Dwayne Butcher Interviews Paul Shortt, on the eve of Essentially Qualified, a new solo exhibition opening in Washington, DC

Paul Shortt received his MFA in New Media Art from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his BFA in Painting from the Kansas City Art Institute. He has exhibited in numerous group shows in Chicago, Kansas City, and New York City. His works usually engage the public in physical interactions and conversation that examine everyday experiences and cultural norms often in humorous ways. His videos have been shown at the Museum of the Moving Image, The Phillips Collection and the Corcoran College of Art and Design. He has spoken about his work at the Ullens Center For Contemporary Art in Beijing, China and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

Dwayne Butcher: You were a semi-finalist for this years Sondheim prize this year. The exhibition was recently held at MICA. Talk a little bit about this process and experience?

Paul Shortt: I had a great experience being a semifinalist and working with Kim Domanski and the BOPA staff. It’s a huge honor to be selected as a semifinalist, and for me a nice introduction of my work to Baltimore. Having moved here a little more than a year ago, it feels great to be included with some of the best artists in the city.

from Please No Photos

from Please No Photos

I had three video works in the show: Please No Photos, Image Breakdown, I Don’t Want To Do This, and Tight Fit. The videos were produced over the past three years and deal with my body in both private, indoor and public, outdoor spaces.

DB: With the work Tight Fit, you are exploring your body, dealing with weight issues, tight fitting clothes, and the dissatisfaction with the self. This is a subject not typically explored by heterosexual men. Why do you think this is and how did you come about working with your “flaws”?

Still from Tight Fit

Still from Tight Fit

PS: The act of dealing with my flaws or physical presence goes back to work I made during undergrad and before. In my first real performance back in 2005, I literally walked on weight scales stuffing food in my mouth. My first video works were about masculinity and putting myself at risk, but not to achieve failure so much as personal growth. In my current video works I act more as an Everyman, putting my body into specific landscapes and sites where my physicality represents a broader theme. Tight Fit is the first of my videos to really return to that earlier work and to use my physical presence to get at something emotionally deeper.

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Paul Shortt performance at (e)merge 2013

DB: Another series of your work, Essentially Qualified, is a running commentary of the Professional Practices of art. How did it start and where do you see it going? Do you see this work as making fun of the absurdities of the MFA?

PS: No, it’s not really about making fun of the absurdities of the MFA. I feel that’s too “Art about Art,” though you could accuse the work of doing that. I’m much more engaged in the general standards and qualifications we take for granted in a lot of career fields. In an earlier work I asked friends to write recommendation letters for why someone should date me. My intent was to be absurd and to point out that we rely on references for jobs, but not for dating.

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Essentially Qualified started from exploring the idea of what it means to be in a place of having a degree but no hands-on experience. The show will have an 8 foot graduation tassel, a “hands-on-diploma making station,” a replica of my MFA degree, one video piece and 6 new resumes which attempt to reimagine the standard resume. A key part of the exhibition is an “Intern as Artwork” performance taking place during the opening and on Saturdays during the show run. Internships provide practical experience, so having someone in the gallery to lead people through the show seemed essential. Michael Schiffer, an artist and current Corcoran student will be the intern for this exhibition of the work, and he will receive an honorarium and travel costs. I view the piece as a social practice based performance where the interaction is one-on-one.

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DB: How does this tie-in, if at all, with your project “Professional Amateurs”?

PS: Over the past year I’ve held two ‘How To Be A Professional Amateur’ workshops that explore what it means to be a professional amateur. In the workshop participants make handmade business cards, take professional headshots, and work on their elevator pitches. The project is about redefining yourself, playing with identity and imagining potential careers. In the spring I will work with participants at the Arlington Art Center to realize the workshop as an exhibition called Professional Amateurs, which will hopefully create an environment that will allow participants to further engage the content. I view Essentially Qualified and Professional Amateurs as sister shows in that they form a year long body of work exploring professionalism in different ways.

I often feel that a lot of social practice art and participatory art is overly focused on a “happy do gooder” mentality of coming together as a community to create social change. For me the workshops are away to focus on issues of the self, for the betterment of the community. By focusing on the self and incorporating play and humor into the workshops, I want to create a space for people to better themselves.

DB: Do these two projects, “Essentially Qualified” and “Professional Amateurs,” have anything to do with the struggles of MFA’s finding a job?

PS: I struggled a bit in finding a job, but I also uprooted myself post-graduation to an area where I had to rebuild a network. Instead of attending a school in a major city like Baltimore, I chose to move to a small college town in the Midwest for graduate school. Had I attended school in a city with a more vibrant art scene, it might have been easier to forge connections in a broader art community.

I believe my experience had something to do with forming the work, but over the past five years I’ve also developed various performances that explore the act of making something official or acknowledging participation through countless certificates and forms. I see my newer exhibitions as taking the exploration one step further.

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Please No Photos

DB: It also seems that these two projects would be playing with the absurdities of society in general and you agitating these social structures. How do the works fit in with a larger audience?

PS: I’m not sure. I would love to hear your opinion. One of the reasons my work tends to deal with social structures is that I’m wanting to agitate and rethink what we take for granted in the real world. I think many artists want their work to appeal to a larger audience and not just reach other artists. It would be great for my work to appeal to other artists, but by itself that feels limiting. I often say “I want your mom to like my work,” which to me means that the work is relatable and engaging to all ages.

DB: You are currently the Registry Coordinator at MAP. How long have you been with them and what does your role entail?

PS: In my role as the Registry Coordinator and Program Assistant I manage the Maryland Artist Registry and Marketplace, an online database of Maryland based artists for the Maryland State Arts Council, and I run the resource bulletin housed on MAP’s website, which is filled with regional and national art opportunities. My other roles at MAP include helping organize exhibitions and maintaining the gallery, website and social media presence.

DB: Do you find working with a public place such as MAP that you have to edit your work or words in any way?

PS: I don’t feel I have to edit myself or artwork, but when I’m representing MAP or MSAC I leave my art practice at home. In my professional role my goal is to advance other Maryland artists and not myself, though I benefit from getting to chat and create friendships with artists from across the state.

DB: What are some upcoming projects and exhibitions that you have?

PS: Outside of Essentially Qualified I’m performing in this year’s Transmodern Festival, and I will be selling some of my art books in two art book fairs, one in Detroit and the other in NYC. Professional Amateurs will open in the spring at Arlington Art Center. Outside of that, I have a few other projects in early stages of development and I’ve scheduled a lot of time to play and explore more in the studio.

* Author Dwayne Butcher is an artist, curator, writer and chicken wing connoisseur living in Baltimore, MD. To see his work and curatorial projects visit his website, dwaynebutcher.com and follow him on twitter @dwaynebutcher.