Prior to becoming lead singer, songwriter and guitarist for NYC-based ’80s pop, post-punk band, stellastarr*, Shawn Christensen was (and remains) a professional painter. His award-winning art has been displayed at various New York exhibits and published in journals like New York Metropolis and The Village Voice. Now, as Christensen is on tour promoting stellastarr*’s debut album, collectors are commissioning him to produce more rock-idol portraits (he’s already done more than 80). His latest subject was The Libertines. Unsurprisingly, during the following interview with a musician who paints other musicians, the discussion turns to music, art and the artist.
Of the interpretations of rock stars Christensen has committed to canvas, a few of the most notable featured are The Beatles, Bjork and Sid Vicious. Most of his pieces are abstract; however, the degree to which he experiments with realism seems affected by his relationship with the subject. An artistic rendering of The Strokes as Pez dispensers is playful and partially
reflective of his friendship with the band. Painting members of his own band would be a different story altogether. Take the latest characterization of stellastarr* that happens to be plastered across the walls of Chicago’s Double Door. On the placard, portraits of each member
are assigned to equally divided quadrants. Judging from the facial and spatial composition, it’s clear the poster is lacking Christensen’s typically exaggerated style.
This departure is addressed by Christensen himself, first while seated at the bar inside Chicago’s Double Door, and then later at a neighborhood pizza parlor.
PASTE: When did you do the portraits of stellastarr* on the wall over there?
CHRISTENSEN: I painted those about a year ago for the album. Those aren’t real. Those paintings are me stepping around the real issue. It’s me trying to make each person as flattering as I can without disappointing members of the band.
P: What’s the real issue?
C: The real issue is that all people have imperfections that I didn’t put into those portraits.
P: Physical imperfections?
C: Yes, physical imperfections. I didn’t include them because I didn’t want to offend my bandmates if this was going to be seen by hundreds of thousands of people. I don’t want to be delusional and judge myself and my bandmates from inside the box. I can judge myself two years from now because then it would be like a movie. Otherwise, that’s what regret is all about.
P: But you’ve captured the imperfections in other artists.
C: Yes, those people. Bob Dylan is my favorite singer/songwriter ever but he’s got a nose. I’ve done two paintings of him. One showed him with the nose of all noses and the other, I felt like he should look more handsome.
P: But it’s beyond the physical characteristics, though. You seem to go deeper into their character.
C: I try to do that more with design and composition than with the actual face.
P: So, when you did Lou Reed…
C: He’s a little guy on a little canvas—about 16” x 20”. And he’s looking cool with his sunglasses. His music is small. Small little guitars, the lyrics are small and that’s what I love about him. Whether it’s Velvet Underground or his solo work, I don’t think it’s overwhelming or large or exorbitant music. Even though there are a lot of transient guitars, as a public personality, I think he likes to lay low in many respects so that’s why I painted him that way.
P: You mentioned public personality. That reminds me—the opening scene in the movie, Owning Mahoney, talks about every person having a public life, a personal life and a private life. When you’re painting someone like Dylan, do you think that you’re capturing his public, personal or private self?
C: A person’s public image is pretty obvious. Personal and private are harder to differentiate. I would think the personal has to do with memories and opinions. Private would be things that you would want to hide. I guess, as a painter, I don’t capitalize on someone else’s private life.
P: How about in your own music? Are you sharing your personal or private self?
C: “My Coco” is a personal subject, a personal song but the names have been removed so I guess it’s personal for public eyes.
P: It’s quite incongruent though, isn’t it? Here’s this entirely catchy song loaded with hooks for public appeal and yet lyrically, it’s personal and dark.
C: Actually, I think “In the Walls” is much more personal and vulnerable. Yet, to play devil’s advocate, I hide behind a lot of metaphors so maybe in that respect, all music is public or personal but never private. Dylan also hides behind words but he coats most of his songs with brutal honesty. Dylan has the ability to bare all and be clever at the same time.
P: What’s your biggest obstacle when painting?
C: For me, the biggest obstacle is knowing when to finish. Nothing, to me, is worse than art that’s overworked. There’s a theory that children’s paintings are best because they’re not fazed by aesthetics. The interpretation of a human as a five year old is more interesting than an eighteen year old’s impression. A lot of people are trying to make things look too realistic and photographic which is uninteresting in art. The mark of a great artist is someone who can paint a person’s face and you can recognize that person in three brush strokes. [It’s about] capitalizing on where the shadows are.
P: What’s the mark of a great musician?
C: Well, The Ramones went out there and said you only need two chords and a good top melody to make a fantastic song. They also said a good song doesn’t need to be two minutes long.
P: So is greatness about being minimalist?
C: No, I guess drawing realistically—like a Van Gogh, who spends hours dotting with his brush to get the texture right—was necessary 200 years ago before there were cameras that captured realism. So the validity for realism has changed as a result of the invention of the camera. In music, there is no camera, so a complicated song, like the way Radiohead uses different time signatures, is not mandatory but it’s still valid.