An interview with David Shillinglaw by Cedric Bardawil

Cedric Bardawil: I see certain themes re-occur in your art, could you explain them?

David Shillinglaw: That’s a hard thing to do, my body of work has changed over 10 years since I graduated. I’d say there are constants throughout my work, however it changes quite a lot thematically and in terms of medium. The crux of my work is about the human condition, but that term is as broad as any term can be. In my book, Colourful Condition, I talk about the struggle of being human. Whether you are rich or poor, black or white, old or young, we all face struggles. My work is about how I deal with the struggle, and how in turn I am an example of anyone else. I do a lot of studies of the head, and as much as they are a portrait of me: my struggle, anxieties, heartbreak, hunger and desires, I’m also conscious that if my grandmother looks at them she would relate, or take some meaning away with her. The words and themes I use are universal, whilst at the same time very personal: we all get hungry or sad or scared or crave sex, yet these experiences are unique to each of us. I make things that remind me what it is to be human, the functions, the process, the content. Often my work is done with very analogue material, pens, paper, wood, paint. I’ll allow mistakes to happen in my in my art: if I spill coffee or smudge the ink, I’ll circle the smudges and label them, or the coffee stains become tears on the face I am drawing.

CB: How did you come up with the concept behind the print for Something in the Attic?

DS: The head has become a key feature in my work. The head is the centre of people’s universe: the beginning and end of consciousness, almost all the main senses are there, yet it’s only 1/10th of the body. I start with the eyes, usually multiple eyes, or at least a third eye; People relate to a head, they see themselves or someone they may know, so I use it as a starting point to draw people’s attention. This particular drawing was inspired by the drawings I do everyday, the fact that you’ve called this project Something in the Attic, to me represents someone upstairs, this god-like being inside your brain. It could also be interpreted as the personification of a building: the head as a structure, the eyes as windows and the mouth as the entrance. It’s also symbolic: a pair of stepladders to illustrate progression, climbing upwards to reach a higher point, success in your business, or nirvana or heaven. Sometimes we climb up it and sometimes down it: like a game of snakes and ladders. The drawing is coded and poetic and at the same time obvious and illustrative.

CB: Typically how long does it take you to finish a piece of work?

DS: That depends on the size, the material and focus/distractions at the time. On the streets I can do an entire wall in a day, I can also spend as long as a year on a canvas in my studio because I’m doing it for myself. So anywhere between a day and a year, if its not done in a year I’ll cut it up and start again. (he pauses, I laugh)

CB: Where do you find your inspiration?

DS: That answer changes everyday, and the list gets longer. It could be the book I’m reading at anytime, Bukowski or interviews with Ai WeiWei, the fact that it’s raining outside and almost May, the girl walking towards us with skinny jeans, the three coffees I just had, or the fact that I’m going to see an old friend later. You can sit around all day waiting for inspiration to happen, Inspiration is around you all the time – it’s important to know how to channel, conduct and edit that inspiration, learn how to find the ends of the wires and put them together. It could happen alone in a desert, or in a nightclub surrounded by thousands of people. It can happen anywhere.

CB: Do you carry a notebook around with you to keep track of things?

DS: Always, I always have a sketchbook and diary on me. By the end of the day my pockets and bag will be filled with items, flyers, bits I find in the street. I collect things. Even my drawings that are done with a new piece of paper and pen are a collection of ideas, isms, phrases and words. Sketchbooks have always been the starting point of my work.

CB: Would you call yourself a street artist?

DS: I’m not too sure about that title. I suppose I am if I’m working in the streets. Ultimately, I’m an artist. I think it’s unnecessary to add any other words to that. I think street art is an amazing thing, I’m a part of it, a lot of my friends are involved with it. It challenges me and keeps me excited about my work. What I make and find in the street feeds what I make in the studio. When I’m up a ladder, and the wall is bigger than me and the light is fading and I’m running out of paint, it pushes me in a direction that I might not have taken if I were in a studio. I am also a singer in a band, and I consider painting in the streets is like performing music live. It has a different energy, much more immediacy. It is a live and an aesthetic experience. And it is a lot of fun.

CB: What keeps you in London?

DS: I rent a really cool space, it’s an old factory and I’m on the top floor so I have a lot of space. I’ve lived there for 6 years so it’s like the mothership to me, I have a cat and snake, all my art and objects, and I love cooking and eating there. I have toyed with the idea of moving to many places. But I love London. My roots are in London, my friends and family are in London. I feel home here.

CB: What are your thoughts on this event?

DS: What’s interesting about what you are doing is it’s not just an exhibition. In my mind the success of exhibitions is mainly in the first few days, everyone enjoys the opening and then the show stays on for a month. There is something to be said for things that are a little punchier and last less time. I like how you are emphasising the print, and exclusively releasing it for the event. The idea of a talk is exciting for me, it makes it more than just hanging art on the walls. The charity aspect is great, I’ve just designed a bag for Agnes B and all the proceeds of that go to charity – the only difficulty is which one you choose. I have to say, I like the fact that its at the top of an old building in West London, with a winding stair case, its not a typical white wall space, its an intimate space which you have to go out of your way to get to.

CB: What’s next for you?

DS: Well depending on when you write this, that’s going to change. It’s the end of April now. I am currently preparing my next shows in Holland, I have one in Amsterdam, and then in Rotterdam. When I get back I’ll be painting the front of a gallery in Brighton. This project in London. Then later in the year shows and walls in New York and Paris. So this year is about travelling as much as possible, eating good food with beautiful people and hopefully paying my rent on time.

CB: Any leaving thoughts?

DS: A quote that recently appeared in one of my drawings, because I was having a tough week: “If you are going through hell, keep going” famously said by Winston Churchill. I could ramble on about my life philosophy but it would be nowhere near as good as that.

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