This exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery assembled a wide spectrum of Shearer’s recent work with the aim of profiling its many convergent strains. The centerpiece for the show was a recent sculptural installation in the form of a steel garden shed inside of which a guitar P/A system played a heavy metal guitar solo specially commissioned by Shearer. The ‘music’ was amplified and distorted by the metal of the shed, creating a keening shrine to angry, cloistered youth.
Vancouver based artist Steven Shearer works in a broad range of disciplines including painting and collage, and continues to investigate the vernacular aesthetics of the 1970s as a site for looking at the emancipatory energies and sometimes revolutionary potential of teens and youth. He has assembled a growing archive of photographs, mostly downloaded from the web, of amateur record and tape collections, guitars and other totems of youthful rebellion and identification. He has also produced a number of works anthologizing images of ‘70s teen pop idols like Shawn Cassidy, whose androgynous sexuality and rapid climb into and then out of the heights of teen fandom is used for its autobiographical metaphors.
Steven Shearer is a collector of content, which he gathers in the form of images and lists. His accumulation and selection is derived from a researched interest in popular modes of representation that is specific to forms that have not yet established themselves or conformed to a set of established conventions. Within his collection there is often a subject matter that reflects a certain time period, and acts as social commentary, which at times Shearer defines through a personal history. But the overarching commonality running through his collection lies in formal concerns, in the manner, form or context in which a subject is represented.
Shearer has compiled an assortment of images from early teen magazines, at a time when the emerging genre was still experimenting with ways to represent its subject matter. The marketing power of a single image was not fully realized. Instead these fan magazines presented more of a scrap book approach that incorporated a large portion of non-professional and non-staged photographs. In the early days of fan magazines when their numbers were limited, they published a seemingly endless number of images, creating icons through sheer quantity with almost blatant disregard for the quality of the image or its layout on the page. Using this abundant resource of material, Shearer looks for particularities, selecting like images through similarities in poses, action or framing devices, reconfiguring them into groupings in order to find new ways of seeing and reading the imagery.
In Kaleidoscope (2001), one of Shearer’s early and now signature collage works, he compiles predominantly frontal shots of the 70s heart throb Leif Garret into a large and tight grid-like pattern without cropping or altering them; an approach he repeats in a number of works in this exhibition. Shearer reformats these images of a common subject matter into a monumental scale, a single field of hundreds of found images. Even though Shearer rarely alters the images, the overall collage creates a highly mannered effect that looks like it has a rigid structure imposed on to it: each four-sided image is framed by an almost symmetrical white border. Shearer does not want to deny the content of the individual images and tries to maintain the integrity of the original source material, while also considering the composition of the reconfiguration as a whole. It is a matter of proximity. From a distance the work appears as a color field, even the harshness of the negative spaces softens, melding the individual images instead of dividing them.
Shearer pushes this play with distances in List (2004), a large scale print of thousands of extreme underground black/death metal recordings sourced from tape trader lists. From a distance the columns of titles, band names and tape descriptions have a formal quality reminiscent of large scale abstract paintings. It is not until you stand directly in front of the work that the pattern breaks into columns, and then lines, and then words. Shearer uses a painterly approach, giving information a physical presence and even though the text is discernable at a certain vantage point the amount of information in its sheer volume is almost indigestible in anything other than its formal representation.
Part of Shearer’s collection is dedicated to images of handicrafts originally published in craft specific magazines from the late sixties and early seventies. With the craft imagery in particular, Shearer takes the most liberties, removing them from their background and adjusting their shape and size. He then reproduces them as silk-screen prints, reanimating them using a craft based technique and giving them a renewed context. Countless hours were spent making these beloved and be-laboured crafts, but when it came to their representation, like the countless images of teen idols, there was a carelessness; the work was usually self-photographed under poor conditions, and badly reproduced.
Slumber is the latest piece in Shearer’s large format collages. It breaks in content from his earlier works, moving away from youth and music cultural references to a less self referential subject matter and a direct pointing to the history of portraiture. For Slumber, he has culled images from the web, compiling photos of people sleeping. Shearer is specific about his sleepers. All of them are captured photographically sleeping, but usually not in bed or lying down. They are all caught in unlikely and often comical and mannered positions, half-sitting in chairs, slumped over tables or propped against walls with contorted bodies, twisted necks, and gaping mouths. He then combines these multiple images into a rigid structure that in a way conflicts with the subject matter, arranging them into a loose grid and finding a way to display the images in a painterly manner. For Shearer, the self-published images that he finds on the web are reminiscent of the amateurish and haphazard reproductions of early fan and craft magazines.
Sheds — the typical aluminum tool sheds found in almost every suburban back yard — are also a worthy subject matter for Shearer’s collection. Using his signature method of collage, he creates a grid of nondescript backyard sheds. Within this assembly of like images, he inserts a single image of a longhaired teenager playing a guitar. Adding this one inconsistency gives the shed new meaning. It now has the potential to become the practice ground for the guitar playing youth, a fertile ground for creativity and a place of freedom. For his exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Shearer brought this possibility into the gallery by assembling a “performance space” from prefabricated panels for such sheds. For the majority of the exhibition the shed sat closed with only slivers of light escaping from its cracks. On one occasion only, the sculpture became active via prerecorded death metal riffs specifically constructed to blare from within the closed aluminum walls causing the shed to vibrate and shudder in response to the different notes.
As much as Shearer is constantly looking for content he is also looking for innovative modes of display. He often returns to traditional forms of representation in order to recontextualize his collections. For Dirtyface (2003-4), Shearer unites seven images from his collection of teen idols in a series of seven silver point drawings. The old school technique creates a weird rift in time, converting the familiar 70s pop stars into 19th century street characters: from Adam Rich look-a-like (the youngest sibling from the television series “Eight is Enough”) to chimney sweep. In a similar manner, Longhairs, a series of crayon drawings, depicts five longhaired men, all shirtless. The medium and Shearer’s particular choice of characters transforms the contemporary low resolution jpegs to echo models of historical portraiture. He also reworks select images on canvas, moving deftly between painting, silkscreen and collage. The use of traditional mediums and the meditative focus of these hand made images contrast and compliment the glacial accumulations of printed images in Shearer’s archive.
There is something so optimistic and obsessive about all the subjects he chooses to collect, something that is reflected in his own act of collecting, and extended to the manner in which he presents his archive. How to give these things, his collection of images and text, a physical form or body? In their origin the items in his collection were neglectfully presented and reproduced, and in acquiring these images he can take the role of their caretaker, attempting to create a new context and aesthetic form in which to represent them or by using them as source material for traditional forms of image making. – Reid Shier