Hippies Use Side Door: Alan Shields at Cherry and Martin
Report from…Los Angeles
November 23, 2013 to January 11, 2014
2712 S. La Cienega Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA, 310-559-0100
There is an overwhelming and unnerving self-consciousness inherent in the acts of making and doing. Some rare individuals are able to divorce themselves from the implications of their actions, but for the vast majority of people, every move they make is done with the consideration of how this action will be perceived. This is why most people make decisions at a low-risk level. Of course, it is natural to desire acceptance, to desire approval. But artists, like athletes and performers, also seek admiration. As athletes want to be stronger and faster than the competition or actors want to be more beautiful and captivating than their peers, artists want to be the most illuminating and intellectual of their group.
The work of Alan Shields (1944-2005) never seems to make excuses for itself. It stands firm, indifferent to worship or criticism. It is self-aware and self-critical, but not self-conscious. It is not humble and it is not modest, despite its relatable aesthetics. It is not preoccupied with convincing those who come across it of its worth or value. This work does not feel insular; unlike many other objects, these project a sense of necessity—a need to be made, a need to be seen, a need to be lived with and cared for.
A mini-survey of Shields’ work from the 1960s to the 1980s is now on view at Cherry and Martin in Los Angeles. The vibrant colors, surprising material and compositional decisions, and evocative texts and titles throughout are reflective of the counter-culture of the era that shaped his art, but at the same time appear as fresh and confidently articulated as the work one might encounter in an emerging artist’s studio today. Many artists coming out of MFA graduate programs, particularly painters and sculptors, are caught in a distressful position, wanting to be “playful” and “experimental,” but also feeling anxious about the cursory nature of this activity, combined with an immense pressure to frame their work in a conceptual or theoretical manner. This anxiety often leads to aseptic carbon copies of things they saw in some seminar. For this generation of young artists struggling to balance work and play, it would likely behoove them to take a deeper look at Shields’ oeuvre, and the intellectual fun he has proven that can be had as an artist.
The earliest pieces in the show are three framed concrete poems, or “untitled typed drawings,” as Shields referred to them. Each of these typed drawings (all 1968) indirectly describe one specific thing (an airplane, bubble gum, cigarettes) through terse, staccato phrasing, within the confined form of a rectangle. The real poetry of these text pieces derives from the almost autistic tranquility of their making, which goes on to inform much of what constitutes the rest of the exhibition, consisting of works from the following three decades.
Two mobile-like objects anchor each room. The first, Dance Bag (1985), comprised of acrylic, canvas, glass beads, and thread on aluminum tubing, is fastened above a circular mirror that is approximately the same size as the circular bottom of the hanging sculpture. The second, In Bed the Sty is Teacups (1976-77), a limp chain link composition of acrylic-soaked canvas, is suspended from taut triangulated bead-covered wire, with more beads loosely strung to and beneath it, vaguely mimicking a thin shadow. Both of these breezy constructions dangle in stillness, implying a potential movement on their part; in doing so, they goad the viewer to move about them. This is the common wish of all three-dimensional objects, but as its title suggests, the possibility of a dance between object and viewer is open—a jointly sly and benevolent move on Shields’ part.
Other wall works include radiant unprimed and unstretched canvases, each eliciting movement like the sculptural works they surround, and together, they create varied allegorical manifestations of being. The aptly titled Finger Lickin’ (1974-76), is splattered with rainbow colors, the dashing marks reminiscent of a rambunctious finger painting. This initial painted layer is smothered with a cast net of thread, rope, string, and beads, creating a momentary pause, until the web causes the eye to wander further. Next to it is Subway Series (1984), a lax grid consisting of orbs with peripheral orbs, which bring to mind the growth within a Petri dish or the early films of Stan Brakhage. David Omar Rosaria (1982), the most saturated of the wall works, is a concise kaleidoscopic sequence. It flows like a liquid sand painting with belting adhered to its surface to create a simple and humorous design—a boxy portrait of a perplexingly endearing robot.
In this age, where media and technology have become so narrowly defined by the Internet, and marketing and advertising have devolved into the equivalent of commercial speed dating, it is easy to forget what these things mean. Is a wheel still technology? Can a poem be a form of advertising? Shields’ work reminds us of the limits and prospects of language and objects in society. Any apparatus has potential, any image has meaning. With this knowledge, it becomes our duty to engage and react.