The origin story of American Comic Con mogul Gareb Shamus’ transformation into burgeoning abstract painter. After building his multiple companies from the ground up, among them the esteemed Wizard World, and becoming the aficionado of character based genre films, Shamus has decided to pursue his second love after comics, art. Although a bricoleur in his youth, Shamus recently began experimenting with a unique painting application technique that produces polychrome protruding thorn-like dots, which are commonly arranged in unified bands across his distinctive works. He spoke with Julia Jarrett about his past and how this strange journey has informed his new work.
What motivated this unusual technique of applying paint?
A lot of it derives from my personal and business experiences. I wanted to look at my life and figure out how to translate what I had been through in a way that could be both replicated and express my inner self. Somehow express what was in my mind. I kept coming back to this idea of people and things as separate but connecting to a whole. Dots or points? Spirals? I actually didn’t think too much at first, these are now things I think about after the fact. Also, having limited painting skills left me little choice but to start simply with what I could actually “do.” I always start by “doing” first and I only think about what it means later.
If we look back at my career, I’m 47 now, my whole life has been spent doing really exciting, fun and engaging things: taking risks, producing successes and many failures, and always using my passions to lead me. In the beginning of my professional life at age 21, I was able to get a lot of people very interested in the superhero genre, with audiences ranging into the millions that had either read my magazines or regularly attended the shows. So my whole life has been about connecting others into communities. However, I was also in a position where a lot of people wanted things from me; and, in many cases I had to set up barriers because so many people from comic book companies, to toy and video game companies, and many movie studios and TV networks were inundating me with requests to be featured in the magazine or at the shows. Suddenly, being in a studio alone painting looked really good.
I wanted to explore the thought that things aren’t always what they appear to be. On the surface of the image there’s always something more than meets the eye. When you look at my technique, it has both an engaging quality, and yet also keeps the viewer at a distance. And when I was thinking of how I wanted to keep people at a distance, I came up with the idea to extrude the paint from the canvas.
Like a rose?
Yes, exactly like a rose. It took months and months to figure out the right texture and the right look and feel that I wanted in a painting.
What are the mechanics behind applying the paint to your canvases?
I have a contraption that I designed, which I use to literally apply the paint one drop at a time. I have paintings with drops that number into the tens of thousands. I actually apply the paint to a wood panel – which I sometimes paint to look like metal. Early on when I started, I was using somewhere between several quarts and several gallons of paint and the canvases were sagging, that’s when I switched to wood. The texture of the paint produced under these conditions certainly changes when seen in the light. The way the light hits each work’s surface makes the medium animate and creates movement as you walk by. I like the idea that my paintings have this movement and motion because I think that in this world you can’t stand still, you have to keep moving.
You mentioned in a previous interview that your paintings are grounded in life experiences. In the piece “American Dream” for example, what personal experience are you referencing?
“American Dream” is a painting that is red, white, blue, and gold. The piece is very emblematic of what I think it is to being an entrepreneur. When you look at it right in the dead center, you see these really small dots, which are your idea, and it can be an idea for a company or a product or anything that you want to start. These ideas start really small and as your ideas turn into action the dots get gradually larger and larger. But, as they are going in this very circular pattern, it’s a situation where you feel like you are going in circles and circles to try to make something bigger happen and to get to the top you need to go back to the bottom again, constantly going around and around.
The spirals run even deeper, though. My whole life I have been a curator of content, but what I only learned recently about myself is that I haven’t just been a curator of content but also of people, as a connector. What I would call a super-connector, someone who meets a lot of people, but also who introduces a lot of people to a lot of other people. I think that connecting is the new curating. My paintings have so many dots and especially going back to the “American Dream” all those dots represent connections that you need to make along the way in order to make your dream come true. We live in a world that’s so complicated that you can’t do it by yourself anymore, you need a team.
My paintings are really this physical representation of connectivity and the endlessness of it. When you look at the American Dream, it’s this endless chain of connectivity out there, which I try to represent in all my pieces. That is why I apply the dots wet, so when they dry, they dry as a bond as if they are one.
I understand that you participated in Art Basel last year. How did that experience compare to Comic Con? Are these two worlds comparable?
At Comic Con there is a lot more access to the talent. Those who illustrate and write comic books are very accessible. You can go to nearly any booth and meet the artist or writer you like. I didn’t find that at the art fairs where the art is housed in galleries.
As for the actual media, the big difference is the art in comic books is very specific to the comic books themselves. Maybe when you commission an artist to create an original piece for you of a character, but it’s very specific in terms of what you’re going to get. Even if it’s not a superhero book, it is going to be on a certain format, whereas in the fine art world the subject matter, format, and medium are so much more diverse. Comic books are words and pictures. What I am painting is pictures or images. Painting is a different medium and a whole different way of expressing a thought or an idea. Fine art is also about people discovering their own story when looking at the art, whereas comic books stories are being told to you by the artist and writer team. Even though I have given you a glimpse into “American Dream,” a lot of people have their own thoughts on the piece as well that are completely different from mine. I have given them a canvas to look at that they can appreciate, but only they can decide what it means to them.
As a former entrepreneur, and a very successful one at that, do you have the market in mind when producing your works?
Actually, I don’t focus at all on the art market because the only thing I want to do is to create art that I love and share that art with everyone. I am not worrying about the market or what people want. For example, quite a few people have suggested to me that I should focus on a specific series because that’s the way things are done. However, every time I try and do a similar body of work, I keep getting distracted by some other area that I want to explore with my technique.
My whole life has been about trying to figure out what people want before even knowing that they want it. Fortunately, I was able to act upon my instincts and was right many times. I was wrong many times as well, but at least as an artist now I have the right to pursue my own thoughts: if it resonates with people, great. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t. Maybe I’m not for everybody, but at least I am for myself and I am able to create something that I like that resonates with me. That’s why I feel like I constantly need to push forward and try to push myself to try new things, if you get to a point in life where you are stagnant, you are going to get bypassed.
Do you think you have a right to be an artist?
I think I do, at least I hope I do. I am new and untrained as an artist. But, I feel as long as I have the confidence to be an artist in this world; I can do whatever I want. That is the beauty of being an artist, there is no right or wrong, people can judge you, but at the end of the day it’s all a very personal experience. Ultimately, my art is really about me connecting with others and others connecting with me and I think that is how I will define my success. I actually think the art world, and perhaps all “businesses” and I think of the art world as a business, can benefit from a fresh set of eyes, new energy, and new ways to approach things, that can benefit everyone. “Outsiders” or those less formally trained can help see things an “insider” cannot. This is true with talent pouring into the music, film, TV, and technology areas from other industries. Why not art?.
Do you feel your work embodies any specific values?
A lot of my pieces do have an optimism to them, which people have verbalized to me. I have never really said it, but it’s now resonating with people. I am not a tortured soul. I have always been someone who has been able to follow my passions in life and pursue my dreams. Now, I am able to take that into the art world and express myself in a very positive way. I have definitely been accused of wearing rose-colored glasses. Even in a negative situation, I try to find the positive.
In moving forward with your art, do you see yourself in any way distancing yourself from your signature application of paint?
No. But maybe later, yes. For the moment, the technique is me and that is who I am. It’s how I have been identified and it’s how I identify myself. So from that perspective, I’m going to bet that’s going to be me forever. I have lots of different thoughts for how I am going to expand my universe and not just using flat surfaces, but moving into some three dimensional spaces. I also have plans for lots of other types of formats and media that I can use with my technique, which I definitely plan on exploring. But in the end, who knows, change comes when it comes.