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Uncomfortable Art

Love it or hate it, Steven Shearer’s body of work will at least make you feel something. Now showing at the Polygon.

Dorothy Woodend 24 Nov

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

Sometimes you can look at a work of art and appreciate the skill, concept and execution, and still just not like it very much. This is how I felt about Steven Shearer’s work, featured in a new solo exhibition at the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver.

New Westminster-born and Vancouver educated, Shearer has won considerable favour on the international art circuit. It’s not hard to see why.

His skill as a painter, photographer and sculptor are self-evident. His subject matter — heavy metal dudes, teenage heartthrobs and youth culture from the 1970s and ’80s — has a certain compelling quality.

But there is a weird queasiness in his work that makes it difficult to enjoy.

Well, so what, you say. Isn’t that the point of art? Not to please, but precisely the opposite: to discombobulate, discomfit, disorient, lots of dis-words.

Sure. And while one doesn’t have to like an artist’s body of work, it’s probably worthwhile to figure out why it evokes such feelings before turning tail and fleeing the gallery.

Shearer’s recent images of people napping, featured in Vancouver’s Capture Photography Festival this summer, caused such intense discomfort to passersby that the billboards with his photographs were removed from the festival a mere 48 hours after they were erected.

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Sleep II (detail), 2015; ink on canvas, framed; 13 1/2 x 273 ¼”; edition 1 of 3. Copyright Steven Shearer, courtesy of Galerie Eva Presenhuber and David Zwirner Gallery.

The subjects featured in Shearer’s large-scale photos appeared to be not so much sleeping peacefully as doped up, passed out and perhaps even dead. Assembled along the Arbutus Greenway in Vancouver, where people ride bikes and amble along on walks, the photos reared up like the ghost of opiates past.

Nothing seems to stir up public ire like public art, but there was an edge of provocation in the work that perhaps helps explain the visceral reaction. People claimed the images made them want to vomit.

Even if the artist’s intent was to interrogate the interstitial space between public and private, there is something about not having a choice in seeing images that inflames people.

As an unanticipated and unwanted invasion of sorts, it’s an understandable reaction. In a city like Vancouver, where the death toll from addiction is spiralling, the photos were simply too painful for some to bear.

A gallery setting is a different experience, you’ve chosen to be there and to partake, but even in the elegant confines of the Polygon I still felt like shying away from some of the work on offer.

As show curator Reid Shier explained in a media preview, Shearer’s images are not meant to be viewed ironically, though headbanger culture has been the butt of many jokes since films like Fubar and This Is Spinal Tap.

But even if it’s not meant to be campy fun, the work doesn’t feel exactly straight up either. One wants to laugh at the hair metal dudes, but the clinical tone in many of the drawings and photographs denies such easy pleasure.

Shier used the word “uncomfortable” to describe the work, but it’s a little more than that.

A painting entitled Potter is indicative of this quality. The subject of the work is a skinny, stringy-haired man who reminded me strongly of Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He is depicted bent over the potter’s wheel, blond hair hanging low, while behind him is what looks to be some of his recent handiwork.

The glazed patterns of the different pots, in muted colours, look like they contain human innards. A similar bodily pattern is echoed in the central figure. The man’s brain appears to be straining towards the surface of his skull, the globular lobes throbbing just below the surface of the skin.

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Potter, 2021. Copyright Steven Shearer, courtesy the George Economou Collection; Athens, Greece.

Shearer’s skill as a painter is obvious and immediate, from the treatment of drapery — the man’s pyjama pants graced with veiny stripes — to the musculature of the hands and feet, rendered with an almost Renaissance flair. But in spite of the technical ability on display, the image itself made me want to take a few steps back and put some space between me and this character.

There is a waft of the unsavoury in much of Shearer’s work, but especially in his demonic-looking renditions of teen heartthrob Leif Garrett.

Garrett is a bit of an odd figure in cultural history, a floofy-haired pretty boy whose feathered locks and bedroom eyes haunted the dreams of teens during the late ’70s when he was splayed throughout the pages of Tiger Beat magazine. But drugs, partying, car accidents and many brushes with the law took some of the shine off the actor/singer/pin-up.

In Shearer’s work, Garrett is obsessively captured and documented, images of the sad star filling the pages of two enormous books. That’s a whole lotta Leif. In other paintings, Garrett resembles a Rossetti-like succubus, pale purple in colour with thick dark lips and glowing eyeballs.

The influences of masters like Rembrandt, Edvard Munch and Dante Gabriel Rossetti are abundant throughout the exhibition in small conté drawings of metal rockers and carefully executed paintings like The Collector’s Visit.

But again, despite the skill of the artist, these images repel as much they attract. Maybe that is ultimately the point. If Shearer is after a species of provocation, he’s found it.

Perversity also rears its head in a large-scale sculptural work entitled Geometric Mechanotherapy Cell for Harmonic Alignment of Movement and Relations. The structure was inspired by an ad for a children’s jungle gym, but Shearer recreated it with PVC sewer pipe in glistening black. The sculpture is accompanied by a sound component, a selection of groaning, death metal type sounds that made me think of intestinal blockages.

Another piece, Xmas Trees, on the surface seems benign, but ultimately disorients the viewer who looks closer to find 150 home photographs of people’s Christmas trees, arranged upside down so that they resemble so many vajazzled crotches.

One’s tolerance for an artist’s obsessions depends on what you, as the viewer, take away from it.

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Xmas Trees, 2005. Copyright Steven Shearer, courtesy private collection.

Other folks might groove on down to the Shearer’s work, and there’s a lot here worth wrestling with, like questions of value — high culture butted up against what has historically been considered lowbrow. Ideas of what it means to be a young man. The pathos of fame, as embodied in a figure like Leif Garrett.

There are images of women in the show, though they’re not nearly as central as the men. In this aspect, the work occasionally has the feel of a culture that is insular, confined and fetishized. An artist like Attila Richard Lukacs and his earlier paintings of gay skinheads come to mind.

It’s hard for me to feel much affection for the dude culture that Shearer seems so fascinated by. It’s been ubiquitous for such a long time that yet more investigations of it feel redundant, if not indulgent. But no one said you had to like everything.

Shearer has garnered accolades and collector interest aplenty outside of Canada. The Polygon exhibition is the first solo show of the artist’s oeuvre in Vancouver. It’s worth paying a visit, to see the work in the flesh and make up your own mind.  [Tyee]

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