Rachel Shaw: All Seriousness

 Artist Rachel Shaw and I sat down to discuss her new series “All Seriousness”: a sequence of sterile, yet comically uplifting interiors. These waiting areas, offices, and living rooms have no visible entrances or exits; only black squares that lead to nowhere. Devoid of human presence, the furniture and objects no longer serve any utilitarian function and instead engage in private conversation. The shadows, angles and intersections are only slightly off, lending to a peculiar unease on the part of the spectator. Caught in a state of in-betweenness, we can’t help but ask: where did everybody go?



Interview by Jessica Kirsh

All Seriousness opens at Galerie Lock on Thursday April, 24th. 

There appears to be a reoccurring trope in your body of work: that of the window or frame. Most often illustrated as a black rectangle, it holds a mysterious presence. What significance (conceptually or formally) does this have for you? 

In diorama – a small-scale model of a real-life scene – a window (or at least the absence of a wall) is often a point of view or observation. Even the word diorama means ‘through that which is seen’, which I think is pretty appropriate. I don’t use the word diorama to mean scale modeling or miniaturism, but I do use the window as a way to display a certain type of space while also containing it and the objects within it indefinitely. Formally, I think it works as a point of pause and reorientation, like a wall does in a maze, but it does hint at a space outside the one you’re in.

You mentioned to me that this series represents a self-critique of your former work, commenting on its “comically self-limiting” nature. How did you try to visually convey this shift? 

Well, these are the products of self-criticism and effacement, but also responses to criticism I had received over the years – that colors I used were soft or feminine, that the paintings’ smallness was cute or diminutive, that the scale necessarily made them trivial.  That flatness or darkness was obstructive, that “opaque” was a quality of my own thinking or speaking. Like, it seemed to me that everybody thought I was so serious about this, which is kind of a classic, cartoonish assessment of a painter, but I also felt a little bit offended – like it all amounted to stubbornness, which is such a silly, small and female trait.

 On the other hand, I have made it ‘difficult’ for myself, and maybe even a little self-limiting – I insist on doing things the way I want to do them, even if that’s labor-intensive, and definitely want to have ‘my way’. Like, I use small brushes and layers and layers of thinned-out, chalk-spiked paint to get the look I like, and I make a ton of discriminating little changes. Nothing I’ve ever done has ever been called ‘painterly’, which is still a term used to denote great worth. So with this series, I rendered things more starkly in black and white, I used bolder, more condensed colors in other areas, I made things bigger and flatter than ever, I let the viewer in from the other side of the window. Like, yeah, kind of being stubborn and “whatever, man” about it, but ultimately trying to use that criticism for what it is (while also to my own ends).



The neutral colour scheme and graphic composition in this series is quite industrial and Modernist; drawing links to the objects of Claes Oldenburg and the flatness of David Hockney’s paintings. Where do you draw your design inspiration from?

Furniture and interior design are huge interests, and I think that’s because A.) there are so many possibilities and configurations for a single space, so I could be interested in it more or less forever, and B.) the processes of collection/curation are really soothing to me. I’m a messy person who takes weeks to complete to-do lists, but my crayons when I was a kid (and my lipsticks as an adult) were organized by brand, color, amount left and then by preference within those categories. I tend to like Bauhaus stuff because it relies on the cube and sphere, and those are such essential forms.

I do like David Hockney, but I feel like that’s the one cultural reference point I get and it kind of irritates me, because he’s more of a pop artist and so referential. Maybe the same as being asked “So, who jumped in the pool?” I would say that ‘A Bigger Splash’ made an impression on me – the stillness of the image, even in the movement of the water, and the water only hinting at a figure – but I’ve really always wanted to see the original photograph. I do the blog thing, look at art, read books, watch movies and whatever, but the amount of time I spend on that isn’t as important as the amount of time I spend with my thoughts about it later.

The absence of bodies in these interiors creates a certain uncanniness; an inhabitable space or a void waiting to be filled by the spectator. The uneasy, psychiatric aura reminds me of the anxiety associated with the waiting period before an appointment. Can you expand upon this “interpersonal conflict,” as you called it? 

Not to get weird, but the mind is a similarly uninhabitable space. My boyfriend has a saying for when one of us says something funny which kind of annoys me, but also resonates with me – he says “the mind is its own place.” Some of these paintings are about things I’ve said or done, or that other people have said or done, and you could say that those are states of my mind. To be honest, these are the product of a period of disappointment and boredom for me – working too many hours, not painting as much as I want, having unproductive arguments, dealing with debt, immigration and other thought-suppressing shit. You want to see the light at the end of a tunnel, but you rarely get to go from point A to point B. There are periods of doubt, distraction, thoughtlessness and sadness that you might have to go through in the meantime, and humour is a good shot in the arm. Further to the earlier point of self-criticism, I wanted to make my motivations more transparent to myself and others, and to consider my own presence and non-presence in my work.


The armchair in the piece Tell Me How You Really Feel seems to be making a certain gesture to the audience, as though animated with human-like emotion. Turned away and closed off in a corner, it avoids confrontation. Could you elaborate on the story behind this piece?

Tell Me How You Really Feel is not about any one confrontation, but more about an attitude I thought I was indulging in a little too often. Stubborn, small and not a little bit irritable about it. On the other hand, the objects on the table in All Seriousness are a pencil sharpener/shaving (mine) and a piece of gum (boyfriend’s) that were on my nightstand for a really long time – I don’t necessarily want to betray my emotions, but that’s about personal space and a person, too.

Galerie LOCK makes reference to Sartre’s No Exit in their statement about your upcoming show. How much did Sartre’s concept of hell inspire this series? Is it something you relate to personally? 

Yes, definitely. It’s funny, because it’s not the first time someone has told me this series reminds them of No Exit. I do find it a struggle to be an object in the minds of others, even as they are an object in my mind, and that’s the source of so much common misunderstanding that it’s hard not to find humour or silliness in it. I want to compromise between that reality and humour/escapism  – I think that’s a source of tension really similar to that feeling of presence and absence between “being for others” and “being for itself” – because I paint to suit my own interests, but must eventually show and describe them to other people.

Materiality plays an integral role in your work, exemplified in the choice of wood panel as canvas, and in the addition of texture as a “punch line” (in your words). How much is your process directed by your choice of materials and your treatment of surface quality?

Yeah, the surface is important to me. I think that I like flatness because it’s so illusionistic. Sometimes I’ll see a painting online or in a book, and am disappointed when I see it in person, because it takes up space and casts its own shadow and kind of blows the whole thing for me. I’m not quite that anal, but I like that a wood panel with a 2” profile is such an object, and I like that this three-dimensional thing supports this two-dimensional interior.

Back to the term ‘painterly’ – as in using thicker paint with thicker brushstrokes, not following drawn lines. In contrast, the term ‘linear’ refers to the illusion of three-dimensionality, modeling the form through shading and more programmatic uses of color. I’m more interested in the latter term, but I don’t think I have the interest or discipline to produce really linear work. I don’t think I’m doing either thing – I mean, Botticelli is a linear painter – but what I am doing is trying to create an illusion of three dimensions while letting the entire painting create another, less specific effect.

Who are some of your favourite painters? Are there any working currently that you find important?

I like all kinds of stuff…I’m really into Matthias Weischer. Anton Henning is cool and maybe on the same tip, because he’ll do these figure paintings and then later insert those on the walls of interiors. I love bold and heavily textured painting, like Ted Gahl or Jesse Willenbring. I look at ceramics and think about taking a ceramics class all the time.

Would you ever think of making one of your interiors a reality? Like building a set?

Yeah! I love Eli Kerr’s furniture and sculpture and we’re talking about doing something together in the near future. And I’d love to do some set-building for film-maker Angus Borsos.