There are two things integral to making a successful artist. One is developing a certain discipline, a work ethic that enables an artist not only to create but also to show and sell prolifically. The second would be developing a distinct voice that can be easily recognized. These are the two things that Jonathon Shannon has devoted his life to. The man breathes art, quite literally, as his open-air style of painting has become his tried-and-true method. His style and brand, Reverse Reality, relies on a balancing act between the external experience and the internal interpretation. On one hand, Reverse Reality is meticulously thought out, with the core principle of transforming organic shapes into geometric shapes, and vice versa. On the other hand, it combines concept with exploration and live painting, performing his work outdoors by painting his muse on the spot. He tries to pin down the world around him by flipping it upside down, capturing its essence by challenging how the viewer sees it.
“One of the trickier parts is when I make organic movement,” he told me, delving into his process, “turning something moving into a geometric shape is definitely challenging. Especially when it’s people, I like to keep it as simple as possible. I have to think about light and dark, the idea of depth. Darker shapes want to recede and lighter shapes want to push forward, and with geometric shapes I try to do that through simplicity.”
What he sees when he looks at everyday people, places and things is markedly different than what most of us view. Shannon deliberately sees the opposite. While immersing himself in an environment, he observes it from behind his easel, recreating what’s in front of him on the canvas by reversing its forms. The shapes within the scene change but the contrast between them doesn’t.
This creates a bridge between harmony and dissonance in the cognizance of the viewer – we recognize the scene for what it is, but since the figures take on drastically different forms, it analyzes the finer details, the interaction between these figures, something we may take for granted as we stroll through life. The limitations are intentional; dealing with the size and space available, exposure to pedestrians and the elements, all of this adds up to creating a unique piece that Shannon hasn’t exactly planned.
“I prefer to paint from direct observation. That’s my biggest inspiration. That’s my biggest inspiration. Because of the idea of chance, seeing where life takes you and not knowing where you’re going to go, but knowing the area you’re going to explore.”
“I prefer to paint from direct observation,” he said as we canned through some of his paintings. “That’s my biggest inspiration. Because of the idea of chance, seeing where life takes you and not knowing where you’re going to go, but knowing the area you’re going to explore. I walk around and try to find a good composition or a good energy in the environment, and it’s all based around that. It usually works out, sometimes I even sell on the street.”
He sets up shop on the sidewalk, on the subway, in a park or in a lobby. Anywhere that’s a public space, we could potentially find Shannon painting. After years of doing this, he’s acquired a modus operandi; he’s accompanied by a comfortably sized canvas and easel, and his paints and brushes are stocked for whatever he may run into. He’s had to learn how to properly occupy a space, how to simultaneously focus on the piece and the scene he’s painting, and how to interact with pedestrians; he’s a street artist who renders an image of the street, rather than transforming it, but he has to be present nonetheless.
He tries to be ready for everything life throws at him, but it’s this admiration for unpredictability is part of what makes Reverse Reality what it is. It isn’t a still life he’s trying to paint, but the truth of the scene as it’s in motion. He wants things to come in and out of the frame, to turn and change naturally so each piece is even more unique, making the immersive aspect worthwhile. Reversing the geometric and organic forms within this changing environment, as well as intentionally gestural brush strokes to emphasize figures within the composition, only helps harness the energy he sees. Bringing this energy forward helps capture the attention of the viewer and guides our eyes throughout the piece unsuspectingly to discover what lies within.
“The one class in college that really inspired me was Chinese painting,” he told me, as our conversation turned to his education, “I had a professor from China, and he was trained in the old-fashioned techniques. He taught me all about the paper, the Chinese ink, the charcoal. He taught me how to be delicate with the paint and the paper, because it was usually rice paper, you can’t oversaturate it. This taught me the power of the brush stroke, how to just do it and don’t mess with it.”
“He taught me all about the paper, the Chinese ink, the charcoal. He taught me how to be delicate with the paint and the paper, because it was usually rice paper, you can’t oversaturate it.”
Reverse Reality was founded through much deliberation. Shannon holds a degree in painting from SCAD, The Savannah College of Art and Design, and it was there that Shannon honed the raw energy he had felt as a young artist on a path to self-discovery. Growing up in a military family, Shannon has bounced back and forth between North Carolina and Upstate New York, maintaining an interest in the arts.
It wasn’t until SCAD that he found mentors in both gestural application and abstract design, culminating in the workshop where he first envisioned Reverse Reality. Searching for his voice was a serious and important matter for Shannon. The discovery of one’s voice is something every artist strives to achieve and may take a lifetime of work to accomplish. Once Shannon had grasped his original concept, it became his obsession, and has been nourished by his passion, faith, and dedication.
“It started in Colorado,” he explained. “I got a scholarship to a workshop, a kind of residency program, at Anderson Ranch in Snowmass Village, just south of Aspen. I had two professors who had heard about it and suggested I go during the summer of my last year.”
“I started to experiment with reversing the two different forms, organic and geometric. That’s how I got Reverse Reality. I was excited by this. I thought, I just need to keep digging.”
Shannon’s search for his voice had gone through many iterations. “It was a hard-edge abstract painting class. It was very minimalist, using clean geometric shapes, based on color scheme and design. That stemmed into the idea of how I like to paint from life, so how can I capture the difference? How can I use hard edge abstraction to capture organic forms? So, I started to experiment with reversing the two different forms, organic and geometric. That’s how I got Reverse Reality. I was excited by this. I thought, I just need to keep digging. I’ve been pushing this one concept, developing it and seeing where it’s going to go, for about six or seven years now.”
The knowledge he’s accumulated from being professionally trained in painting, design, installation artwork, and then the trials and errors of self-marketing have contributed to his incredible proficiency. His style is heavily involved in art theory and history, combining aspects of cubism, by turning organic shapes into geometric shapes; surrealism, by painting geometric shapes organically; impressionism, by painting in public and being inspired by the environment; and expressionism, by using color and saturation to create movement and energy.
“I don’t do it intentionally though,” Shannon told me, “I’m influenced by them all, like if you were to mix them all together, that’s my concept. The more I do it, the more I see how everything connects. They say nothing is original, but really, originality comes from thinking about history and using what you like, disregarding what you don’t like, mixing it all together and having fun with it.”
“They say nothing is original, but really, originality comes from thinking about history and using what you like, disregarding what you don’t like, mixing it all together and having fun with it.”
As much as a balance is required in his concept, a balance is also required in the actual composition. Looking for the right place to paint can be a tricky endeavor. There needs to be an equal ratio of organic to geometric shapes within the environment. Working in New York City, this can be hard to find. This has resulted in Shannon have to put himself in new situations more often than not.
“I actually got kicked out of a bar one time,” Shannon said, laughing. It was obvious from this example how calculating he is about where and how he works. “I just try to be consistent. I’m flipping the two basic forms of life, geometric being buildings, cars, things with solid curvature, manmade objects, where organic forms are people, trees, and animals. I paint from direct observation, and I’m bringing a contemporary twist to it, so I need both of those things there. I’ve been honing in on the balance between organic and geometric for years, and my new work is much more developed.”
“I’m flipping the two basic forms of life, geometric being buildings, cars, things with solid curvature, manmade objects, where organic forms are people, trees, and animals.”
It isn’t just the shapes that he reverses, either. Shannon has also been experimenting with color, reversing the darker and brighter parts of life. He doesn’t reverse night and day, but he does accent the subtleties of life, bringing forward parts of the scene we would’ve otherwise glanced over. Depth and color are required to adapt to the transition between organic and geometric regardless, so he uses that to his advantage by getting creative with it. This has been a challenge for Shannon, since he usually only gets one shot to get the piece right, but the drastic improvement I saw as we went from old to new work was proof that he’s spent many hours out on the street painting, evidence of his commitment.
Even though Reverse Reality is heavily influenced by the techniques and theories of past movements, Shannon’s style is intentionally malleable. Reverse Reality is designed to be mobile. Direct observation is required, and this is something that can’t be anchored down in a studio. He paints his subjects specifically because there will never be a shortage of them. Past movements inform his decision making, but he sees painting in public as something with infinite possibilities. He can paint wherever, whenever, and the unpredictability of his environments combined with the sheer magnitude of them provides him with a lifetime of experiences he never wishes to exhaust.
“I’ve been thinking about studio pieces, because in a studio I can make them bigger, but I definitely prefer outside. When I’m in a studio, I feel trapped. I feel secluded, like I’m hiding myself away from the world.”
“I’ve been thinking about studio pieces, because in a studio I can make them bigger, but I definitely prefer outside. When I’m in a studio, I feel trapped. I feel secluded, like I’m hiding myself away from the world. One thing I’ve noticed about artists is once they become famous or start selling a lot of work, what happens to their career is they eventually run out of things to paint,” he explained. “Everything starts to look the same. So, when I was developing my concept and thinking about my future, I thought that if I was able to paint in different environments, in different countries around different cultures, my work is always going to be a little different. I won’t live long enough to travel the entire world, but that’s the mission. I think an artist should be seen creating art, that should be a normal.”
This idea, combined with his history of travelling and live painting, has evolved into his painting tours, where he travels to different cities and areas of the United States to paint and show his work. The works could come in forms of an anthology based around a similar theme, such as nightlife or fast-food chains, commissioned works of the places he’s stayed, such as hostels, or rely on the spontaneity of his location. He’s ended up with a lot of publicity simply by working in public spaces.
“I’ve been showing and becoming better at what I do, and I’m finally at the point where I’m about to take that leap,” his enthusiasm for his concept grew the more we spoke and analyzed his work, “it’s about to be spring, and I’m going to have some tours lined up. I want to go to different cities or towns nearby, find a gallery that will show some art, reach out to some publications to let the community know, and basically paint there for a week before having a show.”
Shannon doesn’t hesitate to make himself known. His confidence shouldn’t be mistaken for arrogance though, as he puts an equal amount of work into his networking as he does into his art. Through his experiences at school, he’s acquired an ambition that’s humble, yet serious and unflinching. He’s an artist first, but being an organizer comes at a close second. Marketing, networking, and production are given an equal part of his time and effort. I myself met Shannon at a gallery in Brooklyn some years ago, where he was promoting and showing his work for Reverse Reality. Years past, and I’m not surprised I’ve run into him again, building his network further with the same friendly disposition.
“Lately I’ve been engaging with the Lower East Side underground art scene,” he expressed a genuine interest in the community, “going to Sour Mouse, I’ve met a lot of great people there. Street art people who really create art on the street. I’ve been immersing myself with the arts community and balancing that with being an art handler, and painting and doing all the marketing and production on the side. I’m in show mode right now, because I’ve got a whole season of unstretched paintings, and it’s time to start selling. Recently I was in Superfine Art Fair. I didn’t sell anything there, but I did meet an art agent who helped sell two of my paintings afterwards. I met another dude there who connects artists with people who want to commission work. I’ve shown at the Triangle Loft in the Meatpacking District recently too. This is just what I’ve been about lately.”
The drive behind Shannon’s work ethic stems from a desire to create not just art, but more out of life for himself. He comes from a small town where there isn’t much opportunity. Unfortunately, chasing a dream isn’t something most people in those situations do. But Shannon had a taste of what life could be, what he could accomplish after attending art school and traveling and realized his own potential. Once he had graduated and settled in North Carolina, he felt this impetus more than ever.
“I worked as a graphic designer for a bit, I was a middle school art teacher,” he said from across his living room table. “Never again, man. I just felt like, I have to do something. I was barely making enough to pay my student loans, even with living in a shitty apartment. So, I decided to move to New York. I told my friends and asked them to come with me, but they all backed out at the last minute. I knew I had to get a job, so I started applying and got an interview but they wanted me to come up and interview in person. I said you know what, why not? So, I went up and stayed in a hostel for two weeks. I got the job, and I’ve been here ever since.”
He became determined to make a career out of being an artist in New York City, despite all obstacles. Much like his artistic concept, his method concerning this endeavor combined taking an uncharted course with detailed planning. He knew exactly what he wanted to do when he arrived, but he also knew he’d have to embrace new challenges he’d encounter in order to pay his dues in New York City. He’s approached each painting with vigor and continues to do so with everything he does. Shannon is a jack-of-all-trades, but the trades are just different avenues in his field. His effort towards self-sufficiency has helped him grow as an artist. He’s been gaining traction in the underground art world as he’s been expanding on his ideas, and one only adds fuel to the other.
“I’ll be out walking around and I end up thinking to myself how I would paint these things differently,” he told me, scrolling through Instagram to see his various other works, “I plan out the entire composition in my head. Sometimes I have this experience where I show people my paintings and then I show them where I painted it, and they’re always surprised. They always tell me how it looks so much brighter, it has so much more energy. That’s because I’m bringing things to life that typically would be dull and basic. Reversing these things gives them more impact.”
“Reversing these things gives them more impact.”
With everything he has going on, a day in the life of Jonathan Shannon can be an eventful one. Gallery shows, art fairs, and auctions are regular events for him. Whether it be showing or attending, he’s always out meeting new people, showing respect and supporting his peers while promoting Reverse Reality to anyone who will hear him out.
The art world has even influenced his day job working as an art handler, where he takes the opportunity to observe contemporary artwork, artists, collectors, and galleries. Promoting works its way into creating his art too, as it’s been inevitable to promote his brand as he paints outdoors by speaking with passersby and gaining film and photo content to post on social media. His process is truly one of adventure, and part of that is the audience he encounters when painting, which has led to making connections as well as awkward confrontations.
“There’s definitely good days and bad days,” he told me, when I asked about his typical day out painting, “I was painting on the sidewalk under some scaffolding, and this guy walks up behind me and just stands there. At first, I was cool with it, I like when people watch me paint, that’s how I meet people. But then he started saying some weird stuff, making these weird motions, and before I know it, he’s taking off his shoes and his pants. I asked him, you good? And he jumped away and said he’s just fixing his pants.”
It doesn’t always go this way though, he assured me. Painting in the streets of Manhattan has afforded him plenty of opportunity to meet some more positive characters. “Last June I collaborated with my roommate on a video shoot in Central Park. He got footage of me on the subway, walking around to find a place to paint,” producing video content is yet another way that Shannon gets his name out there.
“We set up and painted this big pink magnolia tree. We got the footage, but then I had to sell it. I started breaking everything down and then when it was all packed up, sure enough, somebody walked by and we started talking. I told her about the whole concept, she looked at the piece and bought it on the spot for five hundred dollars. She trusted me to deliver it to her, and now she even tags me on Instagram from time to time.”
What Shannon exhibits is also what he lives by. He has a deep affection for the world, and he wishes to express this by painting what he sees in front of him. He brings forward the energy, the beautiful scenes of life that enamor him in a different way, in order to share this with other people who may have a more bleak or narrow outlook on life.
His participation in the world around him isn’t solely designated to painting, but acting out his role within it. He attends shows, fairs, auctions, and installations with a definite passion, so that the positive energy one may feel in his paintings can be felt in his presence as well, inspiring and motivating his environment in any way that he can.