Interview by Alberto Cuadros
Alberto Cuadros: I’m here with Orion Shepherd to discuss his recent show, The Poseidon Adventure, which opened at Jancar Jones Gallery at the end of January of this year in China Town, Los Angeles. I wanted to start off by highlighting the size of the gallery, it’s a much bigger space now, which makes it a little different from their original program in San Francisco, and initially here in LA. When you had your show at their space in San Francisco, it was more intimate and paired down, the viewer’s relationship to the work was close up and so you were making smaller work, miniatures. How has that shifted now that you have a larger space?
Orion Shepherd: I think my approach is still the same, because of the way I work I still make relatively small work for what is within my means. I think it’s just the difference in exhibiting that work is that there’s—what is the difference? You can stand farther back.
You can look.
I mean, yeah, you definitely consider those things
When planning the exhibition, a consideration is made in terms of how the work is going to be viewed, like you’ll looking at it from across a room like three times as big as your last solo show?
I definitely thought about that when I was asked to do a show at this new space, I thought about showing in that space, I didn’t consider showing in the old space, so that obviously influenced the type of work I could make. Looking at my past show that opened in January and then looking at my show a couple years ago in San Francisco, there would have been no room to have multiple pedestals in that room with flat work. It would just not work. At the new space I could show like two crab sculptures or whatever, but I didn’t make that kind of work when I was in San Francisco, so that’s like—I think that’s what’s nice. I think what Eric and Eva said, when they got the space is that they were excited because they wanted to do similar sized shows that had more room to be able to view the work. I think that’s like a big consideration within viewing work and within their gallery programming. It’s like the type of work they want to show and also that spacing is important, they weren’t like, We want to do bigger shows! They were like, we want to do similar sized shows, and have space to actually be able to really experience the work without feeling claustrophobic. That was a big concern of theirs.
Even the city itself, exhibiting work like that in a city like LA versus a city like San Francisco, must play a role in terms of the decisions you’re making when choosing what it is you want to show or a body of work you would like to show.
I think about things on a chronological level pretty regularly, so I think of like having had three solo shows in San Francisco at various spaces and now this is my first time doing a solo show in LA, and its cool because no one really has any expectation of what I make or even know that I am an artist and make art. It’s cool because it’s a fresh start, but then it isn’t a fresh start because I already have experience exhibiting work and doing solo exhibitions. For me it was just exciting because it was like, I get to reinvent maybe like the perception that viewers have of my work, because I’m like, no one knows what I make here, no one knows who I am, no one has preconceived notions. Maybe they do because they knew of me in San Francisco, or they saw a picture of me on the internet but that doesn’t have anything to do with art work that I make, but like in that sense it was quite refreshing.
Did you feel some obligation with making a certain kind of work before or something?
No, I think before, when I was in San Francisco, it wasn’t necessarily that I had an obligation…—this starts off a whole other questioning, like what the importance of considering viewers expectations of what your work is.
The anticipation that a viewer might have when they are familiar with your work , a kind of expectation?
I think it totally influences people who make work, and I think that for me, I had my first show at Adobe Books, and that had whatever type of response, people had expectations of what I should be making or what they thought I was going to make. I did my show at Mollusk and I did my show at Jancar Jones when they were in San Francisco, and they were all like, obviously different, but to some people, were radically different and were like what the fuck is this? Or what are you doing now? What happened to this, and I was like, this is just what I’m making, this makes total sense to me. And I think going back to your question of being in Los Angeles and making art, I didn’t even really have to ask myself those questions, which was really exciting and invigorating and liberating. I think that goes in line with why I moved from San Francisco to LA. I think that has a lot to do with it, and some of those questions —I think they should be considered, but there were times when I was considering them too much when they actually weren’t concerns that I thought were important to my work.
Those considerations might hinder some kind of idea of a natural studio play or practice, or something that might happen…How has that made its way into your current show? What are some of the threads running through exhibition?
It was called The Poseidon Adventure. Appropriated title, or re-appropriated, or stolen from a disaster film from the 1970s. It isn’t necessarily important, but Gene Hackman was in it, I don’t know.
Did appropriation play an integral role? Why is appropriated an important thing at all?
I think all my work, or the majority of my work has to do with threads of appropriation, and I think that by appropriating titles, other titles to make new titles, and recontextualizing a title just has been part of my process, a lot of my work is aligning historical coincidences and similarities within my own life and my own experiences with other media and other—I guess like digested information that comes into [shep] zone and then it becomes refiltered.
What is shep zone?
I don’t even want to say zone, take that out. But you can use Shep, but I guess it would be a third person narrative. I don’t even want to get into it. It’s a whole other thing
In other words, things that become apparent to you, that enter your conscious thought.
Things that become apparent to myself. Like when—I feel like I’m getting so distracted and fragmented right now by our environment, which is cool, I like that.
So a good way to start exploring the exhibition may be by talking about what was in the room?
Okay, there were sixteen 11 x 17 two-color Xerox prints mounted on foam core. There were two pedestals with found mirrored tops with these beach sculptures on them that I made using crab shells and coral and plaster cast objects and some thrift store stuff. There was enamel-on-wood panels that were just grey and white, or black and grey. They’re wood reliefs, but they function as paintings.
The pieces seemed pretty separate from one another in terms of being separate bodies of work or something. Was there something that tied them all together? Were they supposed to be viewed as separate things?
I think of them separately as like in how they’re made. I just think of them as being different media vehicles—they do have different, just other slightly different motivations or different content, but it’s one show, it’s the same show. The posters were photographs that my dad took, that were from yearbooks that he facilitated in the early 1990s and the sculptures, some are found objects from the beach, some are found from the thrift store; they’re assemblages. The wood reliefs are just like—
The wood reliefs seem like the most abstract work, no central image.
There’s no image, there’s a source for how they’re created, they’re very formal . They’re based off of looking at other real things in the world, I’m basically doing that, but then conceptually they’re based on a familial lineage the way that everything in the show is made, and I think that—
Wait, let’s back up a little bit. What do you mean by familial lineage?
Okay, so I think more of the most immediate and obvious is—there’s like the Dad posters, I would call them Dad posters, the series of work is called Freshman English, and it’s these photographs my dad took or he facilitated them. There’s a box at my parents’ house of unused photographs and yearbooks that my dad made from 1989 to 1997. These posters that were all about his experience—sort of just like I saw these similarities in things that I did and what he did. So I made this work that was incorporated into my work, but it was also his work. It was this new thing for me to be appropriating from this source of images that I actually had a personal connection with, the stories were stories I remembered growing up with, and I met some of the people in those images, and so I guess it’s this representation of my father’s influence. There’s work about my dad, then the wood reliefs are like a very abstract or formal distillation that his dad, my grandfather made, they’re based on a series called Naval Exercise, and they’re numbered, and they’re based on these navy battleships that my grandpa made, he made all these wooden toys for me, he just incessantly made them. He was also an artist in his own way, and made all these duck decoys, but he sold them into galleries in Carmel, which isn’t contemporary art, but it’s a form of like a craft which can be art.
It seems like, going back to your dad’s photographs, you’re sort of exulting of their craft, like your dad took photographs and your grandfather made these things, so in a way what you’re doing is bringing them up to this level of fine art through your own practice.
I guess since I participate in young contemporary art and I know about conceptual art, that’s just the way I work. I was just like, oh, these things that Grandpa and Dad were doing, they made art too, but it just had a different place. These are like source material I think, it can be used to talk about broader contextual issues, but still be extremely personal.
So borrowing from those two separate things, the posters and wood reliefs, how do the crab sculptures come into play?
I guess I would say, my work as a whole, regardless of this show or that show, or other shows, it just is all rooted in collecting, I would say an obsession or addiction, whatever, within collecting objects or images, or like experiences, and so the three things are all rooted, those three types of work are rooted in collection-based foundry or a collection-based starting point. I think that I think of collecting in the way of—you can collect objects from—I’m only going to use the thrift store because it’s a readily available thing that you or I do, or many people our age collect from, or like, not even our age, but there’s a huge network of people who like use a thrift store as a very—
Its economically available to most people.
Exactly. Junk stores are not necessarily discarded items, you can’t say like this is detritus because they also are items that people decided that could be used again, and were given away. They were donated. And I think, I mean, we’re sort of like, getting off the topic of crabs.
Also you’ve alluded before to having grown up in California by the coast, as an activity you would collect seashells or—you think of it as an activity that you’re familiar with or were coming back to with these works?
I think by making shell art, I’m going to use that as a term, is very rooted in a collection based process. I think that’s why I like making work, going back to that, where shell art or shell objects, are usually shown in coastal areas, I was influenced a lot to make those sculptures by a couple; there’s a whole shell store on this street in San Diego in Ocean Beach that was like totally influential and inspirational, and like, I remember going in there and thinking this is the best stuff, but it has nothing to do with contemporary art or anything, but there would be these shadowbox picture frames that have starfish and some shells, and I was like, but you could put your own image in them. I was like these are really kind of like—and this is like an object that I’m like, I don’t even think these are like objects that anyone even buys in 2012 or 2013 anymore. This seems like something that like—but these are new objects. They’re like shrink-wrapped and have price tags on them. There’s like shark jaws and abalone shells and there are all these weird commodities. Organic objects that have become like, I guess, like keepsakes, but it almost seems like I don’t know normal people or regular people that live at the beach, do they even buy that shit anymore? What does that store have to do with like—I don’t know. How does that store stay in business? Do you ever think about that? Like who the fuck is buying coral wrapped in shrink wrap that’s like supposed to be you know, $200, but then every sign in the store is like 50% off, for like two months. And you’re like, they must put these signs up every day—no one is buying this shit.
Is that like a metaphor for commercial art?
I have no idea actually. I don’t know if I even think about it in that way. When you think about a dead coral, isn’t it even like—I feel like a lot of times when people saw that I was making these objects out of coral they were like, isn’t that illegal to harvest coral? And I’m like I don’t even know anymore. I think you’re right, but yeah, these are dead animals that have been bleached, yeah, I don’t know, but anyway, regardless of that, I think thats what’s cool about making shell art.
…So how do the crab sculptures tie in?
Really immediately. The crabs, they’re titled Altars One and Two and the second one has crabs in it. I used to be able to find crab shells on the beach in San Francisco and Pacifica, at the beaches I frequented in the Bay Area. Moving to Los Angeles I go surfing and I’d be at the beach and there are no crab shells, I can’t find them, or they’re really small, or they’re broken or whatever. You just don’t see them. I don’t know why, I think it’s an environmental thing. Either the water’s too dirty or whatever. And so my dad recently retired, went to the grocery store and asked, just during grocery shopping, “Do you have any crab shells that you’re getting rid of?” And they just gave them to him. They mailed them to me in a box. I was able to get crab shells that way, because I was making these crab sculptures back when I lived in San Francisco. And so this was a whole new way of acquiring these objects. Okay, now they’re from a grocery store. Not necessarily that that influenced the way they were made, but I think just sort of like—it’s almost like my dad functioned as an assistant. I’m super indebted to him for this show I just did. He really helped me out, just like simply because certain things were different. I guess being in a new place, getting back to being in Los Angeles, I’ve only been here for a year or however long it’s been, but it’s like I don’t know exactly where to get all these objects, I’m used to functioning on a lifetime worth of Bay Area exploration, you know, of object collecting. I have all these sources. So I only have a year of living in LA and collecting sources and then like the visiting sources of these objects.
It seems like the source and then the method for receiving these things plays a huge role in your practice. The work is informed by not only the original source, but also how it’s arrived to you, how it’s become apparent to you.
Every time is always considered. I think every piece of work is just like.. oh my god..there’s so many different ways that it comes into play and to me that ultimately changes the work. I think a lot of it stems from just being observant and so on the one hand, the crab shells my dad is sending me are somewhat larger than the Dungeness crabs I would find on the beach. The only crabs you buy at the grocery store are either Alaskan King crab legs and those have a specific shell shape, and then Dungeness crabs which are sort of the classic crab shell shape. Those are all bigger than the ones I would find on the beach at Linda Mar, Pacifica, wherever the fuck. So ultimately it’s changing the scale of my work maybe minutely, but it also is like, since I’m not picking them up off the beach and using them, they’re getting mailed to me in a box and it even has a note from my dad, a handwritten note that then like is making me consider, okay, this is another weird, maybe not weird, but just another object that then has culminated from another source, that’s like I mean, I guess those are appropriated objects too. This guy, who happens to be my dad, went and got this shit and now it’s mine.
How would you separate the idea of appropriation from influence?
I think influence is contextual, like everything else. I think being influenced—I think for me I was influenced by other people who made contemporary art and so—I don’t know, I think it’s subjective. I have to think about that. I think in a way, being influenced by my dad or my grandfather is true. I guess in the show I didn’t think about it in that way until you asked that question, but I think you’re right. In a way, there’s a crossover between appropriation and influence, and I think I’m doing both within my work.
To take it a step further, how does that play into something like intuition, like in the studio? When you set out to make a work, there’s probably some kind of level of intuition which could be influenced and then maybe on a conscious level could just be appropriation, whatever that word means, you know? Not like what it means, but however it’s being used is what I mean. Like appropriating it for a different purpose or just using it, using some kind of subject matter for your own project. Like removing it from its source or context.
I’m just thinking of the posters, those are photographs with text on them and you know, I guess those images were originally just images that were supposed to be a part of this small-run publication at a school, and that publication was for students and faculty, and I saw similarities in that sort of production as a way that I saw myself and friends and other artists making small run artist books or zines, that’s sort of off-topic. I guess contextually the posters since they’re from a yearbook that is supposed to be a “this is what we did this year”, a distillation of memories so they could show their family and their friends and then years later their children and whoever. I’m taking those images and making all the text just say a variant of my dad’s name and the class that he taught.
It becomes discursive that way. You’re changing the original intent of the work, of the material, the photographs, the photographs served a really specific purpose, but putting them into another context complicates things.
Yeah, totally. I think in a way they all seem like variations of the same thing. They all say kind of the same thing. And they’re all like themes, and that’s why they’re one work, or they can be one work, they’re multiple works, but I just think of them as variants, and that’s why the title of all those pieces is all the same and then they’re just numbered. I think all those works in that show are just variants. A lot of times work generally, or art work that artists make is usually just variance of like one idea. And I guess for me, I don’t want to have one idea, I want to have like hundreds of ideas.
Or projects, yeah, and I think that a lot of times the way I show work, not necessarily make work, but show work is project based. I make all this other stuff and then I decide I’m going to show this and this and this. Right now I’m not interested in showing, exhibiting my studio. So back to the title: The Poseidon Adventure, my name’s Orion, which in Greek mythology is a demi-god, who is the son of Poseidon, god of the sea. So I thought that as a good title for an exhibition of seemingly disparate work, the Poseidon Adventure encompassed all three types of work that I was showing, be it posters made of father’s photographs, shell or beach collected beach objects assembled, and then like formal, or minimal formal representations or abstractions of naval vessels. So that’s why it’s called that, it’s the only title that made sense to me.
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Jancar Jones was interviewed in the current issue of SFAQ #13 by Gregory Ito. Go to www.sfaqonline.com to view/download the digital PDF.