Nancy Shaver: “Retail,” sculpture and objects from Henry
530 West 25th Street
New York City
212 675 7772
14 April – 19 May 2007
The curiosity shop that artist Nancy Shaver runs in Hudson, N.Y., is named Henry. It is an antique store filled with non-art objects in display cases that customers pay cash for and carry away. In one sense Shaver makes straightforward modernist/minimalist sculptures: brightly colored or patterned little boxes that are lined up or stacked on object pedestals such as wheeled dollies or handmade shelving units or placed on the walls in object frames such as musical instrument cases and in handmade wooden boxes. In another sense, Shaver transforms, through an intuitive predominantly visual decision making process, real objects she does not modify in any way into expensive art objects. Shaver’s exhibition at Feature Inc. includes non-art objects from Henry, sculptures that are completely handmade by the artist and sculptures that combine the handmade and the found object. This work is all about the nexus of the utilitarian object that has hidden poetic qualities and the self-consciously constructed art object. Shaver’s art is also about accumulation, juxtaposition, and the visual habits we form with objects that we live with day to day.
Shaver’s humble but formally sophisticated sculptures consist of small wooden or cardboard boxes brightly painted with house paint or covered with fabrics, often patterned. The colorful boxes are either artfully arranged in quirky wooden frames or old musical instrument cases hung on the wall, or they are stacked in asymmetrical table or column forms and placed on dollies or oddly shaped shelving units, which are also handmade. “Flat Goods” (2006) is a table-like stack of colored blocks placed on a dolly with a flattened out hand-knitted white sock placed on top of it. Not quite a real table, and not quite a rarified art object, this hybrid form deifies the real and at the same time makes us very conscious of the selective gaze of the artist and her ability to discern the multiple formal meanings of objects that have practical and/or decorative purposes. Shaver’s sculptures play with the hazy boundaries separating the practical and decorative. She shows us that utilitarian objects that have a formal design that coincides with their general purpose can be as mysterious as sunken treasure.
Shaver collects stuff she finds at thrift stores and in yard and estate sales, objects that have unusual textures, colors, and shapes. We learn a lot about the artist’s intuition, her eye, by looking at what objects she finds interesting enough to eventually call art. So what would seem impersonal appropriation art on first glance is actually quite personal. This is stuff the artist lived with for a long time and then decided was ambiguous or haunting enough to become an art object. In this exhibit, there are kitschy table lamps, a milk crate with amputated rear-view mirrors piled in it, mailers for egg crates, plastic brake light covers displayed like jewelry in a strange reflective metal box, a vinyl chair with an old blanket thrown over it (This sculpture more than anything else in the exhibition has an eerie “lived with” aura to it because we can easily imagine the hours somebody spent sitting in the chair), and a pink jewelry box that is very ugly but becomes bizarre because of the way the artist placed it directly against the wall on the floor.
The non-art and art objects are all for sale at Feature Inc., but there is a sharp difference in price between the things the artist considers to be high art and those that remain interesting curios. The sculpture “Retail” (2005–06) for instance, a handmade shelving unit covered with rows of Ms. Shaver’s signature boxes, is selling for $65,000, while a wood cutout of a gun with a magic marker drawing on it of a barrel and trigger goes for $50. We wonder why an oddball mailer for egg crates is worth thousands of dollars while the aforementioned plastic brake light covers are priced at less than a thousand dollars. Even though the artist supposedly modified the egg crater mailer in some way these personal touches are very hard to identify. Although appropriation art was initially a critique of the artist’s touch, clearly the market value of individuality remains high. No matter how democratic the artist’s impulses appear to be in this exhibition, a hierarchy remains. This might be more of a commentary on the pricing mechanisms of the art market. In order for a common object to be transformed into an expensive Chelsea tchotchke an artist must package or present it in a distinctive manner. Seeing which objects cost more than others in this exhibition might tell us something about the general state of aesthetics. Although the selection process is very personal it must be assumed that the artist has the market in mind when she decides to transplant an object from Henry to Chelsea.