A&E » Speakeasy with ...

Shana Robbins

Artist and muse rolled into one



Painter, performance artist, model and graduate student Shana Robbins has an impressive list of art exhibitions to her credit at venues including the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, TEW Galleries, the Swan Coach House Gallery and an upcoming solo show at Whitespace Dec. 6.

When you were a girl, did you have any inkling you would become an artist? I grew up with both a mother and a grandmother who painted. Also my father did a lot of work with wood and stained glass. So art and working with my hands were organic parts of my life.

You are about to graduate from Georgia State with an MFA. What next? I will be teaching a drawing class at Georgia State in the spring. In February I will be taking a workshop with the performance artist Rachel Rosenthal in Los Angeles. I'm proposing work for shows nationally and internationally in the next few months. I'm also about to start a piece for a new building that Todd Murphy is curating. I think the most important thing for me is just to keep working, doing the paintings and performance installations.

You are a painter, a performance artist, a model, a student, a teacher; how do you most often describe yourself to people you have just met? I usually describe myself as a painter/performance artist. I tell people that ask me what I do that I make drawings/paintings and then do performances of the paintings. I also describe myself as a teacher because that's important to me. If it weren't for certain progressive teachers at Georgia State, especially Craig Dongoski, my work might not have evolved into the performance realm. So I feel that teaching is an important way for artists to pass onto younger artists the knowledge that they have been lucky enough to receive.

You just returned from a trip to New York where you attended a number of different performance-art workshops and festivals. What was the most interesting thing you saw? The most interesting and haunting thing I saw was a Butoh performance by Ko Murobushi, who was also my teacher. It was called "Quick Silver." His body moves completely like an animal, very slowly, and then at times fast and jerky. There is nothing human about him when he performs. It borders on supernatural. The sound was beautiful, too. I think Butoh is an extremely relevant form of performance right now. They call it "a revolt of the flesh."

Was it all work during your visit, or did you squeeze in any nonart fun? Well‚ you know what they say about all work and no play! Just kidding. I did go to a place called the Cake Shop in the Lower East Side to see some really good bands play. It's a cake shop upstairs and a bar/music venue downstairs. Also, I hung out at my friends Billy and Lorraine's amazing antique shop, called Billy's Antiques, on the Bowery. That place has more character than any place in Manhattan. Going to the flea market in Chelsea was a lot of fun, too!

A lot of your performances and your paintings, too, seem to deal with gender and being a woman. Is your work political? Feminist? My work is definitely political, in a similar sense to the way '70s feminist artists described the "personal as political" in their work. And I incorporate ideas of gender identity that are not fixed. They are more fluid and transgressive than static ideas of gender roles. I am also responding to current environmental conditions in my performances, especially in my thesis performance that deals with trees and geophagy, or the act of eating dirt. I would say that I am definitely an eco-feminist.

You returned to Atlanta after living for a time in NYC. What made you leave NY? I came back to Atlanta after four years because New York was starting to feel a little too claustrophobic and frenetic. I needed a calmer environment with a few more trees to live and work in. In Atlanta I am able to be less distracted and have more space. Also, I love the South‚ it's where I am from, and I always end up coming back here. It's a good home base.

Your work is very autobiographical in that you are often at the center of your paintings and performances. What are the formative experiences or feelings in your life that you draw from? I use a lot of visual references related to my mother. She was a model when I was growing up and would constantly change her appearance, from her hair color and length to her style of dress. I think this is where I picked up my fascination with the shapeshifter archetype that runs through my work. I think of continuous change as a form of survival and also as a way of averting total commodification.

As a child, I remember seeing certain objects as having magical potential – things like a multicolored rubber ball and an artichoke with a spider inside of it. Objects like this were like portals for my imagination. This is the origin of the performance objects I make. I call them supernatural conductors.

Is performance art a hard sell in Atlanta? I think performance art is still somewhat new in Atlanta. But places like Eyedrum Gallery and the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center are very supportive of performance art. It is a hard sell in Atlanta, though, I think because people in general have a more traditional idea of what art should be – a painting or photograph hanging on the wall that has a definite market value. Live art is not something you can sell, and that seems to confuse people or makes them somewhat uncomfortable. Performance art has a history of existing on the fringe of society. It may take awhile for Atlanta to be able to digest it or embrace it.

Unlike some loft spaces in Atlanta, there actually seem to be a fair number of artists in residence at the Telephone Factory where you live. Does it feel like a place for artists to you? Yes, that is precisely why we moved into the Telephone Factory. Years ago, before it was zoned residential, I lived in the Mattress Factory. It was extremely raw, cheap and spacious. It's difficult, if not impossible, to find spaces like that in Atlanta anymore. Artists are forced to improvise, which is what we are good at doing. I like the Telephone Factory because it is a real loft, unlike so many of the "soft lofts" being built right now in Atlanta. Some of the artist residents have lived in the TF for over 10 years. It has a history of being supportive of artists.

How much modeling do you do, and since your performance work so often deals with the body and costumes, do you think the modeling informs your art making? Years ago, when I was modeling in New York, I took a class at the School of Visual Arts. One day my teacher, Nancy Chunn, asked me why I wasn't making art about my life, about what I did, which was modeling. That was when I realized I needed to incorporate the modeling into my paintings. I started to do self-portraits using makeup and costuming. I think my experience of traveling with modeling has been transformative and has shaped the work immensely.

I have to ask, since in addition to being an artist you are a very stylish woman, where do you shop? Thank you for the compliment! I shop pretty often at thrift stores. When I model at Neiman Marcus I get a discount, so I occasionally buy a designer piece there. I also love H & M in New York!

Add a comment