Welcome Shaun Caton, performance artist, painter, collagist and cultural lobotomist. First of all, tell us a bit about your background, where you’re from and how you became a visual artist.
I was born in England and my earliest drawings were made with lumps of coal on skirting boards when I was about 2 years old. My mother made paintings and drawings when I was an infant and one day I thought: I will become an artist. Art was the only subject at school that remotely interested me because it was a form of escapism from the nullifying mediocrity. I remember my first art lesson at school: the hirsute hippy teacher asked us to paint ourselves whilst he went outside to smoke his pipe. When he returned to the classroom, we had all painted our faces different colours with powder pigment and sat there grinning like monkeys. It was with this spirit of anarchy and provocation that I entered the world of art.
I have been through the art school system, but this was decades ago and the world was a very different place then. The most important thing I have learned about education is to unlearn. It’s only through an eradication of entrenched ideas that one can find a true voice coming through.
You are producing a collection of extraordinary collages at the moment, particularly your ‘Night Life’ series. What led you into collage from painting and performance? And where do your raw materials come from?
My first experiments with collage were in 1980. These were naive and clumsy failures. By 1983 I had progressed with collage and made semi-autobiographical pieces that incorporated pictures of myself and were a sort of black and red prelude to the live performances I had started to make at that time. I then abandoned collage until 2016. In 2017 I presented a whole group of new miniature collages at Arnolfini Bristol, as part of a durational performance collaboration with Paul Hurley. Since then, I have made hundreds of collages. The imagery and content of the collages is closely aligned with that of my performances which feeds them.
I am utterly absorbed in the strange world the collages lure me into. In some ways, they are like dream stills of my performances.
Yesterday, many books arrived throughout the afternoon right through until the evening. Each thudding through my letterbox making its own dramatic entrance. I quickly unwrapped them and got my scissors working in a frenzy of cutting. Books can yield many images, parts or whole pictures, giving scope for tremendous experimentation. At first, there is a slight hesitation before any cutting commences. Then this is cancelled out and I just start shearing the pages, ripping and pulling the books apart, spraying spine dust and minuscule paper fragments all over the table. The sound of cutting is rather like a sort of jagged conversation with the pages. Quick and urgent shears begin the process of transformation, making a dialogue almost discernible to those who can listen without needing an interpreter. Forming an image is a much slower process though, involving selection, juxtaposition and chance.
I work intuitively with very amorphous images, placing them on specific backgrounds. There is some sort of fractured narrative to be gleaned from these latest collages, albeit very mysterious – even to me. I work most intensively on collages until my visual material runs out. Then I search for other sources, mainly in old illustrated books and obscure magazines that nobody has ever heard of. This can be very time consuming and during one hour perhaps only a single item of interest might turn up. Therefore, I have to maintain a rigorous approach to hunting down suitable subject matter. It also occurred to me that I have a penchant for certain types of early colour printing. This is usually found in books printed in the 1900’s when colour printing was a complete novelty and probably very expensive. The quality of the paper surpasses anything to be found today and is soft, smooth, and silky to the touch, rather like parchment. I believe in earlier times photographic reproductions were printed on paper treated with kaolin, which gives it that extraordinary finish and sheen. Anyway, I absolutely love this peculiarity and it is often accompanied by a scent, which impregnates the skin pores of my fingers with the smell of times and people long gone into the past. So, as I accumulate material to transform into collages I am experiencing a sensory interaction with the paper’s texture, age, and odour. It’s like the paper is working its magic on my psyche and revealing its inherent ghosts.
Analogue collage is a world I have re-entered, however, I have been making collage books for over 30 years and use the same method of altering photographs on the pages, a type of photomontage. The images I have been creating in recent days and weeks relate to dreams, or my desire to reinvent a dream by making a picture. By keeping my subject matter specific to the imagery of my performances and paintings I am sure this new strain of collage is quietly developing its own unique language to a level of fluency and articulation that is beyond the banal and the revisionist. I see the collages in my mind’s eye like film stills. They are animated in my dreams and I am informed by what happens, rather like receiving subconscious instructions of how to create them. This is the level of absorption and obsession necessary for making these pictures. I do not believe there is one single influence on my work because it’s constantly morphing from one thing into another, as if by sleight of hand, conjured out of nowhere from a plethora of origins. When I’m working on these collages I am in a mildly anxious state of heightened awareness, its enigma gradually reveals itself to me, like a glimpse at a fading dream image. Even after it’s finished I think to myself, did you just make that?
You work with a rich mixture of imagery which seems to involve prehistory, archaeology, witchcraft, the spirit world and ritual. Tell us a bit about these influences and your research methods?
My paintings depict themes and subjects recurrent in both performances and collages. So, you might see multiple images of the sheela-na-gig fertility goddess in my performances and this will migrate into my watercolours (especially the 46 I made whilst in a residency at Cill Rialaig, County Kerry in 2017). I have stopped painting for the time being. I have expressed all I need to say and weary of repetition for its own sake, I have gone off at a tangent instead brandishing a pair of scissors rather than a dripping brush.
It’s unknown territory for me and much of it is deliciously dark. If I remember my performances at all, there have always been dolls or fetishes, used possibly as representations of people or gods. Gods and goddesses are now frequently appearing in my new Night Life series of collages. They are like performers who have strayed away from the pulsating hubbub of the performance into a sort of ritual. The objects they take with them often adorn the paintings which are inspired by my collecting: rocks, limbs, bones, heads, flowers, machine parts, shells, anomalies.
Does painting and collage lead to a performance or is it all one process?
Live performances incorporate all the collage imagery I am working with right now, except it’s animated, made into a shadow play with sound, and I am masked and in a sort of costume. I often work with audience participants in a very spontaneous association, without using speech, only actions that encourage mimicry. When I performed in the Venice Biennale in June 2019, I worked with up to 40 audience members, who activated my cut outs hanging from poles, held colour torches, created their own rituals, chanted, hummed, shapeshifted into another zone of reality. I call this sort of performance an unconscious collaboration. Everything fuses together and is connected, I see no difference in my performances, paintings, or my collages.
Is your art practice a way of recreating your dream world, giving time and space to the creatures or characters that emerge fully formed from your unconscious mind?
My best images come at night, which explains the chronic insomnia and onus of having to hastily scribble down thoughts on a bedside pad in the dark, whilst knocking over a lamp, a glass of water, and a bedside clock in the process. Nocturnal transmission of thought is the bane of my night! Every night I have lots of pointers drop into my mind, unconscious instructions and possibilities for the next collage. When will they ever stop?
The fact that I think about making collages when I go to sleep leads me to dream about them in much greater detail. In dreams, they fuse to form tiny live dramas that are being played out. They make odd noises, and I can hear a rumble of distant traffic, disembodied voices, industrial clangour. I noticed that there are often people (children from bygone days) looking out of my collages at us, or at things we cannot see – possibly going on in other collages that might be displayed or placed in an adjacent position. Therefore, I am making something of a correspondence between each and every image, a confluence of transference, a language that is evolving and mutating into something potent. By deciding to make the collages look like performances, or moments in time extracted from an event, I am keeping close to the imagery that surfaces and keeps frothing up. In terms of commerce, I cannot let any of them go just yet – they are too new, too raw, and too compelling to me.
I am fascinated by early tinted films from the 1900s – in particular, those of Georges Melies, Star Films company. Somehow my memory of the colour version of Le Voyage Dans la Lun (A Trip to the Moon) has had a powerful impact on the way I imagine collage imagery, with the inclusion of vintage photographic images being altered and transformed by subtle additions and subtractions, grafting this onto that, squeezing time as a wheezing concertina of centuries into one perpetual present moment. It’s this paradox that excites me most of all. The idea of condensing time into a visual language, or reanimating historical photos in a totally new context. It’s as if I am giving birth on a nightly basis, then voraciously eating my own Edible Darkness of Pink Machinery.
You are clearly influenced by children’s drawings. Could you explain why?
Children’s drawings have more freshness and honesty, greater originality and imagination, than much of contemporary art we see nowadays. I have always been interested in looking at children’s art and have numerous books from the 1930s-70’s on the subject. I think I like the sense of adventure and lack of pretentiousness. I have been fortunate to collaborate with children on multiple art projects over the past 30 years and so my appreciation of their art is deep rooted and meaningful both to me and others.
Tell us about cultural lobotomy.
In 1987 I invented Art Autopsy – Radical Process in Art. Seeing that much of the contemporary art world is driven by the ridiculous culture of the artist as some sort of mythical, anti-hero, cum celebrity, I conceived of a new approach to art that is both holistic and anti-capitalist by nature. Removing the bogus icons of the art world to the scrap heap of history would be a great starting point for an overhaul or Open Art Surgery. Let’s face it, most artists barely eke out a living from their work and may never achieve much recognition during their lifetime unless they are fanatical and unstoppable. A cultural lobotomy is the metaphor I would use for a new type of art movement that embraces diversity and seeks to eradicate hateful symbols of colonial oppression and the suffocating snobbery and elitism that pervades much of the rarified art world. Something that gives back to society rather than segregates it for the very rich. Do I think I will succeed? I have certainly tried and influenced a lot of different people since 1987 to think in a much more positive way about who and what art is for.
What are your plans for the next couple of years Shaun? When can we see the next performance?
I only have one live performance lined up for 2021 at V SS L in Deptford, London on Saturday June 5th. People should check with the venue organiser for details.
I am always moving onto the next thing and live in the present moment rather than project myself into an imaginary future. At my stage, I turn down far more nowadays because I can pick and choose what I want to do. Having made nearly 600 performances over the past 37 years I am not that phased about doing a lot more live stuff, unless the offer involves some form of fabulous collaboration with fantastic people that I respect and admire.
It would be fun to make an online book of my collages for people to delve into for free. This might involve selections from 30 years of my collage books with one-off works pictured in there too.
I will evolve a new language of painting and return to this medium again in the future because I like the visceral quality of paint.
I’m planning a daring series of ‘Kitchen Stink Drama’ collages that focus on notions of contained domesticity, urban cannibalism, aesthetic revulsion through revolution.
A series of articles regularly appear on my website for people to read, which collates and chronicles many of the topics we have discussed here, peppered with stories and anecdotes.