Being in your 30s is weird. You have more responsibilities than you had in your 20s but less money and self-assurance than you'll (hopefully) have in your 40s. That's kind of what artist Sean Healy's new show at Elizabeth Leach is about. Life in Black and White finds the 36-year-old Portlander at the end of "emerging artist" status and the beginning of what is politely called "midcareer."
No longer a wunderkind, his work selling respectably but not stratospherically (works in the Leach show range from $3,000 to $12,000), he's at that juncture where the glamour of the bohemian life gives way to more pragmatic realities. He has been married and divorced, fathered a son, and recently bought a house in North Portland, which he shares with a partner who has a son of her own. He also owns two Boston terriers, which hump one another vigorously as Healy and I sit down to chat in his converted shed studio. Surrounding us on the walls and propped against every surface are the artworks—oversized photo prints, pastel-colored resin sculptures, and metal cut-outs in the shape of animals—that debut in Life in Black and White.
WW: Your last show was all about high school. Tell me about the current show.
Sean Healy: It's about insecurity and fear. In my last show I couched the same ideas in the universal experience of high school, but now I'm seeing how the clique mentality we learned in school propagates into adulthood. The show's also about maturing. Personally, I'm finally feeling like an adult. I don't need to be that person who feels the need to fit in. It's more, "How do I provide for my family? How can I be a good father, a good person, a responsible citizen?"
How does that play out in the show?
There's a piece called Good Fences Make Good Neighbors that consists of credit cards cut out to resemble a picket fence. It's about financial insecurity and feeling like you're not doing enough to provide. That's a grown-up concern. There are also some of the aluminum creatures I like to do: tigers, eagles.... They're like talismans against whatever fears you feel encroaching. In my last show I did vultures and wolves, which had a feeling of domineering. In the new stuff, I'm trying to reverse that, so they feel comforting.
Last year, Liz Leach showed you at the Aqua Wynwood art fair in Miami. Was that a big deal?
It felt like it, yeah. There was a realization that there's a lot of great artists out there, and that if you're going to do this, you've got to take it seriously. You've gotta not fuck around. It was eye-opening. It was like, you either trust where you're coming from or you realize you're a weekend dabbler.
Do you think artists have to project a persona to get noticed?
No. People can see through bullshit. I think the more real and honest you are, the further you'll get.
Do you ever wonder whether you'll be world-famous and go down in art history—or maybe you won't?
Yeah. It's a matter of, "What am I going to be content with?" The idea of taking the world by storm is not what drives me anymore. I've come to the point where I look at it like a marathon. No matter what happens, I'm still going to go into the studio and do my thing, question myself, push my envelope as much as I can. It's no longer a competition to one-up another artist or become the next "it" kid.
For the past 14 years, your day job has been polishing glass sculptures for Henry Hillman Jr. What do you think about while you're standing there doing that?
It's very Zen. It's taught me patience as a trait. It's allowed me the mental space to think about things, including my art.
Are you competitive with other artists?
There's a friendly competition that comes into play when I see something by a peer who's exploring the same ideas or materials I am. I always look at it and wonder whether they're doing it in a more concise way.
It sounds like this is an interesting place for you to be as an artist.
Yeah. I'm realizing there's no safety net anymore. There's no going back to Mom or Dad. It's do-or-die time. Before, I was always like, "Wow, I'm an artist, this is fun!" Now, I'm like, "Whoa, I'm an artist—and it's exhausting and exhilarating and scary as shit." And that fear, that's where I get my inspiration.
at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, 417 NW 9th Ave., 224-0521. Show runs Thursday-Saturday Sept. 4-27.