Artist Shane Swank says, "My dad once told me, 'You can make a lot of money making breadboards and selling them to malls, but you'd rather glue dog shit to a shingle and sell it for $500.'"
Not quite true--Swank's paintings actually show familiar cartoon characters engaged in scatological activities--but Swank didn't argue. In fact he's called his Wicker Park gallery Poop Studios, and in keeping with the name, during the gallery's grand opening in December he offered rolls of toilet paper that had a wrapper designed by poster artist Steve Walters. Who says Poop doesn't sell anything functional?
"Poop" is also close to "pop," and that's the whole idea behind the gallery, located in the basement of the Flat Iron Building. It specializes in the work of local underground and guerrilla-pop artists, and starting next week it will showcase weekly music, performance, poetry, and film events. This "veritable garden of depravity," as Swank calls it, also sells the full line of goods from Michael Hunt Publishers, which puts out comic books by the controversial artist Mike Diana.
"Realistically, it's a way to offset my rent," says Swank as he sits amid raunchy magazines, action figures, lunch boxes, store signs, and other pop-culture detritus cluttering his studio, which is next door to Poop. "But this is also my social life. I quit drinking two years ago, and I don't go to art openings and bars anymore. So it's a way of keeping my feet in the art world."
Swank was raised in rural Crawfordsville, Indiana, where his fondest memories were of his grandfather giving him a dollar every week to buy comic books. While in high school, he was mistakenly arrested for a mass murder and held overnight in jail (the real killers turned out to be classmates). In the late 70s he was an air force photographer stationed in Okinawa. When he was on leave in California, a friend tried recruiting him into the People's Temple, saying that Reverend Jim Jones had a nice spread in Guyana. Swank took a pass, and never saw his friend again.
In 1977 Swank got married; he and his wife had a daughter, then divorced in 1980. He moved to Chicago 12 years ago and began supplementing his income as a bar-back by coordinating art shows for such spots as Smart Bar and Cabaret Metro, Limelight, and China Club. He also began painting--or more properly, appropriating--pop-culture images on canvas: serial killers, Spiderman, Captain America, clowns, B-girls, bondage. "I thought Warhol and Lichtenstein were the shit," he says.
Since the late 80s he's exhibited mostly in bars and nightclubs and at a few edgy galleries. One of his more memorable exhibits was in 1991. Arrested for failing to pay child support, Swank spent two days in Cook County Jail before jumping bail and driving to Indiana to turn himself in (since then he's been making restitution on his payments). He never saw his "Look Mom, I'm in Jail!" show at Danny's Tavern, an oasis of comic art, because he was behind bars for six months. His friends hung the show.
Swank moved into the Flat Iron Building four years ago and has since become one of Wicker Park's most visible creators of renegade pop. His regurgitations of mass-media images look like the real thing, but with a subversive spin. One recent painting combined the smiling Kool-Aid pitcher with an image of Chef Boyardee holding a tab of acid between his thumb and index finger. The work is called Chef Boy LSD.
"It used to be more of a purely pop-art thing," says Swank. "But now I'm just a postmodern thief. Instead of simply appropriating, I've been taking things a step further by manipulating popular images and making my own off-color jokes."
To those who say this approach doesn't take any talent or call it bad-boy bathroom humor, Swank says, "Fuck 'em. Success is the best revenge." He makes a living off his art and says he's in a lot of private collections, including those of Rich Melman, the late Frank Zappa, and Jack Nicholson, who has a painting of the Joker in his bathroom. "But if I get behind on my bills, I'll get some stupid job." A couple years ago he made a few bucks regularly performing as Fisto the Clown, entertaining crowds at bars and galleries.
For now he's happy he can concentrate on depicting the likes of Nancy and Sluggo. He's fixated on these frisky cartoon kids, completing nearly 40 paintings of them in various graphic scenarios, such as Nancy being sodomized by a Smurf (Smurf's Up) and an open-mouthed Nancy receiving a liquid stream (Nancy Takes the Golden Shower). "The comic is so simple," he says. "If you took out one drawn line the whole thing would deconstruct on itself. The humor is equally simple. And Ernie Bushmiller hated modern art."
Swank becomes pensive. "Maybe I'm taking advantage of Nancy," he admits. "But I've worked with it so much--I've made her such a big part of my life. I suppose if United Features Syndicate wanted to break my balls, they could. But cases are being won in favor of painters. If they seized all my paintings, it would be good publicity.
"I've heard that graphic representations of nude children can be construed as child pornography. But how old is Nancy? Would I have to argue that she was 50 years old and not a child? That'd be the last thing I want, to have people think I was involved in exploiting children. I'm not out to break taboos."
Poop Studios, 1947 W. North, is showing art by Swank, Ron Richter, Karen Zilly, Steve Walters, and Calbee. Next Friday, January 24, music will be performed by Sena and American Mosquito. On Wednesday, January 29, a set of monologues will be hosted by Greg Gillam. And in February works by Horny Biker Sluts comic artist D.B. Velveeta will be on display. Call 773-227-8747.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Chef Boy LSD" by Shane Swank / "Nancy Takes the Golden Shower" by Shane Swank / Shane Swank photo by Nathan Mandell.