Last fall I was a fresh-off-the-undergrad-boat Masters of Fine Arts student at Portland State University. No place to live, hadn’t secured financial aid, and had just been dropped off with three boxes of my artstuffs on the curb at 8 a.m. There was no way to get home until later that evening, which wasn’t a big deal because there was a funky-fresh studio waiting for me. An hour passed before the doors opened, and while I didn’t know exactly what to expect, an exploded mountain of nigh-unidentifiable cargo taking up every square inch of my assigned cubicle wouldn’t have been my first guess.
Where my ephemera and doodads alike were destined to be neatly organized and later splayed out all over the place, there dwelt several boxes of empty cider bottles, various segments of faux vegetation, a Super Nintendo, a bag of what appeared to be human teeth, and numerous other bits and bobs; floor to ceiling. Bit #42? Light-up Christmas reindeer with its skin ripped off hanging from the rafters? These were my first insights into the tangible tropisms of one Shawn Creeden. And while I spent most of that day annoyed and killing time by wandering up and down various hallways, I remember it now as the moment when I first began to inherit an art practice that has not just fundamentally affected my own, but made the last seven months of my life survivable.
Over the first few weeks of school, I quickly came to understand Creeden as a bit of a Lazlo Hollyfeld, sans the sweepstakes scam. He came, he went; it was mysterious until it became unabashedly, or rather, uncontrollably, human. Upon occasion he would descend from the rafters where he had been sleeping; to this day I have no idea how many hours I spent painting while he snoozed a few feet away and about ten feet up. As it turned out, there was a whole world beyond that reindeer, and it included a bag of firewood, some half-painted canvases, a table, and… this list is going to be way too long, but you should probably know that it ends on a theoretical “sloth suit” that might allow one to traverse the building by shimmying upside-down along the girders.
Creeden gave critically important feedback that us first-years probably took too seriously, he sacrificed his favorite koala-based motivational poster for our lecture series publication, he filled a room with orange plastic and cast a spell that made it snow. The idiosyncratic light tower by which the rest of us learned to navigate the academic chaos, he also happened to make some seriously robust, deeply personal art, ripe with both confidence and anxiety. There’s that too. And of course, there’s also the spellbooks—his ever-present codices of rainbow ink that you’ll be treated to at this exhibition. A look under the hood of an artistic practice if there ever were one. The proto-material that leads to the thing that becomes the thing.
For some context, you should take a look at http://shawncreeden.com. His award-winning sculpture and installation work (2017 Arlene Schnitzer Visual Arts Prize, International Sculpture Center’s 2018 Outstanding Student Achievement Award) is rooted in the collection of objects and materials, coalescing into a vision of a potential post-human future. Large, organic-like structures blend hyper-synthetic materials with living plants, each radiating an outlook that is unshakingly hopeful, bleak, and hilarious. The essence of these works came alive a short while ago with Portland Tropical Gardens (PTG), a temporary collaborative project in downtown Portland that stood from February 8 until June 10 of this year. Creeden’s primary role was lead horticultist; spelling intentional.
A blip of a structure enclosed in glass on three sides in the middle of Director Park, the space featured talks, artists in residence, and a multitude of other events. If you’re not familiar, imagine a barren sea of concrete next to a massive Nordstrom and some other places I can’t afford to shop at, often populated by the homeless and people with bandana-wearing dogs who carry around acoustic guitars but never seem to play them (the people, not the dogs). PTG represented the main body and first phase of Shawn’s MFA thesis this last Spring. It was a transformative force, infusing the area with life and offering a spot where literally anyone could stop in, take a load off, and enjoy the eclectic blend of intriguing tropical plants, kitsch, and a little old-fashioned Dungeons and Dragons spice. I spent a weekend in residence there myself, and made good friends with a java fern and an aquatic snail named Melvyn.
It’s easy to get lost amidst the eclecticism and the monumental works, but the true takeaway is Shawn Creeden as facilitator—his most potent and magical role. This is also the role through which I believe his creative practice truly lands, and why I’m especially excited to see his Corvallis debut in possession of such a thin veil. There’s an endless supply of beautiful art out there, Creeden’s among it, but that has very little to do with why you should make it out to this exhibition. How often can you say that?
Two Palimpsests Walk Into A Bar presents works from the spellbooks of Shawn Creeden, and runs from June 21st until July 17th at CEI Artworks; opening reception on the 21st for the Corvallis Arts Walk. For more information, visit www.shawncreeden.com or www.OUTPOST1000.COM .
By Johnny Beaver