Stass Shpanin, MFA 2016

Thesis Exhibition: March 30 – April 2, 2016

Reception: Friday, April 1, 6 – 8pm

Hours: Wednesday – Saturday, 11am – 6pm

vertical painting in pink of person in old-fashioned submarine
Sea of Tranquility, 2015
Vinyl Paint, Latex Paint and Flake Paint on Canvas, 73 x 48 in.

painting shaped like the outline of a house
His Holiness George Washington, 2015
Vinyl Paint, Latex Paint, Flake Paint and Graphite on Canvas, 54.5 x 29 in.

In July 1858, Samuel Colt, one of the greatest American entrepreneurs and well-known gun manufacturer, was standing in the Winter Palace during an unexpected visit to St. Petersburg, Russia, awaiting an audience with Tsar Alexander II. This meeting never happened. When Alexander II returned from his travels across Russia, he found the engraved guns Colonel Colt had left for him. As a gun manufacturer, Colt’s business depended on his ability to sell guns to different parts of the world that were in conflict. Based in Hartford, Connecticut, his entrepreneurship and curiosity influenced his travel across the world. Starting as a clown and selling laughing gas, Colt changed his name and became known as “famous Dr. Coult of New York, London and Calcuta.”

My recent work uses the figure of Samuel Colt as an entry point into the spectrum of American culture and values he represents. Using historical facts and building upon mythologies, my work deals with the contradictions of this adventurous character, and the historical era between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Contemporary politics, legislature, landscapes, and even the psychology of American society all have roots in the fears developed during the early years of the United States. I use history as a methodology, filling it with contemporary aesthetics. The absurdity of the juxtapositions and playfulness of the content is an important element of my practice. As both an outsider and an insider of the American culture myself, I have the unique ability to navigate these historical and cultural connections in my work. This crucial distance acts as a necessary vantage point from which to dissect and rearrange the past.

The physicality of a work is a critical factor in my artistic endeavors. My current work employs the color white as an active component of formal and conceptual experiments. It is the same color white as wall paint, and makes the paintings seem to disappear in the gallery environment. In contrast to the bold synthetic colors of vinyl paint and other elements, it creates optical illusions through the use of color-lights, reflections, and sparkle lights. These elements also add theatricality to the installations. This humor and absurdity shortens the distance between the viewer and the work. In this sensitive environment, the audience is forced to achieve a certain level of self-awareness to participate in the dialogues between past and present. History becomes the media, rather than just subject, through which I use paradox to mythologize the past and examine contemporary issues related to public memory, art-making, and art display.

Previously, my work with historical themes focused on European and Russian history. Through this work I realized that the past is never concrete. History is a living, biological substance rather than a fixed monument—a constant evolution of ideas to suit ongoing dogma. My work attempts to expose this shifting through the juxtaposition of historical symbols, appropriated images, and the physical presence of the work. I am interested in the place where the imperfections of memory encounter the inadequacies of documentation. I want the viewer to be left alone on the stage where known history and cultural memory melts in order to experience a psychophysical sense of displacement. Only through this jarring encounter can I provoke a questioning of the myth of history and expose the viewer to the illusion that is documentation and memory.

All images courtesy the artist.