Tuesday, April 20, 2010

I dig: Joel Shapiro

Picture tropical fish (or birds, either work equally well) in suspended animation. Or how about a freeze-frame, 'bullet-time' animation from "The Matrix"? Better yet: any of the Bowser's castle levels on Super Mario 64. Joel Shapiro's exhibition of new works at The Pace Gallery would make an ill Mario Bros 3D platform game.
OK here's the deal: Shapiro is presenting an important and thoroughly enjoyable show. Amid the museum-quality posthumous exhibitions of influential artists — just this year alone, two for Joseph Beuys (incl. one at The Pace Gallery), Ed Paschke's at Gagosian and, though brief, the Eva Hesse late-works show at Hauser & Wirth — there have been solid showings for living artists too, in particular Ken Price, who achieved near-ubiquity for a time, incl. a strong go at Matthew Marks. Shapiro's got that going now, too, only his one-two punch this year happened months apart: the delightfully eerie exhibition of early, small-scale works at Paula Cooper Gallery back in January (his original gallery in NY) and now, appropriately, this five-piece at Pace, all new works, all quite large, and yet all literally lighter than air. Art-bloggers, critics, and gallery-goers (plus you general aesthetes like me) better take note.

Shapiro's last solo show at Pace was in late 2007, a mix of large- to massive-scale bronze and painted-wood sculpture that, while stretching out and exploring the greater gallery space (and in Pace's hangar-like 22nd St gallery, that's a lot of space), remained firmly anchored to the earth. Yet in Shapiro's signature way, these structures, ranging from artist's dummies to blocky Hasbro iDogs to Star Wars droids, conveyed a lightness belying their respective composed weights. Even the really big one, a bronze spanning almost 28' in width and appearing somewhat like a super-simplified Picasso bullfight abstract, looked somehow like a super-enlarged model in photographs. In person, their gracefulness succeeded their respective gravities.
Shapiro takes this theme of lightness w/ large materials way further in this new show, working with painted rough wood panels and variously tensile fishing line w/ industrial fastenings. That's it, plus the ambient space that becomes another element in each piece. Intense!! Now compare this to his previous Pace show and it sounds like quite a departure — a furthering of an idea, yes, interacting w/ space w/o the constraint of rigid architecture, but still smallish wood elements floating about? Naturally, I'm going to tell you this is not unheard of from Shapiro. That's why I mentioned his early-works show above, as it included, besides a selection of intimate-scaled bronze figurative works, two rather startling wood works, a sort of balsa-wood-looking scatter incl. a ramp and either a canoe or a coffin (your take) and what appeared to be a dismantled draftsman's dummy, both from the early '70s. In the '80s, Shapiro would enlarge such scattered objects and suspend them in the air via metal rods, honing this further into hanging constructions at the turn of the millennium, while working up his balletic earthbound sculpture simultaneously. The new exhibition at Pace is just another rung of Shapiro's evolutionary ladder as an artist, continually challenging us to the resonance and buoyant beauty of large-scale sculpture, even the nature of sculpture itself.

The 2009 piece "Float", a four-plank sculpture located in line-of-sight to the gallery entrance, is a good primer for the show. The four wood elements — a strong kelly-green board at horizontal eye-level, over a goldenrod plank angled toward the floor, plus a vertical brown and a seafoam-painted board pitched at the ceiling — create a neat vertical composition, plus Shapiro's use of mostly white fishing line creates a great ethereal effect as the connecting elements blend into the wall and ceiling, like the sun's glare through fog. The planks really look as though they are hanging unfettered in space. I suggest you pick up a schematic from the front desk before proceeding further. I sometimes ignore these things and just 'go it alone', but Shapiro collaborated with Pace's exhibition team in creating the layout of the map and it's very very dope. It's a topographic, bird's-eye line-drawing of the gallery, w/ the five pieces reduced to a network of lines and colored polygons designating the wood. Since this is a top-down view, everything is literally flattened out and, while it's all there (you can count the lines and shapes), elements are skewed and reduced, cloaking the wonderful volume of the works. It's rather fascinating to see the dichotomy between the static drawing and the real-life hanging works. "Was Blue" (2010) rests in about half of the main gallery space, though its fishing lines cross-cut back to the front desk in the far corner and nearly to the entryway. It's a satisfyingly big work, a mostly planar collection of blues bisected by a strong sky-blue vertical (which alerts then refocuses the eye on the inherent overall horizontal-ness. An eye-level McDonald's Orange Drink-colored plank, slung on two connectors, hangs off to one side, echoed by an abbreviated high-hung teal on the other, like satellites to the greater central bluish form. The duo in the gallery off to the side of "Was Blue" — the horizontal, self-descriptive "Plank" (2010) and the tautly vertical "Blue/Cad Red Deep" (2009) — bear an ingenious interplay as a pair while maintaining their respective individualities. I particularly dug "Plank", a cinnamony squarish, coffee-table-sized slab, w/ its weathered surface and dull glimmer that could have been a Richard Serra if it were Cor-Ten steel and propped against the wall. Plus the paint markings on the white fishing line is evidence that this is probably one of the works Shapiro painted 'in situ', instead of applying the dry pigment in casein emulsion beforehand and then hanging. The harlequin effect of "Blue/Cad Red Deep" — in what I'm calling oil-pastel cyan and bitter-chocolate — echoed Jasper Johns' forays with that pattern. I left the side gallery left of the entrance for last on purpose, as the experience of walking through "For Anna" (2009) is a continuation of, and an alternative to, "Was Blue". "For Anna" is the other six-plank piece in the exhibition, two pairs of narrow brown and teal boards floating at eye-level and ascending to the ceiling and, with a very visual moat between, a low-slung yellow and brown board (I've exhausted crafty color descriptors). The network of dark-colored fishing lines is more frenetic here, w/ each cable exploring and grappling into the reduced dimensions of the room, particularly the strong diagonal lines off the high vertical teal plank. Think Fred Sandback crossed w/ a super-sized cat's cradle. The line system is way more conspicuous here, too, as the black string bounds off the white walls instead of receding into them. It's like we're meant to see the interconnectivity here, the way the fishing line crisscrosses and articulates the space that the boards, and "For Anna" in its entirety — and we the viewer, entering that space — inhabit.

(many thanks to The Pace Gallery for permission to run my above photos of "Was Blue", 2010)