PAINTING'S WILD CHILD
Shaun McDowell talks about Peckham, wild parties and hopes abroad
by Maria Raposo
Succeeding the likes of Picasso and Dinos Chapman, Shaun McDowell is next in line for the title of art world enfant terrible. He’s reckless – punctuating our interview with tales of wild parties, hijacked diggers and fights over girls. He’s flipped cars and crashed motorbikes, spending time in a coma after a moped accident.
He opens the door to his South London house and studio, dressed in his usual paint spattered overalls. This is not the first time I’ve been to his home in Peckham; I’ve met the painter many times before when I modelled for him as a student. He introduced me to The Stone Roses and fulfilled my ideas of what an artist should be; open, sincere and willful - completely captivated by his work.
Having recently returned from a 3 month residency in Italy, he confides, “Unless I’m with a model, I don’t like people watching me paint.” Sharing a studio with James Capper at Villa Lena in Tuscany, he made chairs – “functional things” – until Capper left. In this time alone he produced a huge amount of work. He made 66 paintings, finishing 30.
Shaun’s paintings are gestural explosions of energy – emphatic marks of oil on board. “I pride myself in a sense of abstraction. If you can make a work that’s completely abstract but can still be understood, that for me is success”. But in Italy, his work became haunted by more recognizable shapes.
“These works seem more figurative” he says, pointing at a rooster-like figure. Troubled by its presence, he tells me how another “demon” appeared: “There was this mark that looked exactly like a bird. The mark below made it seem as if the bird was carrying a twig. I paced around for a while, took a cloth and wiped it out. I wish I hadn’t now. You’re in the wrong space if you’re wiping things out all the time. Collage is too easy but making your mark and letting it sit is really important.”
Shaun is often referred to as one of seven – part of gallerist Hannah Barry’s original tribe. Alongside artists such as Bobby Dowler and James Capper, Shaun captivated the media by holding exhibitions in South London art squat, 78 Lyndhurst Way.
Critics toyed with the idea that the group was London’s latest answer to the YBAs, yet these artists are not just creative colleagues, they’re also close friends. Shaun doesn’t believe in nepotism. “The reason I work with those lads is because I believe in their art”. Bobby Dowler, who christened the crowd the “Peckham bad boy club”, seems a particular favorite. “Bobby is a real one-on-one person. We conspire together”.
Recently Shaun seems to be itching to make his mark internationally. He told Bobby they needed to escape Peckham - it was too close to home. In response, Bobby laughed: “What Peckham, New York, Paris?”
The joke turned into an exhibition and ‘Peckham, New York, Paris’ travelled between the three cities – showcasing work by all seven. Meeting characters in the form of collectors, curators and press, the trip gave them a taste of the lifestyle led by an international artist. Shaun refers to their Manhattan space as “a slick Chelsea gallery with a no nonsense dealer. He was a bit like Al Pacino in Scarface, but without the cocaine.”
Their London show was held in Shaun’s own house. “It was pretty mental” Shaun says, between mouthfuls of toast. Raucous rock and rollers, The Fat White Family – who played at the event - refer to the whole affair as “refreshingly un-gentrified”.
Despite being an artist in an up and coming area, Shaun’s attitude towards gentrification seems progressive. Campaigning to “save Peckham" and stall several development projects, he exhibits a real conscience for South London.
Unlike many people, he does not link art directly to gentrification. Instead he believes more galleries would benefit the local community. And with spaces Hannah Barry and Rod Barton recently opening in the area, it seems likely more will follow. “There are no black kids at art school.” He thinks exposure to the art world would encourage locals to get involved.
Despite his affection for Peckham, Shaun seems weary of the city. Re-vitalized by his time in Italy, he’s eagerly looking for opportunity abroad. On the horizon is Tokyo, Belfast and Shanghai. Watch out world, the Peckham bad boy club is coming.