Steven Shearer: Bastard Offspring of the Photoconceptualists
A feature from the Fall 2005 issue of Canadian Art
POSTED: SEPTEMBER 27, 2005
It happened while Steven Shearer was having his Vancouver studio renovated. He had removed a collage of Leif Garrett photographs from the east wall, and as the carpenter pulled debris from behind the wall, something fell out. It was a newspaper article dated June 24, 1978, and entitled “Why Do Little Girls Love Leif Garrett?” complete with full-colour kitschy photo of the ’70s-era teen idol−the very sort of photograph Shearer uses in his work. Except he’d never seen it before. It was uncanny. So much so that Shearer had an affidavit attesting to the event drawn up and signed by himself, the carpenter and a notary public. The affidavit forms part of an art piece entitled I Thought I Was a Visionary−But Learned I Was a Channeler (2003).
Given that Shearer’s collages, paintings, drawings and sculptures are inspired by found images−taken from 1970s teen and craft magazines, discarded photo albums and HTML sites−one wonders what the universe might be trying to say. Perhaps it is that while an artist may believe he or she is freely choosing a subject matter, the subject matter chooses the artist.
Shearer’s subject matter centres on youth, alienation and barely repressed violence. It is a world inhabited by death-metal rockers, 1970s prefab boy bands and teen stars, glam-rockers and guitar-wielding teenaged suburban dreamers who−we know from their bad hair and bad skin and shabby domestic surroundings−will never make it, no matter how often they practise “Stairway to Heaven.” Shearer’s drawings and paintings of shaggy-haired young men (almost all of his subjects are males) in silver point or red pencil crayon or oils call to mind Gothic imagery (a drawing of a man with blood dripping from his mouth resembles a portrait of Vlad the Impaler) and Dickensian street urchins. His work will be included in Vitamin D, a major survey of contemporary drawing to be published by Phaidon Press in September.
The subjects of his paintings, which borrow stylistically from Edvard Munch and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, are androgynous; they have longish hair and soft, almost feminine bodies, yet they aspire to a fuck-you ferocity that only underscores their vulnerability. They are drawn from the margins of society: what Karl Marx termed the lumpenproletariat−those who populate the underworld and today’s sports arenas. They can be marshalled into a mob, fighting without regard for their own safety, but, as the Vancouver artist Roy Arden, who’s written about Shearer’s work, explains, “If you wanted to organize them to raise the minimum wage, you couldn’t.”
Writing in Artforum, Matthew Higgs called Shearer the “bastard offspring of the Photoconceptualists.” In addition to the social realism that informs his practice, Shearer has followed in the footsteps of the Vancouver photoconceptualists by doing an end run around the local art scene and heading straight to Europe, the United States and Asia. His work was recently exhibited at Tate Modern in London and Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York, and in a solo exhibition at Galerie Eva Presenhuber in Zurich. He is represented in Turin, Zurich and Tokyo−but nowhere in Canada, with the exception of the Steven Shearer Gallery of Contemporary Art Featuring the Art of Steven Shearer, which operates at his discretion.
The image that launched the “gallery” has the artist standing next to the avant-garde filmmaker (and chronicler of marginalized subcultures) John Waters. It is a photo taken at Shearer’s second solo show, in 2002, at American Fine Arts, Co., in New York. That evening Shearer also exhibited his considerable guitar skills by backing up the all-noise girl band Angelblood.
It wasn’t until Shearer’s exhibition at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery in late 2004 that a full complement of his work was shown to an audience in the city where it was made. A key piece, an apparently minor work that sums up his entire oeuvre, was a scrawled note in a plastic frame. “Sorry Steve,” it reads, “when we talk about celebrating cultural diversity we don’t mean yours….”
Like Bruegel or Dou, Shearer takes as his subjects examples of a social type typically ignored by a society that finds their very existence discomfiting. His subjects will never visit an art gallery, if indeed they know that such a place exists. Shearer’s message isn’t really any message at all, but rather an anthropological study of what he knows first-hand, from growing up in the burbs of Port Coquitlam in the 1970s and 80s, playing guitar and listening to heavy metal and covering his walls with the images he now explores with a combination of empathy and analytical distance. While some critics have accused him of irony, he refutes the charge−in fact, the assumption may say more about his critics. “Lumpen was never a judgment for me, it was my experience and my background,” says Shearer. “People thought it was ironic, but that’s so limited. It draws from the life immediate to me.”
One work is a series of text poems inspired by heavy-metal song titles: ALL HAIL THE ANCIENT ONES/ELDERS OF THE APOCALYPSE/GORGING ON MUCUS AND BILE/GOAT OF A THOUSAND YOUNG…
“It’s like a poème concret,” says Shearer, standing in his white-walled studio, tall and clad in black T-shirt and jeans. He grins: “But sometimes it’s just not heavy enough, so I’ll turn ‘bestial’ into ‘beastial.’”
His work explores the realms of the invisible, the forgotten, the imperfect. The images he chooses were never intended for mass viewership−often they are private photographs, as in his collage of images of people sleeping. Flawed images of flawed people, they provide a window onto realities concealed by the modern visual landscape, which is largely a stylized constructed reality project designed to sell celebrity or Celebrex or lipstick. Even Shearer’s collages and posters of Shaun Cassidy and Leif Garrett, with their aspects of camp, employ images from an era before mass media had become adept at packaging itself, at editing out reality.
“I collected a lot of fanzines from this time and it was a period when they hadn’t really formulated the full marketability of youth culture,” Shearer observes. “If they were trying to make a Teen Beat magazine they were basically trying to fill the pages with pictures; they weren’t trying to sell something with each picture. Leif Garrett’s mom would just walk into his room and take his picture and the magazines would print it.”
Chevron is a blown-up photograph of the early pop group Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods (whom Shearer morphed into the fictional band The Puffrock Shiteaters, a metaphor for every fabricated, made-to-order pop group on the corporate menu−which in turn reflects the preoccupation of teenagers with “hypocrisy” versus “authenticity,” even as they are the main market supporting these bands). This piece, a version of which is in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, another having been acquired by the Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, shows the band performing in what is probably a mall parking lot. A Chevron sign interrupts the background, and it’s clear no photo editor cared to, or even thought to, crop the image or send a professional photographer.
“There’s something to those images that I thought had escaped, had never really come to form,” Shearer says. “That’s why I thought that I could appropriate them. To look at pictures of the Olsen twins now or teen magazines even five years ago, the pictures are so formulated; there’s nothing open-ended about them. There’s nothing that says, why did they print this? There’s something poetic about these images that shouldn’t be available to me; they shouldn’t be mass-distributed or mass-produced. I didn’t find that kind of energy again until the Internet.”
The first piece he created from the Internet is an assemblage of Black Sabbath merchandise−8-track tapes, concert shirts, fan memorabilia−taken from the on-line auction site eBay. The images are arranged in specimen tray–like quadrants, and many reveal a domestic narrative, whether an unmade bed or a carpet sample from where the item was photographed. “I gravitated to Black Sabbath because it represented a form of proletarian folk art. Through the subject matter you get the social focus and strata of the working-class domestic interior that these objects were placed in. This amateur documentation had an aesthetically fugitive quality to it that I liked.”
Lumpen derives from the German for “rag-picker” (today’s analogy might be the bottle-picker), a metaphor Charles Baudelaire used to describe the poet, and which might equally serve to describe Shearer: “Everything that the big city threw away, everything it lost, everything it despised, everything it crushed underfoot, he catalogues and collects….He sorts things out and makes a wise choice; he collects, like a miser guarding a treasure, the refuse which will assume the shape of useful or gratifying objects between the jaws of the goddess of Industry.”
Shearer has used the term to title a work and printed it on his “Swinging Lumpen” wearable buttons. The works reference the early British Pop artist Richard Hamilton’s enormous “Slip it to Me” button and Hamilton’s iconic Swingeing London 67, based on a newspaper photograph of Robert Fraser and Mick Jagger handcuffed in the back of a police vehicle after their arrest for drug possession. The latter echoes in Shearer’s enlarged canvas-laminated photograph of a teenager giving the finger, covering his face as he shows off his attitude, much the way Fraser and Jagger showed off their handcuffs while concealing their faces.
Hamilton’s 1965 work My Marilyn takes on similar notions of the imperfect and commodified image. Multiple images of Marilyn Monroe, taken from a contact sheet that included photos she had personally crossed out as rejects, illustrate the way an individual is transformed into a commercial product. The X-ed out Marilyns, like the images Shearer appropriates, are an attack on the constructed visual landscape, exposing that which would be concealed.
If imperfect lives and imagery occupy Shearer, so does adolescence, that most awkward and imperfect of life stages. The desire to control the uncontrollable adolescent is the theme of Shearer’s sculpture Activity Cell with Warlock Bass Guitar. Based on a 1960s modernist design prototype, the large, cushioned, octagonal leisure pod is despoiled by the presence of a Warlock guitar. Shearer calls the Warlock “a trident for evil possibilities and sublimated energy” and it contrasts sharply with a space in which parents might envision their perfect teen reading or doing homework (Straight As! We’re so proud!) and which also seems designed for surveillance. As a utopian social engineering project it fails utterly: as Shearer observes, it is exactly the kind of space a teenager would be tempted to vandalize.
By contrast, another sculpture, a ready-made of a prefab aluminum tool shed, captures the domestic suburban existence while simultaneously serving as a more attractive locale than the activity cell for Shearer’s lumpenadolescents. At the CAG exhibit, a white light blasts through a crack in the tool shed’s aluminum door, as does (at appointed times) a recording of someone sporadically practising heavy-metal guitar solos. The high volume causes the shed to vibrate and shudder. This is where a teenager might go to “sniff gas,” says Shearer. For his subjects, the shed is the quintessential found object. It is the place out back of orderly domesticity where the unruliness of life is both confined and (to us) exposed.
It is the found object that somehow finds its subject.