Paul Owen Weiner
I'm really fortunate to share the work of Aurora, Colorado-based artist Paul Owen Weiner who lives within short driving distance of Columbine High School and the Aurora cinema that were the sites of two of America's most infamous mass shootings, in 1999 and 2012 respectively. He describes how violence, especially in such close proximity to the Aurora cinema and its impact on his community, not only influenced but instilled an entirely new meaning and significance as an expression of self, the politics of painting, and his surroundings.
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First, I'd love to know more about you. Where are you from, and where are you based now?
I'm from Aurora, Colorado and still living here today. I spent a brief stint in Syracuse, New York while pursuing my BFA at Syracuse University, but the rest of the time has been here in my hometown. Aurora is a very large suburb of Denver. Where I live is sandwiched in between the locations of two major shootings, a quick drive from both Columbine High School and the CENTURY Aurora (formerly Century 16) movie theater.
What first interested you in painting? Do you branch out from that medium often?
I've always been a painter, but I don't think I really understood the power of painting until I saw how my community reacted after the theater shooting. Before that event, painting was often an aimless venture for me, and I don't think I really recognized the extent to which each painting is a mirror of the artist and our life experiences or the places we have lived and grown. Painting is intrinsically political even when it isn't made with that intent, and the inflection point of that shooting allowed me to open up to the politics of painting and find visual symbols that exist in a sort of post-conceptual place that references the outside world while remaining essentially abstract.
I often move out of painting specifically to work with sculpture, printmaking, sound, and videos. My sculptures and prints tend to exist on the more conceptual side, and I'm interested in objects that are misleading. That is, I might present an object that we generally have positive associations with, like a popcorn box, alongside a wall full of legal documents printed from the Aurora theater shooting. The popcorn becomes a negative object under that context, a reminder of the spilled popcorn in a theater during a massacre. I've also worked with videos that relate to violent events, essentially compilations of crime scenes and news coverage. At the same time as I'm showing my paintings and prints in an exhibition, there might be the loud noises of a police scanner on the night of a mass shooting running in the background or the sounds of an ISIS beheading video.
You live a short drive from the Aurora movie theatre that was the site of a mass shooting in 2012, and your practice is concerned with both a formalist sensibility and modes of violence. Can you elaborate a bit more on this?
The Aurora theater shooting was really a wakeup call for me about the extent to which people are suffering from violence all over the world. While a lot of my recent work has focused specifically on that event, I'm also branching out to deal with other events to expand my scope. In the paintings, specifically, there is a formal violence that I'd link back to the lineage of painters perhaps beginning with Alberto Burri and continuing on in Steven Parrino's work. That is, I like to tear my canvas, throw it around the studio, shank it with a knife, beat graphite onto it, take it to a shooting range, and run over it with a car. The paintings are results of violent actions that mirror the violence we see in the world around us.
I'm also interested in symbols associated with violence. Many of my paintings include large swaths of flat black, which are references to redacted legal documents relating directly to the Aurora theater shooting. The trials for these mass violence events are often extremely important to the communities that are suffering. The trials can be a place for healing or they can be a place for revenge. Either way, they are emotionally charged. I've found this redaction to also be useful as a symbol for the increasing censoring of content that I've seen in our politics today on both sides of the aisle. Whether it arises from the borderline authoritarian actions of a President Trump or the well-meaning censoring of words on the left, there is a sort of legalistic trend toward censorship that I've seen rising over the past few years.
How did this event change the way you approached your practice, or the type of work you do?
Before the theater shooting, I was making a lot of paintings that related to my own anxiety and using obsessive mark making as a way of finding personal escape. While I look back on that work fondly, I don't think it pushed me to explore the deeper politics of painting to the extent that I can today.
What is your process like? Do you work on pieces individually, or focus on them in terms of a series?
I often work haphazardly in the studio. There will be many paintings going on at once, and they'll all be thrown around the studio. I tear up large swaths of canvas and restretch it onto new paintings, remixing the symbols from varied paintings constantly. Eventually, one painting might arise or five. I don't really go in knowing how much will be made or what size it might be at the end of the day.
What is your studio space or workspace like? How much time do you typically spend there?
My studio varies all the time, depending on how I'm doing financially. My favorite studio was my most recent one in a factory in Globeville, on the outskirts of Denver's RiNo art district. That part of town is near to my heart. My great grandfather was a cattle dealer, and he used to sell them down at the stock show in that part of town. It's the largest stock show in the United States, and every time I drive past that area, I feel very connected to it. The studio itself was dirty and gritty, just like my paintings. There were spider webs everywhere and the remnants of heavy duty work.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
One of my professors in college, and a good friend, Kevin Larmon, definitely shaped my work in a variety of ways. Most importantly, though, I think he helped me realize that what's happening in my life is also what's happening in my art. The two are intrinsically linked, and as an artist the living situations are never stable and always in flux. You have to sort of learn to ride the wave.
Have you received any advice that you're grateful you decided to ignore?
I ignored a lot of the advice I received in college, but I think the worst advice I ever got there was to make my work more clearly about an event and to make it more obvious what I'm referencing. Art isn't obvious, especially painting. Art is distressing and complicated. It's a mystery to be solved, imbued with its own history, but I find that the most didactic art is the most boring art. If you want a clear thesis, just forget painting and write an essay. Painting is messy.
What do you need most as an artist?
Money. I need more space. I need more materials. I need to pay off my debt. It's sad that it's that simple.
What do you feel is the most challenging thing about pursuing art, either creatively or professionally--or both, especially as a BFA graduate just recently out of the university setting?
I think losing the art school mindset that everything has to make some kind of sense is important. Sometimes a bush stroke is a brush stroke. It's not always perfectly defined and justifiable by various levels of critical theory. Finding a balance between working expressively and not losing sight of some conceptual interests is daunting.
How would you define "success?"
I don't believe in success.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects you're currently working on?
I currently have a show up at TWFINEART in Brisbane, Australia alongside Kimberly Rowe [through 22 February]! It's a great show, and I'm very excited about it. Next, I'm planning some massive work that I'd like to keep everyone guessing about. I like to be a little mysterious and just drop major work or events out of nowhere in order to create a spectacle out of nowhere.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thanks for doing these interviews! This space is really important for emerging artists.
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