In the late 1980s, when Chris Martin began showing his paintings, he adapted signature motifs from Paul Feeley and Philip Guston, among others, which was a way of paying homage to them as he worked his way through their iconic images. There was no irony in what he did.
Recently, in a conversation I had with Philip Taaffe about his early work, and his redoing of paintings by Myron Stout and Feeley, he said he thought of those paintings as liturgical reenactments, a formal ritual in which he became the artist he was paying homage to. It was not about the person he was, but the one he could become in a particular work.
By thinking of art in this way, particularly in the early 1980s, Taaffe rejected the narrative of both originality and the death of originality. For him, and I think this is also true for Martin, it was never an either/or situation. He was neither appropriating the images of other artists nor aligning himself with the death of painting. Both Martin and Taaffe believed they were conduits.
Peter Shear, who is a young, self-taught artist working his way through every kind of abstraction (geometric, brushstroke, and image-based), shares something with Martin and Taaffe. There are differences, of course, which need to be noted. First is the scale. Shear typically works in acrylic on prepared canvases that usually measure ten by eight inches, which can be oriented vertically or horizontally. He can do a painting in one shot or he can paint over one he has deemed a failure. The surfaces and edges are giveaways; some are smooth, covered with one coat of paint, while others look as if they have been painted over dried gum. The edges convey how many layers might have gone into each piece. Shear is not precious about his work. He does not have a fixed palette, nor does he seem to be trying to develop a signature style or set of motifs.
By working on the scale he does, Shear is also rejecting much of what we associate with post-painting in the 1980s and ever since: he is closer to Thomas Nozkowski than he is to Julian Schnabel. There is something loosey-goosey about his improvisational work, which, along with his modest scale, I find particularly refreshing in a stultified world of elaborate fabrication and studio assistants painting the boss’s “idea.” Shear, who works as a custodian in an elementary school in Bloomington, Indiana, rejects masculine grandiosity and the idea of a heroic genius.
Like other young artists who have chosen to live far from the madding crowd, Shear’s education takes place in public. He regularly posts his paintings on Facebook and Instagram, which is how I believe Dan Devening learned of his work. I first saw Shear’s paintings in his solo show at Devening Projects + editions in Chicago, and wrote about them earlier this year. His New York debut, Magnolias All at Once, is at the Fortnight Institute (June 15 – July 16, 2017), a storefront gallery in the East Village, which I believe also learned about Shear through Instagram. His paintings seem just the right scale for posting on social media sites.
The exhibition takes it title from the book of the same name by Buddhist monk and poet Norman Fisher, which is a collage-commentary on the poetry of Leslie Scalapino. Fisher’s poetics have likely influenced Shear. Here is something he stated about his poetry: “There’s no self or person, just what arises […] writing is words, how they sound, how they look lying on the page.”
Shear is interested in composition, color relationships, how forms sit within the rectangle of the canvas, what can be done with the edges, and the texture of paint. In “Palm Reader” (2017), a red triangle nestles in the top left-hand corner, while a red, finger-like form enters diagonally from the top right, and a large, Myron Stout-like form, which can be read as a thumb and part of the forefinger spans the bottom half from left to right. , taking up most of that section’s space. The size of the red forms and the way they press upon the painting’s edges make the composition feel like a close-up view, while in “Arrangement” (2017), the two flat shapes – one solid yellow and the other a white hexagon in which the artist has scribbled loops the color of dried blood – establish a mysterious relationship, complicated by the underpainting that suggests earlier arrangements.
Shear seems to find his way to the final thing we see. This does not mean he is always convincing, but that seems beside the point. There are more than forty paintings in the exhibition that measure 10 by 8 inches, as well as a handful of even smaller ones placed on stands on a shelf. A larger painting hangs at the back of a gallery, along with one the artist by adding paint to unstretched dyed fabric. In some ways, Shear’s work reminded me of a young Robert Ryman earnestly learning what paint can do.
In “Cameo” (2017), whose palette of reds, greens, blues, and blacks brought to mind Philip Guston’s painting “Mirror” (1957), Shear lays down mostly red brushstrokes at a slight diagonal to the vertical format. A thin green mark hovers against the top left corner. Just to the right of the green brushstroke Shear has made a blue parallelogram out of a few overlapping strokes. Some of the marks have been laid over other, smaller brushstrokes in a different color. There is something wonderfully open about Shear’s process. He never claims to say more than he’s able, recalling Fisher’s description of words or, in the artist’s case, brushstrokes lying on the surface.
Nor is he afraid to court the figurative or the representational. In“Tackle” (2017), a hulking, tar-like black form with spindly legs and a small penis takes up most of the painting, his arms and the top of his head cropped by the edges. By cropping the figure, Shear hints at this featureless behemoth’s massive scale. Sure, you can say “Jean Dubuffet” when you see this painting, but that would only mean that you have added your hot air to the room. Like the strongest paintings in this heartfelt exhibition, Shear isn’t interested in parody or mimicry. The painting stands on its own and does not suffer by comparison. That is a remarkable achievement in an age of copying.
Peter Shear: Magnolias All at Once continues at the Fortnight Institute (60 East 4th Street, East Village, Manhattan) through July 16.