Flotsam’s Wonder World

photography Michael Cuffe

A twisted carnival clown throws hurdles to those seeking their dreams while tempting others with the seven deadly sins in the artist Mike Shine’s “Flotsam’s Wonder World.” The interactive carnival pieces have been transformed into an “opera” consisting of 200 works of art at the new 941 Geary Gallery in San Francisco.

Shine believes art should be shared with others so he likes creating visually appealing pieces that people can touch and play with. His work is easy to relate to because he thinks it is selfish for an artist to create art that people have to read about to understand. “I think art can be both challenging and accessible at the same time,” he says.

And while Shine has always liked drawing since he was a young child, he starting pursuing his passion just a few years ago. Born in Syracuse, New York, Shine moved to the Bay Area with his wife, Marianne, in 1992 and later bought a cabin in 2003. Out of a need for furniture, Shine started making his own creations. He didn’t stop there. He then began making paintings for the walls and eventually started painting on the walls. “Our home is an ongoing art project in itself,” he explains. “It is now known as the art shack and is the catalyst that started me off on all this.”

Photo Andy Dodson

Shine enjoys surfing when he is not painting and got his start by exhibiting his work at the Mollusk Surf Shop in San Francisco in 2007. After the success of the exhibit, he then went about finding a bigger gallery to showcase his work, and came across White Walls and The Shooting Gallery in San Francisco. Shine sent the owner, Justin Giarla a custom painted skate deck. “One of the very first things that grabbed me about Mike’s work was the color. I like the fact he paints on discarded old wood and brings it to life,” Giarla says.

Shine says he uses random materials and items he finds because he likes the idea that they’re meant to be discovered as art objects with coded messages on them. He uses house paint on just about anything he can get it to stick to. Sometimes he gets a specific idea for an art piece, while other times he latches onto a word or image. Shine tries to tell stories through his art. He holds a belief that everything in life comes with a price and the price isn’t always immediately visible.

“Flotsam’s Wonder World” was inspired from the legend of Faust, and the idea of exchanging a soul for unlimited knowledge and pleasures. Shine believes the modern world has also made a few deals with the devil and he is sending clues that it’s soon time to pay. Using the familiar nature of a carnival to tap into a collective nerve of viewers, the dark but light-hearted show features a clown, named Flotsam, who encourages people to peek into his kaleidoscope, where people see the life of their dreams which then disappear.

Photo Andy Dodson

Shine had a smaller version of this show last January but this exhibit has taken his vision of a carnival to a new level. The inaugural “Flotsam’s” exhibit at 941 is Shine’s fourth exhibition space. Because the exhibit needed more room to come to life, Giarla founded the new location just for this occasion.

“It is perfect that he is the big solo opening show because he is the reason I opened it,” Giarla admits. “It is going to be difficult for other artists to top this show. Mike’s whole thing is to make art interactive.”

The size of the gallery has let Shine explore Flotsam’s World. Inside, visitors climb in a caboose, a circus tent and even sit in a 1950’s Chevy truck that was towed to the gallery from Santa Rosa as a prop. At first Shine didn’t know what he was going to do with it, but he decided he had to paint it, which ended up becoming the centerpiece for the entire show.

Flotsam’s World is a carnival with lights, noises, clowns, performers and rides; that both scare and delight. And the artist wants people to experience that in his show. Play the games, win the prizes, see the art, have fun on the surface, but feel uneasy beneath.

“I really want them to experience that mix of joy and fear they felt the very first time they went to a carnival,” he says. The show will have a closing ceremony on October 30, which will include trick-or-treating open to the public.  Shine’s future plans include a solo show in April at the Copro Gallery in Santa Monica and an installation at the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana.

– Kimberly Horg-Webb