Art + Design, Culture

"No Matter What It Is, It's What It's Supposed to Be:" Grant Shumate's 'Ouroboros'

By Jackson Howard

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As a young person living in Los Angeles, it’s easy to pretend like you’re doing a lot more than you really are (trust me, I tell people how “I run a magazine” all the time, when in reality Rio and I watch Empire and eat Hanukah gelt.) We all schedule appointments, exchange LinkedIn’s and “go out for drinks,” but oftentimes it’s hard to separate the real from the fake. Grant Shumate isn’t one of those people. He’s the real deal. He’s been grinding for a while, and it’s finally paying off.

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Shumate, who grew up in Orange County, went to school in Australia and has lived in Los Angeles since 2007, can’t really be described by one label or job. He’s a painter, a multi-media artist, occasional fashion designer and a performance art creator who also happened to be a key creative collaborator at the Saint Laurent Paris design studio when Hedi Slimane first moved the company to Los Angeles in 2011. His work has been shown at MOCA in Los Angeles in 2012 and previously at the Underground Museum in Los Angeles in a performance art piece he curated called “Extra Ordinary, Extraordinary,” which was sponsored by Stones Throw Records, Nowness and House Beer.

On January 15th, nearly 400 people gathered at the Underground Museum for the opening of Shumate’s first solo exhibition entitled Ouroboros, a series of paintings and collaborative performances centered around self-examination and ritual in cultural and artistic practice. Shumate’s work often has a say what? effect on you, and I was certainly confused just trying to pronounce the title (it’s the symbol of eternity represented as a serpent that eats itself; Shumate uses it as a metaphor for the thought process of the show, which takes inspiration from the life cycle. Duh.)

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The show itself is twofold, inclusive of both a month-long display of Shumate’s paintings and three performance art pieces, beginning with the inaugural one on the 15th entitled “East.”

“I never set out to make performances, it sort of naturally happened,” said Shumate. “It’s really the same process (as painting), but just a different medium. When I make the paintings, I take discarded things from culture, I reinterpret them, I isolate them, I put them in a new context and then it tells something different. And it’s the same thing for the performances in the sense that you’re taking little pieces of the community, putting the things you know in one context and putting them in a more isolated, confined environment and then seeing what comes out in that space.”

The paintings themselves really are spectacular, think sand-blurred negatives from a trip to the beach in the 1960s or somewhat perturbing and muted acid flashbacks from a nostalgic day spent in Big Sur. They’re the type of paintings whose presence you feel just being in the same room with them. Each piece is made up of video stills that Shumate printed, painted over, photocopied, repainted some more, scanned a little, did a little more painting, threw on some canvases which he bleached and sanded and tussled until he finally got the desired and aforementioned beach-blown, sunset-stained dreams, memories and longings that comprise the heart of Ourboros. 

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The second aspect, the multimedia performance art — and the interactions between the paintings, the performances and the observers — is what really, for me, separates Shumate from most artists. The shows, named for the four directions and their respective characteristics, go hand-in-hand with the paintings as representations of the life cycle.

“The shows are all based on the different directions, and the different directions have different feels so there are different elements involved (with each show and season),” he said.

“East” was full of childlike wonder, springtime merriment and an overall focus on, in the words of greeting cards handed out at the start, “bring[ing] form from void.” Let me just tell you, because I was lucky enough to be there, that it was some next level shit.

Paz Lenchantin, bassist of The Pixies, performed a wild, multi-instrumental set complete with floor-writhing dance moves while sculptor Alrik Yuill chipped away at a massive piece of plaster that ultimately revealed a previously sculpted naked woman. Two guys in Beats headphones (one of the show’s sponsors) bumped into observers and huffed lyrics under their breath, some chick in a bright blonde wig followed the performers movements in chaotic, toddler-like fashion and, to top if off, a guy with a perpetual smile and charm walked around with an old-school cigarette tray of vices, from cigarettes, G-Pens (those wax ones will fuck you up), Black Velvet whiskey and Blow Pops in exchange for written intentions from participants.

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“In the same way I see painting on a canvas, I see performance as painting with people,” explained Shumate. “But at the same time they’re these two things that exist side-by-side of one another, and so with the performances the paintings become almost like set-dressings. They become backdrops for the things that happen.”

There was a sense of both heavy-duty artistic planning going on — from the interactions between Shumate’s paintings and the performance to the pop-up shop curated by One Trip Pass — but also an equally heavy dose of youthful spontaneity, seen for example in a small and immaculately dressed girl playing on a gallery-installed swing as her parents watched or a group of partygoers (including one of the Beats-wearing dudes now off duty) engaged in an Erykah Badu-like neo-soul freestyle session by the fire pit.

“All these things, they’re really just an experiment,” Shumate said in reference to this symbiotic relationship between chance and plan. “You’re basically just putting things together and seeing what happens. In a way, (the performances) can’t really fail because no matter what it is, it’s what it’s supposed to be.”

The remaining directions and stages will play out over the next few weeks. “South” (adolescence) and “West” (adulthood) combine on January 28th at 8 p.m. and “North” (elder) caps off the show February 15th at noon, all at the Underground Museum.

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According to Shumate, “South West” is “more about this movement of turning, that moment where it breaks from adolescence to adulthood…it’s much more obvious what you’re walking into this time.”

As important as it is to know what you’re walking into when you do step into one of Shumate’s shows, it’s equally important to just go along with it in the hopes of catching something bigger at hand, even if it’s fleeting. “East” without a doubt had a party-like atmosphere, but it certainly did not feel like your average gathering. There was a sensitiveness and emotion to it that’s hard to convey without having been there.

“It’s more about creating a vibe,” Shumate told me a few days before the launch of “South West.” “It’s like you create something where people feel comfortable enough so that they’re vulnerable, you can infiltrate inside of them and hit them with their guard down. So what you do is you create something that is kind of a party environment, you have bands play, you have an open bar, but then suddenly you might get hit with some real shit. It might actually bring out something that’s really deep.”

 Photos of Shumate by Ryan Young

Photos of “East” by Gizelle Hernandez