Artist Shane Durgee incorporates pop culture icons in his paintings


You need to look carefully at Shane Durgee’s artwork, currently on display at the Schweinfurth Art center in Auburn, to find the gems hidden within. In “Hey Ladies,” a careful viewer can spot an image of Ms. Pac-Man. In “Familia Nuclear,” the Space Invaders logo from the arcade video game drops in from the top.

Durgee always incorporates pop culture icons in his artwork, even if they become obscured by digital manipulation or the colors he paints on top. He was inspired by Superflat, a Japanese style of art that incorporates compressed or flattened graphic design, pop culture, and fine arts images, and also is a comment on the emptiness of consumer culture.

“That connected with me,” said Durgee, who is gallery coordinator for Rochester Institute of Technology’s Bevier Gallery and an adjunct professor at RIT. “I started a whole new series of paintings; it opened a floodgate. It’s a much more obvious appropriation of culture, and you can use anything to display something about your personal identity.”

It’s ironic that Durgee’s work featured in his “Ill Fusions” exhibit incorporates pop culture when he declined to pursue a career creating pop culture images. “I wanted to illustrate science fiction comic books,” he said. “But I didn’t enjoy it. It wasn’t as much fun as sitting in front of the TV as a kid drawing your favorite cartoon characters. But you don’t know that until you go to school for it and try to make a living off it.”

He said it takes a different kind of artist to be able to take someone else’s ideas and work on making them really wonderful. He felt that he “might as well just work in a warehouse” – which he did, taking a job as a warehouse manager. That’s when his art shifted and became more personal.

Durgee began making digital collages that he used as sketches for his paintings. Slowly, he began to combine the two. “The conversation has changed as our society has changed,” he said. “Everything is so technologically driven that I wanted to push my work in that direction. I wanted to blur the line between digital and actual physical painting.”

He has done that with the bright, layered artwork hanging in the Schweinfurth’s Gallery Julius, each with very evocative titles. Durgee said names of the pieces are the first thoughts that pop into his head when he looks at a completed painting. But some of the titles have deeper meanings.

For instance, “Hey Ladies” (shown at left) – which features an image of Ms. Pac-Man – borrows its name from a Beastie Boys song. “The Beastie Boys were the kings of sampling,” Durgee says. “They sampled music from every genre. It was so personal but very authentic because it was an expression of their identity. I’m trying to do that more.”

Ms. Pac-Man herself shares a similar sampling heritage. A group of dropouts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created the game as a hack of the Pac-Man arcade video game. Ultimately, Ms. Pac-Man grew more popular than her predecessor.

Two of Durgee’s paintings take on new meaning after reading their titles: “The Illusion of Freedom” and “Friends You Haven’t Seen Since 2017.” Both were finished and titled soon after Donald Trump was elected president. “I was surprised by how many people I knew personally who voted for Trump,” he said. “Whether it was a deliberate choice or not, I have removed them from my life. I don’t reach out to them much anymore.”

Durgee hopes people who view his paintings are affected by them in the same way that people who read comic books are. “Because the source material is from an escapist culture, I want my final work to be escapist,” he said. “I want people to escape to an alternate reality.”


If you go…
What: “Ill Fusions” exhibit
Who: Artist Shane Durgee
Where: Schweinfurth Art Center, Gallery Julius, 205 Genesee St., Auburn
When: On display through June 17
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 1-5 p.m. on Sundays
Cost: $7 per person admission to all three exhibits; members and children 12 and under are free
Details: Also on display are two other exhibits: “Made in NY” and The Accidental Immigrant”