Sleepers Awake

Exhibition runs until 31 March 2024

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Sleepers Awake is an exhibition of Billy Shannon‘s ‘Sleep Series’, a series which has been a significant inspiration for most of the last decade of his work.
Sleep fascinates many artists, the slipping into the abstract world of dreams has a storied history in art, offering a window into the private realm of human vulnerability and subconscious thought. In ancient cultures, sleep was often represented as a mystical state, where individuals could receive divine messages or omens. Renaissance art brought a humanistic perspective, showcasing sleep as a moment of rest and reflection, often using it to emphasise the innocence or virtue of the subject, as seen in the peaceful slumber of cherubs or saints.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, artists began to explore the psychological aspects of sleep. Symbolists portrayed sleep as a gateway to the deeper psyche, while Surrealists, influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, depicted the dream state as a realm where the bizarre and the illogical could reveal inner truths.
Billy has found a fusion of his studies into sleep with many other aspects of his world. The series grew directly out of his work as a massage therapist and his experience as a physical performer.

Billy often refers to himself as a ‘serial painter’ meaning that he tends to work on several series of works, thoughts over many years. These series often intertwine as in the painting of Jag Popham where Shakespeare’s Sonnet 54 intersects quite fortuitously with the mind and life of the sleeping dancer.

Billy Shannon - Jag - Sonnet 54

Jag – Sonnet 54
Acrylic on Canvas
102 x 102cm, 2020

Most recently Billy has been researching contemporary physics and the possible histories of the universe. This grew organically out of the sleep series through the research for a painting of a sleeping astrophysicist. That painting is still in process but several ‘Histories of the Universe’ paintings have already been completed.
Anthropic Universe features a dancer sleeping in the centre of the painting, perhaps dreaming and creating a universe that is capable of sustaining a life form that can contemplate the universe to which it belongs.

Anthropic Universe - Billy Shannon

Anthropic Universe
Acrylic on canvas
102 x 102cm, 2024

Billy, on the Sleep series..

The ‘Sleep Series’ started on 18th April 2015
“As with many good things, it started organically… I used to earn some income as a deep tissue masseur for physical performers and one of my clients sent me a message saying that she’d “.. love to see what she looks like through the eyes of my paintbrush”. Asher Bowen-Saunders turned up after a day of working as a ‘living statue’ and as she was tired I suggested that she just have a snooze, because I’ve always been fascinated with sleep. Whilst working on her painting, I began to muse upon the contrast between the energetic natures of these highly active performers and their sleeping forms and dreamlife. Childhood memories came to me of watching my mother sleeping, and what seemed to be a shadow floating over her closed eyes. My young mind imagined this to be either her soul or dreams moving around her.

Creative Fire - Billy Shannon

Creative Fire – Asher Bowen-Saunders
Acrylic on canvas
97 x 97cm, 2018


“The sleep series was a significant period of work for me, partly because it married so many aspects of my life together but mostly because it’s such a fascinating and beautiful subject. Past tense is not quite accurate, in that I am still working on a few of them and others are morphing into the next phases of thought. After nearly ten years of working on that series, I only have a few completed paintings left. Most have been sold and a small amount given to very special people. So for this online exhibition, I thought that I’d present the remaining paintings as well as a bit of a look back over a selection of paintings from the series, taking advantage of the fact that with online exhibitions, I don’t need physical access to the paintings.

Natano Fa'anana, Love and Strength by Billy Shannon relates to Natano's Pe'a, the traditional Samoan tattoo for men

Natano Fa’anana, Love and Strength
Acrylic on canvas, 1020 x 1980mm, 2017

“This painting relates to Natano’s Pe’a, the traditional Samoan tattoo for men. Loosely, it symbolises the love of his mother wrapping around him, giving him strength to love, support and protect his family and friends. Anyone who knows Natano would tell you that he is the personification of love and strength. It was a great pleasure to work with Natano on this painting.

Sabine van Rensburg – Dream and trust in yourself
Acrylic on Canvas, 960 x 960mm, 2016

“Sabine is a circus aerialist, dreaming of letting go of the silks high above the ground, to catch them again. Trusting herself, she has developed this skill into a beautiful art form. She also rolled around quite a lot in her sleep, which led to this multi-imaged work

“The amount and nature of movement that physical performers go through in their sleep fascinates me, (the hypnagogic jerk, for example, is more prevalent in them than sedentary people), as does their highly diverse relationships to sleep and the part it plays in their own creative journeys. Nearly a year into the sleep series I started to think about the relationship between the dissolution of our conscious selves as we pass into the hyperreal world of REM sleep cycles, and the movement of dust in space, the potentials of dark matter and how stars are formed and destroyed in nebulae. Buddhist philosophy indicates that we are not of solid form, but are made up of minute energies or matter.

Emma and the Hypnic Jerk
Acrylic on canvas, 1000 x 1500mm 2015

“Emma Serjeant is an exceedingly dynamic performer and mind. With this painting I was seeking to portray her energy as a meteor, tumbling backwards, reflecting the hypnagogic shock to the heart that causes startled, protective movement of the limbs as we fall into sleep.

Billy Shannon

Nebulous Sleep
Acrylic on canvas, 865 x 865mm, 2016

A self-portrait sleeping, and some of the nebulae in the Cygnus constellation, which was directly above me at birth. Each night before sleep, I program myself to try to reinstate the original ‘pattern’ which is Billy. It is a healing process and aimed at dumping some of the muck that we accumulate throughout our lives.

Sleepers Awake

Exhibition runs until 31 March 2024

Billy is also our featured artist for March! Click here to read the interview!

Billy Shannon painting Mother Tree

See more from the Sleep series here on Billy’s site!

Some things written about the sleep series…

Pat Hoffie on the Sleep Series for Billy’s exhibition ‘Nocturne’ at Cross Gallery in Bundaberg in 2017

‘..that you have but slumber’d here,
while these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
no more yielding but a dream.’
(Puck, in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Sleeping figures, wrapped around a dream. The subjects of these paintings seem caught between the very skeins of the paint; wrapped within the gauzy sheets of the image’s layers.
If they are, in part, portraits, they are also evocations of states-of-being. Captured in repose, they dream in the shadowy spaces of half-realms, suspended between the between the here and the not-here.
The dreaming subjects in these paintings have entered this state of being willingly. In delivering themselves into the hands of the artist’s other-role as a masseur, they allow themselves to be lulled into sleep – suspended into a kind of temporary trance, they become the willing subjects of the artist’s other-role as a painter.
The images are evocative, then, in two ways, for they are experienced and realized by the artist as both the solid flesh of physical bodies and as the numinous ineffable nature of a sleeping spirit. There is a sense of hypnosis at play; and with it a nod towards the role of artist as a creator of visual imagery capable of mediating between our conscious and sub-conscious awareness.
The growing public interest in the sub-conscious that emerged in the late 18th century was influenced by the experiments of Franz Mesmer, a German doctor who described the ‘invisible force’ (lebensmagntismus) that all animate beings possess. Mesmer believed that the capacity for harnessing that force could generate a range of physical effects, amongst the more positive of which was a kind of healing. Since that time, practices of ‘mesmerism’, experiments with somnambulism and treatises on vitalism were continued in hundreds of volumes of documented experience up until the 1920s, when such practices were dropped to the side in the enthusiasm for more rational approaches to understanding unconscious states. Up to that point, the proponents of such far-reaching experiments were variously referred to as hypnotists, animal-magnifiers, mesmerists and vitalists. And although these practices ultimately failed to be recognized by Western medicine, their efficacy in generating positive results to a range of ailments that include pain, depression, anxiety disorders, addictions and psychogenic illnesses are still recognized by many traditional practitioners.
Visual artists share, along with the mutable practices of the mesmerists, work sites that traverse the shifting grounds between material and spirit, and practices that call attention to the shifting, uncertain territories between conscious and unconscious states of awareness. Throughout art history, artists have painted dreamers; from the biblical dreamers of Marc Chagall to Henri Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy (1897) to Picasso La Reve (1932) and right up to the present, the subject matter of dreamers reminds us that even precious flesh is capable of melting and dissolving into a dream. Billy Shannon’s ongoing experimentation with dreamers and their dreams continues the theme in this new series of paintings.

Pat Hoffie 2017

And Carol Shwarzman in the arts blog, Polycentrica

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