In Asheville artist Randy Shull’s new work, there are no red states and blue states
When we see a see a map of the United States, we are accustomed to seeing it crisscrossed with borderlines, major highways running along its spine like arteries over bone. Sometimes it’s divided into red states, blue states or purple states, telling us something about the beliefs and values of the people who live with certain boundaries. But what if we removed all of those, left the map a blank slate? What would each of us project into that void?
Asheville artist Randy Shull asks that question with his new series of work now on display in the solo exhibition Channeling The USA at the McColl Center for Visual Art in Charlotte.
The physical outline of the US borderline is not “an artistic shape,” says Shull. It’s not elegant or even particularly attractive. But it is laden with all kinds of emotional baggage, all of it highly personal. While Shull says he’s not a political artist, he wanted to “take part in the conversation” about what America means in the world today. Shull and his partner Hedy Fischer spend part of each year in Mexico in a mid-century house they restored. Being part of two cultures and crossing the U.S. border regularly brought the idea of national identity into Shull’s consciousness. While working on a different body of work, he created “Land of Lincoln,” a large scale painting on plywood in which the interior of the U.S. boundary is a chaotic jumble of line and color. The painting hung in Shull’s studio for months until he struck on the idea of a new work that removed what was inside, leaving a void within the U.S borders.
That shift opened up a rich vein of work. Using a potter’s wheel, Shull created a simple machine to create a centrifugal force to spin paint out from the center of the void. The resulting paint patterns (think children’s “spin art”) radiate out from the U.S. borders dramatically. What they say about the country is up to the viewer, says Shull. Anyone can fill the open space within the boundaries with his or her own experience. And the lines and colors coming out of it could be promising or menacing, radiating hope, fear, consumerism or any number of other U.S exports.
Shull plays with the outline of the country in other ways, too. In one piece, it is surrounded entirely by duct tape. In another, he cut one half of the country into the edges of an old wooden shipping crate and the other half into the opposite end. The two pieces are separated by an expanse of empty space, opposite one another and seemingly impossible to put back together again. One of Shull’s favorite pieces in the show is a bit of a departure from the others. “Hot Head” features a found sculpture of “The Pathfinder,” a character from a James Fennimore Cooper story about frontier America. In the piece, The Pathfinder — a rugged hunter of a man — is cut in half, an oven heating element bent into the shape of the U.S emanating from the back of his head. When it is plugged in, Shull says, the heat hits you as you approach, adding a very visceral sensation to the experience of the work. While the other pieces are more subtle and open to interpretation, “Hot Head” isn’t.
An Asheville resident since 1991, Shull is known locally as not only a visual and craft artist, but as an urban pioneer of sorts in the River Arts District. In 2010, he and Fischer purchased an old textile warehouse on Depot Street and turned it into Pink Dog Creative, a multi-use space that now includes artists’ studios and two restaurants, collectively employing 35 people. The renovation of the building had immeasurable impact on the area, reviving not just the area’s appearance but its sense of vibrancy and possibility. Mirroring the work on his studio walls, Shull and his collaborators are filling in an empty void with shaping it with their own version of the American dream.