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June 15, 2007

{     Interview : Shawn Wolfe     }    

Shawn Wolfe

Kristen Rask of Schmancy Toys in Seattle dropped this interview with the super-and-multi-talented Shawn Wolfe to me recently, and since I'm a last-minute kinda guy I'm putting it up today to coincide with his new show, "Stay Puft," that is going up at Schmancy this evening. I like run-on sentences, I like Kristen, I dig Schmancy, and I love Mr. Wolfe's striking and subtly intense work.

I know we have a lot of ground to cover but why don't you let C12 readers know a little about your history.

Since 1994 I've been working for myself doing design and illustration as well as my own art. I feel lucky to get to do work that I actually enjoy, and especially lucky to have worked with some of my heroes like Negativland and Devo.

Prior to that for ten years or so I was doing a lot of work I didn't particularly enjoy, wringing my hands and smiting my forehead, toiling away behind the scenes of various apparel companies and ad agencies. I try not to think about that.

Your work seems to indicate that you are anti-branding and anti-consumerism. Would this be an accurate assumption?

No ma'am.

There's nothing wrong with branding in and of itself. It's just identification and presentation. We all do it.

We all brand?

We all construct and maintain some kind of image that we groom and package and present to the world. That new iPhone you crave is just part of the brighter bushier fresher-smelling plumage you want for yourself. Even your most sanctimonious Buy Nothing zealot is branding himself … as what he is, right? A shaved plumage-free do-gooder.

Same with consumerism. If you talk about it in the pure sense of the word, life consumes resources. Out of necessity. To meet needs and stay alive. Nothing wrong with that. It's unavoidable.

Shawn Wolfe

So if you're not anti, are you pro?


I'm not for or against (consumerism and branding), but as a subject matter for art they are tied to everything and everyone. To ignore them or to not deal with them would be stupid if not impossible. For me anyhow. I paint what I see, right? And where can you look that you don't see the marketplace? It's everywhere.

So your art isn't escapism. I can see that.


I couldn't paint a picture of Mount Rainier without some indication of the Starbucks Visitor Center I imagine standing at the top of it. Whether one exists or not is beside the point. Starbucks has colonized my imagination and so for me, they've got a store at the top of Mount Rainier and Paul McCartney is there right now signing CDs and handing out scones. It's horrible.

Shawn Wolfe

What are your views on American consumerism?

America can take credit for evolving consumerism into something detached from necessity. It's become the opposite of nourishment. Consumerism isn't a means of satiating desire. It's a means of frustrating it. That's half the fun, right? Or all the fun, I guess. The pursuit of happiness?


The spiritual void that was once filled up by the church is now filled by the fleeting gratification of buying stuff. Filled. Emptied. Filled. Emptied. Filled. Emptied. And occasionally you actually get off on that, if you have enough green.

Buying stuff and having stuff is the only thing most of us are good at anyhow. That's progress. People are for the most part incapable of making or creating or providing themselves with anything that they actually need and use. And advertising is there to remind you that that's okay, being a good consumer is the most important thing you can do anyhow, otherwise the terrorists and communists win, right?

Now consumerism is considered a form of individual expression, adequate to the task of saying nothing, meaning nothing and being nothing. Nothing more than a composite portrait of your accumulation of stuff.

Shawn Wolfe

I shop therefore I am.

Exactly. We have freedom of choice and so we grab at certain things in an infantile attempt to distinguish ourselves from the Joneses. Like this idiotic gluten-free craze. "I'm all about gluten-free."

Ultimately we consume to be the same, to keep up with the Joneses and be more like them.

I hate the Joneses.

Everyone hates the Joneses, but the Joneses are gluten-free, so...

The idle yearning for self-knowledge or meaning that was once just exhausted and beaten out of us through physical labor or other hardships is now simply distracted by a series of cheap amusements that are bought, had and forgotten like so many lap dances. And we move thoughtlessly on to the next one and the next one and they say it's good for the economy.

It's what made this country great.

Lap dances?

Yeah. Metaphorically-speaking. Something like Spiderman 3 is nothing but a gigantic mass-market lap dance. It comes up to you in the dark, shakes its awful ass in your face, takes your money, breaks box office records, and every one feels cheapened and cheated by the experience, but glad on some level that they were part of transaction. Because it is sold as a cultural event, and participation in that is inevitable, unavoidable. The important thing is we were all together in that dark room with that awfulness.

Shawn Wolfe

Uh huh. Did you see Spiderman 3?


Can you explain more about Beatkit™ and the "Panic Now" campaign?

Do I have to?

Beatkit™ was a brand without a product that promised to cease and desist in the year 2000, which it did. Beatkit's mantra was "the general gloss of falsity is our only product", which was a long-winded way of saying "Beatkit: it's all lies." So despite what I say it actually did have a product, the RemoverInstaller™, which was a baby rattle type of device except with no rattle and no moving parts. It had no function or utility of any kind, except to inspire an ad campaign around itself, Panic Now. Panic Now was similar to other real-world ad campaigns, except it dispensed with any pretense to romance or amuse you and instead just focused on the naked howling truth of all ads, i.e. "Stop whatever you're doing and look at this. You don't even know what it is but you need it. Don't try to reason your way through it or out of it, just panic. Now.

Is it ok to talk about the latest book you are working on?

It's called "Signs of Life" and it is a follow up to "Uncanny". The word signs interested me, in all its literal and figurative connotations. One thing signifying another unintended thing. Mixed signals. Etc. I'm interested in signs and signage, in what Ed Ruscha called "community graphics". Also the phrase "signs of life" conjures the notion of a search for life, or "intelligent life"as they say, and usually refers to a search that came up empty. As an umbrella term I like the universality and the double and triple meanings I can read into and map onto it as I'm working with it.

Shawn Wolfe

You have been making wood signs more and more. What's up with that?

Yeah. It's been interesting making actual signs. Cathartic even. Not just creating graphics but making tangible physical graphic objects. Maybe that comes from all the transitory graphics of electronic media. The swarm. Everything in perpetual motion, animated and edited to within an inch of its life. It's exhausting. Even signs glimpsed from a moving car. Something about making those real, carving them out of solid wood and bringing them into the home or gallery, it puts them in a different context. Whether it's out of affection, to have and to hold, or just some violent urge to say "stop, sit still, stop moving and changing for one goddamned minute and let me have a look at you, you little rascal you"!

I was reading a bit that Ryan Bigge wrote from his site, Bigge World where he makes an interesting comparison between Shepard Fairey and Beatkit. Where Shepard Fairey seems to become a part of a movement he seemed so against, your work seems to keep its organic roots. Do you think this is a worthy comparison?

I think Fairey claims that the Obey product line is actually the culmination of his thesis. As in "I meant to do that from the start". Like an ad campaign that wasn't for nothing, it just came so far in advance of the something it was actually advertising, it didn't even know what that something was until years later, like those locust that are dormant for 17 years underground then they wake up and proliferate all over the atmosphere. As a thesis, Beatkit was more Kafkaesque. Its mission was always self-annihilation. Beatkit was destined to disappear up its own butt, never to burden you and me with its tortured wasting presence ever again, setting a sucker-free example it hoped others would follow. But no one did.

Consume less?

Beatkit's epitaph was Produce Less.

Shawn Wolfe

Now that I am a small business owner I have become hyperaware of my purchases, where they come from, how I can be more supportive of local business, etc. Sometimes it's very hard to be aware of it all and sometimes I am a total American that has the "right here, right now" syndrome. Are you similarly hyperaware of your buying habits? How do you balance the essentials, the needs and the simple pleasures that may come with some amount of costs?

I prefer to support my friends and I do have a soft spot for independent operators and smaller business. I come from two generations of mom and pop stores. My grandparents owned a tiny grocery store and my mom and dad owned a record store, both of which languished and went out of business because they couldn't compete with the big chains in our small town. I was loath to dump our video store recently in favor of Netflix. Video stores are some of the last remaining neighborhood businesses, but they are becoming an anachronism.

I'm an enlightened consumer, whatever that means, but I'm a misanthrope too. I don't feel all that obliged to save my fellow man from himself. Is the onus on me to stop the Wal-Martification of America? Screw America. It deserves what it's got coming, in my opinion. We HAD the electric car, and GM took it away and shredded it into scrap metal.

We had Al Gore as president too.

Then all was dark.

Simple pleasures though. Right here right now is probably as good as it gets anyhow, so enjoy yourself I say. It's later than you think.

Shawn Wolfe

If Shawn Wolfe could have a perfect day, what would it consist of?

All day Seinfeld marathon, interrupted by a developing news story about the discovery that pizza and donuts can make you lose weight and grow hair wherever you want hair. Then at some point later in the evening of the perfect day the pizza and the donuts and the Seinfeld are all upstaged by George Bush finally admitting to the American people and to Jesus that he is a hermaphrodite and a cannibal.

Shawn Wolfe

Interview conducted by Kristen Rask of Schmancy Toys in Seattle, one-third of the FancySchmancyPants trilogy of Washingtonian awesomeness.

Friday, June 15th, the very talented Mr. Wolfe will be showing his work at Schmancy in Seattle. The show is titled "Stay Puft". Show starts at 6 and goes until 10.

     » Get at Shawn Wolfe at:


GSB... Rad interview. I love those conversative interviews where you really catch em off guard. Very poetic, very well done... Werd up homie!

Posted by: Manuel at June 16, 2007 4:59 PM

dude awesome interview, I really love this stuff!!

Posted by: Alex at June 18, 2007 8:22 PM

Shawn is a great inspiration... I feel lucky to get to spend time with him.

Posted by: arbito at June 26, 2007 7:11 PM

Shawn's like all smart and stuff.

Posted by: plexipixie at June 27, 2007 12:20 AM
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