• UO Studio Visits: Clay Mahn


    At a time where maximalism and overblown input seem to be the norm, Chicago-based artist Clay Mahn deals in austere, monochromatic paintings based in pattern and geometry. His art often incorporates found objects and imagery, filtered through the minimalist filter of his style. We caught up with Clay in his studio to find out more about his practice and see what he’s up to next. 
    Photos by Jaclyn Simpson


    Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? 
    I am an artist living and working in Chicago, IL - originally from Missoula, MT. I’m a first year MFA candidate in painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I make art, music, and a pretty good puttanesca. 

    When did you first start making art? 
    I always drew when I was a kid and started making paintings on my own during high school. I grew up around art and music, my dad makes ceramics and always had a small studio in our basement. My mom works in interior design and my younger brothers are artists and musicians. 

    Your style is minimal and geometric, have you always worked in simplified mediums or has their been a gradual process of reduction as your work has evolved? 
    It swings back and forth. My penchant for austerity began in undergrad when I started working with a lot of murky digital and net-based media - scans, stock photos, image searches, etc. Those works heavily inform the paintings I’m working with now, as do the pattern pieces from Portland. I’ve mentioned before that I like to walk a line between my works being something and nothing - I find it exciting but it does get me in trouble from time to time. 


    You’re originally from Montana but have lived in Portland and now Chicago. What impact have these places had on your work? 
    Chicago and SAIC have already transformed and influenced me tremendously. Being surrounded by a mass of smart, ambitious artists has made me consider everything I make in a more purposeful way. I fell in love with Portland and the Pacific Northwest while living there, but wasn’t quite a part of the art community and was essentially making work in a solitary environment. I knew that I had to change things up and go back to school if my work was going to develop at a rate faster than a snail’s pace. Montana is my home base. My family is there and I try to go back for a few weeks every summer to decompress and recharge. It offers a sobering contrast to the peculiarities of the art world and reminds me everything will be alright.

    You’re back in school working on your masters now, can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on? 
    In addition to the black and white paintings, I’ve been incorporating new materials like spandex, mesh, and felt, which are stretched and “painted” with lines of thread. I’ve also been casting small, curious objects, similar to the ones in the paintings, with concrete, plaster, or sugar and corn syrup (candy). My hope is that they will function like marks in a room in contrast to the focal points within the paintings. I’m taking full advantage of the encouragement to experiment and make mistakes while I have an environment that supports that. I’ve been breaking down the rules I’d set up for myself in the past regarding my aesthetic, my materials, and my process. I’m trying to diversify what I make and how I make it, as opposed to following a formulaic approach for every piece. 


    Can you walk us through the process for creating one of your paintings? 
    My paintings begin in a lot of different places. Many are inspired by compositions that already exist in found images. Others, like the cabinet pieces, are derived from a variable template of objects, shapes and compartments. I use some digital tools to aid with layout / sketching but everything is ultimately made by hand - I think of it like printing by hand as opposed to painting. 

    What are some of your favorite shapes? Color combinations? Textures? 
    Lumps of plaster, potatoes, hooks, polygons, my dad’s tea pots.  Black / white, grey / chroma-key blue, forest green / tan. Concrete, velvet, plastic toys, memory foam. 

    Are there any artists that have influenced your work over the years? 
    Of course, far too many to list but I’ll mention what comes to mind. A professor in Montana turned me on to artists like Sherrie Levine, Baldessari, David Diao, all working with appropriation in one form or another, that antagonistic mentality has stuck with me. Some younger artists: Cornelia Baltes, Katja Novitskova, Math Bass, Gedi Sibony, Zachary Leaner, and Alex Chitty who teaches here at the Art Institute. 


    What are five things that always inspire you?
    Hardware stores 
    Backgammon
    Typology
    Brancusi
    Dinner

    What’s the last great thing you read?
    Postdigital Artisans from Jonathan Openshaw is a great collection of essays and interviews with artists, designers, and architects exploring the changing roles of art and creativity in the digital age.

    What’s next for you? 
    I have one year left at SAIC, so my main focus is getting the most out of it while I can. Too early to predict my post-grad situation as so much can change in a year. I do have a small exhibition in Brisbane, Australia this fall that I am very much looking forward to. 


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