There are hurdles to cross before getting to the rewards of Alan Shields: In Motion, in its last week at the Parrish Art Museum, and even then some may be eluded; those found, however, are sweet and sustaining. The exhibition is a tailored retrospective and homecoming for the late East End artist’s color-infused, multimedia work. Shields’s art, which first received considerable critical and commercial success in the late ’60s and early ’70s, is betwixt and between — it is contemporary yet quickly slipping into the realm of the past. It draws heavily on the language of tie-dye culture: woven canvas, beads, paint splashes, geometric patterns, spinning mandalas. Its current setting — the culturally cloistered, overpowering natural beauty of the South Fork of Long Island — functions almost like a powerful anti-anxiety drug, potentially masking critical judgment.
The suggestion of the artist’s reanimation in the title of the exhibition manifests in guest curator Jill Brienza’s commissioning of Stephen Petronio to create a modern dance piece called Into the Maze. In a first for the Parrish, his company performed the work several times early in November. It was inspired by and executed in and around the show’s centerpiece, a labyrinthine three-dimensional painting called “Maze” (1981–82). For museumgoers now, the performance is only present in a video of a version given in 2012 at the Van Doren Waxter Gallery in Manhattan, shown on a centrally located flat screen consecutive with two of Shields’s stop-action animations. The single direct link between the past performance and the present museum experience is the atmospheric, synthesized guitar audio track from the video (played by Tom Laurie and inspired by a melody written by Shields), which is amplified throughout the gallery.
Stephen Petronio Company performing Into the Maze at the Parrish Art Museum
What you miss by not seeing Petronio’s choreography in person is the spark of connection to a partially improvised performance by glowing, young dancers, with Shields’s work as a backdrop. During the event they took the hands of audience members, leading them into the main gallery and later inviting them to join the troupe inside “Maze.” You also miss a rare sighting of Shields’s wearable bead art sported by the dancers. You can, however, walk through the berry-stained matrix yourself, and move around Shields’s other spectrally colored, open-format installations such as “Ajax” (1972–73) and “Dance Bag” (1985.) Doing so allows for a viewing of his work, and other museumgoers, through its openings, a series of images framed by the art’s webs and windows. This serves the artist’s interest in questioning preconceptions about perception and opening multiple vistas onto the nature of human exchanges.
The Parrish Museum is the third stop for In Motion, after earlier installations in Kansas and New Mexico. This version comprises the most comprehensive iteration, with pieces made from 1969 to 2005 including intricate, multimedia works on paper; stitched and stained paintings on unstretched canvas; two- and three-dimensional installations formed from woven cotton belting, beads, and painted sticks; and two animations Shields made toward the end of his career. As a student Shields was inspired by the full-spectrum, visionary mode of inventor Buckminster Fuller and grew to be a “comprehensive anticipatory” artist himself. In the early ’70s, he left New York City to embrace a sustainable, rural life on Shelter Island. He continued to evolve the interactive nature of his work, following his belief in the positive benefits of a global human connectivity and his spiritual relationship with the land (formed during his boyhood on a Kansas farm).
The aspects of Shields’s work that may look dated are the same qualities that fuel its relevance. Look at any current political debate and you’ll find issues germane to his thinking: climate change, global food and fuel resources, gender equality, and especially freedom of expression. His frequent reference to nomadic dwellings, through the use of decoratively hemmed, loose canvas panels, suggests a mobility of individual thought and independence from the influence of the increasingly oligarchic institutions shaping our lives. His formal devices modifying traditional painting processes and materials, such as multicolored lines made with sewing machine stitching, still produce thrilling results. He composed using geometric shapes at contrasting scales with the casual confidence of a knife-thrower. At the Parrish, you’re left wondering how uplifting grandeur and grace can be produced from such humble materials and mundane manipulations. Most beautiful and mysterious is his use of color. The layers of seemingly casually spilled and washed color over his canvas and paper surfaces conjure sublime sunsets with breathtaking views of ocean and agrarian landscapes. The work of a parade of younger artists can be linked to Shields’s, including that of Jessica Stockholder and Jim Lambie, both of whom construct painting environments from intensely colored high and low materials.
The East End of Long Island has a cultural history that’s both “traditional and radical,” a phrase critic and artist Fairfield Porter used to describe Jane Freilicher’s painting that was quoted in a recent remembrance of her by the Parrish’s chief curator, Alicia Longwell. Frielicher, along with other artists including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Betty Parsons lived and worked on the East End, and it’s still a thriving magnet for contemporary artists such as Julian Schnabel, Jennifer Bartlett, Chuck Close, Annie Leibovitz, Mary Heilmann, and Lynda Benglis. They came and continue to come for the rare full spectrum of color and heightened natural light, courtesy the abundant local bodies of water. Shields’s work is linked to this artistic context and natural landscape, which in some ways makes it harder to see. But suspend your skepticism and embrace the aesthetically utopian vision for the duration of your visit. Its lingering effects will fortify once you are back home, trying to absorb next week’s news cycle.
Alan Shields: In Motion continues at the Parrish Art Museum (279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill, NY) through January 19.
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