so that, if they have made the effort to come to the art, they are rewarded by learning something along the way. Art should not be too easy.

It must know when it is. That is, it must be conscious of the time it has been made and recognise what has gone before it. And this knowledge should be evident in the finished work somehow.

All aspects of its production are informing the whole: the materials, the techniques, the processes, the scale, etc.

It should prove all my preconceptions wrong!

What was your biggest challenge?

I grew up in a country which has a completely different sensibility to myself and in a time when post-modernism pervaded everything from art to fashion to music. It was utterly confusing when I was starting out and it took me a long time to understand why everything seemed so wrong.

Do you listen to music while working? If yes, what?

I find music too distracting while I am working. Sometimes I listen to a few tracks when I am having a break or I need to change my train of thought, or just to jump up and down a bit! This will usually be the uncompromising sound of The Fall, to remind me to trust my instincts and stick to my path even when that can sometimes seem a challenge. 

Which author and book has influenced you the most?

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton was a great source of inspiration when I was starting out on my journey. Like me he was exasperated by the poor quality of housing being constructed in the UK and the complete rejection of modern techniques and design in favour of the UK’s taste for ‘pastiche’ versions of period styles. Although I do not agree entirely with his conclusions it was, at least, a comfort to know I was not alone. It has excellent thoughts on elegance, taste and repetition which can be applied to art as easily as architecture – it still influences my work today.

Is there an artist or an artwork in your life that continues to influence you? 

Robert Rauschenberg’s, Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953. Apart from its wonderful humour, it also perfectly illustrates how art is nothing without context. Without at least reading the title of the work and knowing something of the story, it is impossible to appreciate it. Somebody once said to me that ‘All art is only what you (the viewer) bring to it’ and that is so true. The more knowledge you have, the more interesting and enjoyable the work. Ideas like Rauschenberg’s erased drawing never grow old.

ART at Berlin - Shawn Stipling - 136 - 2014

Shawn Stipling, 136, 2014

Is one born an artist? Or is one required to study?

I used to think that artists were born, but I have read so many stories of artists turning to it later in life that now I am not sure. I suppose there are as many ways as there are artists. However, I do think that you need to have something of a rebellious nature about you, a determination and single-mindedness to get you through the tough times. I never studied fine art at university. I used to regret that but now I am starting to see it as a positive. Of all the artists I know personally, about half of them studied fine art and the other half came to it via another art discipline but, like myself, but they all studied art in some way.

Do you have any thoughts on Brexit to share with us?

Having a Spanish wife I have had the opportunity to look at the UK from both the inside and the outside. In my lifetime, or certainly as far back as I can remember, the UK has been defined by, what I would describe as, ‘a damaging obsession with the past’ with a reluctance to accept modernity and change (certainly outside London). Constant references to the second world war, the BBC’s seemingly unlimited outpouring of period costume dramas, the celebration of anything pre-twentieth century – regardless of quality or historical importance, the desperate lack of contemporary housing and design, and the unfounded suspicion of European immigration, all fuelled the Leave campaign’s message, pushing the country further and further into itself. Unrepresented in parliament, the 48% of us who voted to remain were powerless to stop it. The country is now hopelessly divided between generations, the cities and countryside, families and friends. The old divisions between left and right have been replaced by ‘progressives’ and ‘nationalists’ – something which the old political parties have not yet seemed to realise. And the 48%, we have lost our cherished EU citizenship and our extended European family.


*His works have been shown at Galerie van den Berge, Netherlands (Where Parallel Lines, 2019), Raum X Project Space, London (SHIFT, with Martina Geccelli, 2018), Galerie van den Berge (Beasts like us, 2018), Galerie Floss & Schultz, Cologne (Sightlines, 2017) and Gray Contemporary, Houston (In Other Words, 2016), among others. Shawn Stipling has also participated in numerous group exhibitions, including at Museum Wilhelm Morgner, Soest (painting black, 2017), Art House 1, Bermondsey, London (Eccentric Geometric, 2017), Transmitter, Brooklyn, New York (The Black and White Project, curated by Look & Listen, 2016), Articulate project space, Sydney (The Blue Square Project, 2014). His works were first shown in Berlin by Galerie Pugliese Levi in the group exhibition almost nothing 2019.


THE INTERVIEW IN|DEEDS is a conceptual, media art work that follows rules: An interview consists of a certain amount of mandatory and freestyle questions. They are answered in writing without time pressure and without any length restrictions. The interviewee has the freedom to supplement questions that are important to him (done here) or her or to leave questions unanswered (not done here). We will not make any changes or editorial corrections to the submitted interview. The interviewee is thus reproduced unaltered and in the original tone.

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