Painting by Other Means: The Photography of Stuart Shils
because we are interested in those questions (thanks in part to you)…
This essay is published in a book that accompanies the artist’s exhibition, “because I have no interest in those questions: photographs, paintings and painted photographs” at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, 208 Forsyth Street New York City, 917-861-7312. November 19 to December 21, 2014
What more is there to a photo than a curious and prurient glance? And yet it is also a fascinating secret. – François Laruelle, The Concept of Non-Photography, 2012.
Stuart Shils is a painter. His very being has come to be filtered through the act, substance, and legacies of paint. The place of photography in his life is a case in point. That he photographs with acumen and passion, relishing what are for him new expressive possibilities, is borne out by this publication and its related show, but his photography is, as Clausewitz might have put it, the continuation of painting by other means.
A latecomer to the feast, Shils is indifferent to the order of courses. He has a hunger, but the kind of hunger induced by nibbling, not the kind that brought him to the table in the first place. In any event, he seems impatient with gadgetry, preferring the low-tech of the iPhone even to the user-friendly pocket Leica D-5 given to him in 2007 by his friend, the late Roy Davis, the gift that launched this adventure.
The classically trained painter could have gone in different directions, applying equivalent rigors to those that are now second nature in the painting studio, or “chilling out” with the instantaneity offered by his new toy. In any event, there is an indifference towards post-shutter finesse—the developing, editing or printing aspects of photo craft. But that is changing, inevitably, as he prints up his images for exhibition and is forced to address issues of size and scale and texture. It is changing also in a departure in which he actually paints on photographic supports (pace Richard Hamilton or Gerhard Richter) suggesting equally painting asserting its primacy over the newfound interest or an increasingly openness to medium fluidity. But technological ease is still essential to Shils’ belated embrace of photography.
He is a bit like those resolutely abstract painters whose photography is less the scouting for source material than it is the registering of equivalents of their form-vocabulary in the observed environment. I’m thinking of artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Sean Scully and Joe Fyfe. Except Shils is not quite (perhaps indeed is hardly at all) an abstract painter. His painting is always rooted in observation and experience of actual places, however generalized the sensation of looking may feel in his pared down evocations.
Another way in which the camera is subordinate to the easel in the ontology of image-formation is that his photographs are continuations of the act of painting rather than merely its resulting images. His discovery is of correlatives of painting in the layering that exists—or rather that is revealed to exist through slow looking—within the humanly built environment. His photographic motifs often entail viewings through meshes and apertures and coming back at the viewer/photographer in mirrors or reflective panes—instances of observation that structurally mimic camera work. In much the same way, the palimpsest of screens and frames that characterize his photographic motifs are equivalents of a painting process that is somehow at once alla prima and layered, marked equally by impressionistic responses and minutely deliberative editing, a kind of temporal push-pull that exploits dichotomies of composure and snap.
The iPhone suits the interventions of his eye upon the urban scene, as tool of communication and instantly handy jotter. A latter-day flaneur, Shils bikes around his native Philadelphia finding in its understated poetry a twin city to the Naples of Thomas Jones. He is a wonderful guide to the underbelly of this city, as I have discovered on car rides with him, marveling at the architectural grandeur of its industrial age, offering almost archaeological insights into its social transformations. I have dubbed him a connoisseur of slums, although his tours and evident astonishment at all he witnesses is the opposite of ruin porn. His vision cuts through layers of renewal and decay, alerting him tosignifiers of alienation and aspiration. He is, in equal measure, aesthete and citizen.
It is odd that an artist who was a student in the 1970s managed without photography in his artistic life for so long. Perhaps shunning the medium was a statement (to himself or the world), an affirmation of the totality of vision contained by painting and drawing. And yet, as a teacher and voracious gallery goer, Shils is nothing if not ecumenical: give and take characterizes his attitude towards artists of all mediums.
Could it be that he had no need of the apparatus because he himself was the camera, in the Sally Bowles sense? But that seems too cute, especially as Shils’ realism, even in his cooler, crisper earlywork, never aspired to mechanically impartial empiricism. More likely photography seemed a distraction from the delicate ecology of looking and feeling constantly evolving in his painting practice – an unwelcome third wheel. What has changed is not just his own security and balance but also perhaps the radically fluid, informal nature of photography itself in its post-celluloid and iPhone incarnation: with Shils and photography, medium and messenger are meeting half way.
Shils’ photography echoes the adventures of millions who use this technology almost unselfconsciously, and stands apart from the quasi-cinematic efforts of much fine art photography that exploits scale, precision and theatrical composition almost as means of distancing itself from popular use. And yet, ironically, precisely by bringing painterly verve to iPhone quickies, Shils’ low-tech photographic imagery actually recalls the immaculately composed, attempting-to-be-painterly photography of the medium’s first half century. His photographs, like his paintings, entail a strange chemistry of contrastive speeds. Despite the layering and the relish in the discovery of layering, his images are a kind of suspended clarification, a sudden gestalt. “Content is a glimpse” as de Kooning put it.
Just as his painting entails a back and forth between the painterly and the perceptual, between making and seeing, between plastic metaphor and actual moments of observation, so his photographic touch oscillates between clarity and blur, accident and set-up, purposiveness and nonchalance. His iPhone is a weapon in the front line of seeing, in the fog of perception.