The work of the artist known as Kleiner Shames seems always to be on the move.
Words by Martin Holman
Colour, line, shape and surface appear on the verge of reorganising themselves in Shames’ boldly abstract compositions. The artist, however, keeps these forceful ingredients in a tense equilibrium. But his audience senses that, given their chance, the elements might bolt for the edges of the panels and canvas he works on and return in an altered state, as another image. Rather than look inwards for his subject matter, Shames looks out towards the world that surrounds him and observes people interacting with their environment and the traces they leave behind. He does not feel confined to conventional places for showing or making his work. His paintings appear on gallery walls and on buildings, and even on the hull of a boat. He also makes free-standing objects and, inside or out, public or private, the setting determines how this artist wants the world to engage with him. One inspiration is music. The rhythms and tempos, tones and improvisations of many styles fascinate Shames, contributing to the kinetic spirit that fires his painter’s vision. “I listen to a lot of music. I try to listen to new stuff every time I’m in my studio working.” It has a bearing on how he paints: “I guess in my mind my paintings are complex musical fusions,” he says, “composed of a bunch of different genres and rhythms.” Equally inspirational is the fusion of skateboarding and graffiti, the subcultures that were the training ground for his visual awareness. “Around the age of 11,” he recalls, “I was regularly skating in Oxford with an older crew of skateboarders. I’d seen graffiti around the city and didn’t really understand how one person could create such large illegal and legal paintings. One day we all went to shelter from the rain at a friend’s house and I saw his sketchbook. Then it all clicked – he was responsible for them! I went home that evening, mind blown, and started drawing abstract letter forms.”
Images by Andy Lawrence
Top Left: Kleiner Shames painting sculptures
Top Right: Rich X Bluey, Sunrise Skate Session, August 2022, with Bluey sculpture, 2022, plywood and steel, by Kleiner Shames
Bottom Left: May Queen launch, Penryn, May 2019, spray-painted hull designed by Kleiner Shames
Bottom Right: Kleiner Shames with ‘Something New from Repetition’ series sculptures (from left): Blanche, Dom, Big Bluey, Wavy B, all plywood and steel, 2022, by Kleiner Shames
The legacy of those first experiments continues to inform the silhouetted contours that constitute the basis of Shames’s artistic vocabulary more than 20 years later. Indeed, letter-like forms are evident in one of his most public works. Since 2019, the roadside elevation of a two-storey building on Bread Street, Penzance, has been the site of temporary murals. The first vibrant version gave way to the second this year (and the third is imminent). The composition itself seems to spring out from a pale-coloured central shape. Comprising two arcs that flex into a pale-coloured form ending with a step-like right angle, it cues the curves and angles that surround it. On the right are slender upright areas of tones of blue and red, including one that resembles the letter L. Such similarities are coincidental for the arrangement in interconnecting planes symbolises nothing more than the artist’s desire to invent a common theme of lines, colours and levels. On the left the oscillating verticals look like the contours of vases or stair bannisters. But they are neither of those associations and have no representational meaning.
Apparent, too, is how Shames uses colour to suggest a shallow space. On Bread Street, the effect is entirely optical because the flatness of the wall is self-evident. Nonetheless, the sensation exists of translucent coloured planes piled one above another, in red, black, brown or ochre hues that show through from beneath to modulate the tones of the layer above. Edges echo other outlines like shadows, concocting the impression of an imagined space nestling within the real surface, or of shapes projecting beyond the wall and into the open street like a three-dimensional sculpture.
“Apparently I’d made things from a young age,” he says. “My grandmother was a painter. She’d paint these compositions of random objects and I’d do the same. Also, I liked making things out of wood in my grandad’s workshop.” Consciously or otherwise, this background with handling paint and objects has filtered into his adult work. The two connect in images assembled from differently-shaped wooden pieces held in place by a frame to construct a picture of interrelating contours, colours and textures. The temptation to reassemble the parts is considerable – but to attempt it risks upsetting the fine line between keeping a balance and creating chaos.
Top Left by Kleiner Shames: Wall word with spray paint by Kleiner Shames, Cornwall 2019
Top Right by Kleiner Shames: Cowley Road Mural, Oxford, by Kleiner Shames, 2013
Bottom Left by Paul Green: Kleiner Shames at work, Bristol, 2013
Bottom Right by Martin Holman: Bread Street Mural, Penzance, 2022, in collaboration with Troze Contemporary Art
The relationship between image and language in Shames’ work is unusual. The vestiges of typography continue to generate the initial building blocks in his images; from that point he riffs into other outlines as if experimenting with a new script that communicates sensation, like movement or mood. “I have a kind of process when I paint. I don’t plan them, but start with some shapes and a colour, get painting and then things evolve. There is always a battle with painting. I’m learning to let the painting tell me what to do and always try to remember that feeling of when I started painting, remember it’s just a painting and not to take things so seriously.”
Language means connection between people; music is the same. Shames has found a way of integrating the abstract power of communication into his work. He also uses script in his professional life that parallels how he paints. As a screen printer, he reproduces his own and other people’s designs in a methodical way, separating colours and overlaying effects. As a signwriter, he is called upon to impersonate printed lettering on vehicles and shopfronts. An old trade, it is highly visual and iconic in its features – and there is no room for personal flourishes. Instead, it communicates a brand or service. Likewise, his paintings betray no sign of being worked. Instead, bands and blocks of colour feel detached from the hand, as if they were machine-made and anonymous.
Whether working on a wall or on canvas or wood, Shames paints with enamels rather than oil, acrylic or emulsion. He thins the medium to a consistency that almost slides off chisel-headed brushes like a skin. It is possible to imagine the hand of this painter gliding across a paint surface in search of the same smooth move he might attempt with a boardslide in skateboarding. In fact, painting becomes a little performative, even if the audience is not around to acknowledge the skill until the performance is over and the result is ready to view.
Shames honed his skills in Oxford, London and Bristol. He arrived in Cornwall five years ago with a developed style of his own. His career has not emerged through immersion in contemporary art but from his on-the-job attitude to the demands of street art, which evolve by building on repetition, speedy decisions and technical development. “I left school at 18 and have been super lucky to have pretty much pursued creative things since,” he says, reflecting on certain traits that have slipped from the street experience into work he now reserves for gallery exhibitions (he showed at Cor Gallery, Falmouth, in the spring) and public commissions. One is the taut and continuous arrangement of diversified elements; another is the homogenous flow of pigment first discovered with spray paint; and the third is an appreciation of scale.
He cut his design teeth on containing wide and tall expanses of wall within the false symmetry of compositions built around bold, blocky interconnecting forms. Reliance on a few interlacing colours and a repertoire of basic shapes set up the perceptible visual energy that is establishing itself as his personal hallmark. A painting like Perculate (2019) allows shapes to dance tight, interconnecting moves within confines. Images do not spill out of the canvas but stay within the perimeter, sometimes reinforced by broken boundaries.
Top Left: Perculate, 2019, enamel on canvas. 122 x 152cm.
Top Middle: Combinate by Kleiner Shames, 2022, enamel on panel, 122 x 152cm
Top Right: Study 5, 2017, wooden assemblage. 89 x 89cm
Bottom Left: Lampy Logs, 2018, enamel on wood panel, 91.5 x 122cm
Bottom Right by Andy Lawrence: Bluey at sea, Mousehole, Cornwall
Enamel, of course, is an outdoor paint: durable and lasting, and good against scuffing, the material keeps faith with this artist’s inside/outside aesthetic. It is equally relevant to painting on metal as it is on wood or canvas – or the hull of the ferry boat that regularly crosses between Falmouth and St Mawes. Because, in 2019, Shames was commissioned to apply a fresh look to the vessel May Queen to mark the 80th birthday of the craft at the outset of the Second World War as well as the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Shames came up with a characteristic pattern of stripes, broken lines, curves and kinks that was also modelled on the abstract marine camouflage devised for so-called “dazzle ships” in both world wars by leading modernist artists. Except that Shames’ eye-catching work has the wittily opposite effect – the ferry is unmissable at sea.
As well as suggesting three dimensions in his paintings, Shames makes free-standing objects. Four monochrome sculptures in wood and steel at his recent show at Jupiter Gallery in Newlyn fleshed out the distinctive vestigial letter shapes that populate his paintings and graphics. A tall turquoise triangle with a kink and curve sat tall on the gallery floor, the height of any visitor, with a broad-based white wedge nearby, a black variant on the blue wedge and a chunky C-shaped bracket in uniform red. Not only did the forms correspond with the artwork on the wall, their scuffed surfaces revealed their parallel lives in the real world. Taken to remote locations in Penwith, they were photographed at sea, on the beach or in use as skateboarding ramps. Thus, all aspects of Shames’ activity were brought together in one location, underlining the intuitive sense that the impulse behind his work is the excitement of the airborne skateboarder’s body in disciplined motion.
Kleiner Shames is a name only, a fabrication whose history is exclusively composed of work. In effect, this alias stands for an artist without an autobiography. “Growing up painting graffiti there are clear reasons why you use a pseudonym. I have used a few different names, in a way to experiment with different ideas. In a world where a lot of people are screaming their own names to gain attention, I’ve always felt content cracking on creating things under a name I was given around 10 years old.” Now that he is becoming a fixture of the south-western gallery scene, would he consider returning to his real name? “I doubt it,” he replies. “In fact, I have a few ideas for more characters!”