I first saw Peter Shear’s work in 2017 at Devening Projects in Chicago and I have been following it ever since. A longtime resident of Bloomington, Indiana, he is a self-taught abstract painter working in oil on canvases or panels of modest sizes. The largest one I know of is the recent “Leverage” (2022), which measures 28 by 30 inches and is included, along with 33 other paintings, in Peter Shear: Following Sea, his debut exhibition at Cheim & Read (March 23–May 13, 2023). While the number of works might suggest that the exhibition is about dependable production and replication, this is not the case with Shear, who refuses to develop a signature style, motif, or subject. As the poet Robert Kelly wrote, “style is death.”
Shear is what the literary critic Harold Bloom would call a “belated arriver” to abstraction. However, he is neither struggling to achieve originality nor pessimistically proclaiming the end of abstraction. Rather, the position he has been both defining and expanding in his work is one that accepts, contemplates, and reimagines the possibilities of abstract painting within this state of belatedness — of working in a situation where innovation and originality are not considered goals, where working big can empty an artwork of meaning. How do you stay open and free when everything we do has been done before?
Shear has evoked landscapes, depicted figural and emblematic forms that resist identification, and varied his palette from painting to painting. Other than scale and his interest in the emotive physicality of oil paint, it is impossible to characterize his oeuvre. In this regard, he shares something with Thomas Nozkowski, who advanced the idea that a painter was free to paint anything, and made no claims to the importance of his subject matter. Shear’s paintings call to mind something Nozkowski said to me in 2010 in The Brooklyn Rail:
This is the golden age for art-making. Not only do we have permission to paint anything in any way we like, but we also have audiences who are interested in playing the game along with us, willing to try to follow our ideas. In our studio life we are not only free — we are meaningfully free. Make a mark on the canvas. This mark can be said to represent anything I want — no problem. The success or failure of the painting has now shifted over from the subject to the strength and intelligence of the painter’s work.
Composed of simple shapes, marks, and brushstrokes, Shear’s paintings resist narrative description. Even when the title narrows the focus of our reading, as in “Turkish Pepper” (2020), I feel like the work almost completely eludes language and naming. The flat abstract shape we see may be inspired by a Turkish pepper, but it is the interaction of form, ground, and color that holds my attention. It is the crisp, slightly diagonal tilt of the stem, with the bulbous shape extending forward from the top. Shear made this form with a loaded brush that got drier as he drew the stem. The image of the pepper seems to be the culmination of a single, thoughtful gesture. As much as the painting alludes to the world of palpable things, it invites the viewer to see inward.
If one of the ways we understand what an artist is trying to achieve is to discover patterns and recurrences, Shear’s paintings don’t yield to this approach. An accretion of marks that could be painted in one sitting or over a period of time, and titles such as “Foundation” (2023), “Responsibility” (2021), and “Leverage” (2022), don’t offer clues about the work.
After walking around the gallery a few times and looking at each painting more than once, I began playing a game: which is my favorite painting and why. This something I often do when looking at work by Nozkowski, Raoul de Keyser, or Robert Ryman, if only to bring the works into sharper focus, to see them with a heightened consciousness. Shear does not seem to rework his paintings. He puts down a ground, which can be flat, stained, or brushy, or he leaves much of the surface raw. His strokes can be thick, feathery, or dry. He is interested in tonal shifts as well as contrasts of light and dark. Drawing in paint is central to his practice.
While the process in “Turkish Pepper” is straightforward, the interaction of figure, ground, color, and brushstroke in “Truck” (2022) engages our attention differently because of the interaction of thin layers of paint, as colors peek and shine through. One of the problems with the “return to painting” movement that happened in the 1980s was that many of its most celebrated practitioners bought into the masterpiece tradition of serious subject matter and the idea that bigger is better. They used paint, but they were not particularly interested in paint as a material to explore. They upheld the most obvious achievements of Abstract Expressionism, such as post-easel painting and gesture, and turned them into empty clichés.
Although not nearly as celebrated at the time, artists such as Nozkowski, de Keyser, Jim Nutt, Miyoko Ito, Brenda Goodman, and Lois Dodd all pursued a different trajectory. It is this desire for independence, mixed with a curiosity about paint’s capacity to be itself and more, that seems to be one of Shear’s strongest motivations. I like how close paintings such as “Camden” (2023) and “Cold Room” (2022) bring me through minimal means to something I can name without crossing over into representation. Within the fierce modesty of these paintings burns a steely intelligence.
Peter Shear: Following Sea continues at Cheim & Read (547 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 13. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.