Shelby Seu paints primarily large-scale portraits that depict the artist, significant people and objects in her life. The subjects of her paintings are immersed in a dreamlike space alongside unique objects that the artist has collected over the years. Shelby Seu describes her paintings as “portals that pull the threads of our shared worlds together into a fabric of time, emotion, memory and connectivity. Serving to communicate the subconscious mind and interwoven tales of lived experience on this planet.”
Heathcliffe, let me in your window, 2022, Oil on canvas, 150 x 120 cm © The Artist
Kelly Foster – I was initially drawn to your work because of your ability to capture different personalities and objects in your work. How did this series of work come about?
Shelby Seu – The content of my work has developed a lot over time. I have always been fascinated by the way people carry themselves as a form of communication; through reading a person’s face or their appearance you can garner such an understanding about human nature – not by way of judgement but more as a mode of inquiry as to how people navigate the world. We are always observing one another in different ways and portraiture is a beautiful example of that.
We also interpret ourselves, and the world around us, through others. This is why I like to utilise esoteric methods like tarot or astrology in my reading of people, as they leave this space for ambiguity and multiplicity that appeals to me.
A lot of subconscious attraction plays out in the way I work. I started to collect things and I wondered why people are drawn to certain objects. I found that my attraction develops and expands over time, which allows me to realise the complexity of an object’s meaning representationally and symbolically
By incorporating the subjects and objects in the style I do, I aim to bring a contemporary relevance to the work while still speaking to specific references that hark back to the Renaissance and Baroque era in Western painting. In a sense, painting is a timeless realm that folds in different eras, objects, people and emotions, almost like time travelling.
You are a pearl and I wanna be around you like a shell (A painting of unrequited love), 2022, Oil on canvas, 140 x 120 cm © The Artist
KF – Your work feels very staged and that the environment has been manipulated in some way. Does that add any meaning to the work? Are the people in your work trying to depict a certain emotion? How do you go about setting up the process of this setting?
SS – I have a personal connection to the people that I paint. It’s always a friend or someone that I’ve known for a while. I like to think about who they are and how I see them, and how they see themselves. Ultimately, I am drawn to people with a particular sensitivity that resonates with me.
Through this connection and shared energy, I then try to conjure images of what I want this person to feel like and what I want to communicate via the painting. I also think a lot about the depiction of the sky – should I paint a blue sky, or something more moody? Skies are always really important to me. I feel like there’s an openness to them and they convey so many emotions.
When we begin, I bring the sitter into a kind of staged setting. I think it also has a lot to do with the paintings that I look at. I work from photographic references, and take multiple images and let the sitter express themselves. I bring props and see what the sitter feels more comfortable with. Sometimes I’ll have 10 different flowers, and I’ll ask them which ones they feel that they gravitate towards. The background and composition are instinctive and depend on what I feel works.
Work details, © The Artist
KF – It’s really interesting because it’s almost like you’re trying to depict a certain energy or vibe of that person. The creation process feels like a collaboration between the two of you. It feels like a theatrical or cinematic atmosphere that you’re creating, even though it’s also very minimal.
SS – That’s totally accurate. I think you really nailed it. That’s very close to what I’m doing.
KF – It also makes me think about painting and how today it encompasses so much more than paint on canvas. It can be conceptual, create a space, be performative or a collaborative experience. It feels like your work is also about the experience of the creation process. You also include yourself in the work and with your peers and friends, it feels like an ode to our generation.
SS – My work is also a little emotional and sensitive.
KF – To me, it feels spiritual in some sense. When you mentioned Tarot and Astrology – It made me think about how we use these ideas to help define personalities and destinies.
SS – It’s a way to address the unknown. They are avenues that allow us to explore ideas of fortune, intent and design. I really believe that things happen as they are supposed to, but we also have so much autonomy on an individual level – I’m interested in how people view themselves through these practices.
KF – I also find the symbolism and archetypes that the Tarot depicts really genius. I’m a big fan of visualising what you want for your life and I feel like painting is such a great opportunity to do that, because you can literally just paint whatever you want.
SS – Painters do have this ability to visualise whatever’s in their head. Especially if there are pieces or fragments that don’t make sense, you can build them physically on the canvas and start to make sense of things. One thing always leads to another, and I can see how I’m thinking. Then I can move forward and start communicating in a way that’s also going to make sense for other people.
KF – In post-modernism there’s the idea that nothing can be completely original anymore. In some ways, artists are all appropriating, whether that’s with images or different influences and combining them together.
SS – I think what’s really new for me is trying to be true to myself and discover things about human nature through painting.
KF – Do you find that any of your personal experiences of being a foreigner living abroad in Germany as a Canadian come through in your work? Since you are creating your own world in a way, does that perhaps come from a desire for a sense of belonging?
SS – It’s an interesting question that I haven’t really given much thought, but it seems kind of obvious. Maybe these “nowhere” places in my paintings actually refer to that fact that I also feel like I don’t really have a concrete home. Living abroad for 5 years before in London, and also being an immigrant in Canada – I never felt like I fit in completely. I moved around in the US, the UK and now I’m in Germany, so there is a sense of feeling out of place and trying to create a belonging and understanding of what’s going on. I always like the challenge of trying to figure out the differences in the culture and people. It’s something that I try to investigate in my work and echoes in other areas of my life as well.
KF – Yeah, as a foreigner living abroad myself, sometimes I don’t feel like I have a concrete sense of “home”. I try to anchor myself in the people and relationships that I’ve built in a certain place. I believe that it’s not the city or country that defines you or gives you a sense of belonging, it’s really the people in your life that ground you.
SS – Yeah, that is totally true. It pains me sometimes to think that I have to sell these paintings, because I love having them with me. I love walking into my studio and having all of these people depicted around me. It feels like I have their presence with me, which I love.
KF – Painting is such a personal experience for a lot of artists. It’s weird to think that you’re creating something super meaningful that you might ultimately sell or give away.
SS – Yeah, but at the same time I’m always really happy when someone shows an interest in my work, and that they’re able to feel a connection to it.