Steven Shearer's Art at The Brant Foundation through Election Week Eyes

Steven Shearer's Art at The Brant Foundation through Election Week Eyes

Steven Shearer gives a glimpse into the psyche of rebel youth at a new career retrospective.

Steven Shearer gives a glimpse into the psyche of rebel youth at a new career retrospective.

Text: Eduardo Andres Alfonso

The week leading up to the opening of the Brant’s Foundation opening had been wrought with distress. The many people who comprise New York’s art world and adjoining circles of society have felt unsure about how to grapple with this month's errs in electoral judgment. Has this been a setback into an era of hate-fueled politics or a misstep into a dystopian future? A similar query existed with regards to action: Should this clique, who is often in close proximity to wealth, address the issues vociferously or backhandedly? Are action or escapism more or less warranted approaches for artists and curators?

With these questions in both mind and heart, the cavalcade went out to Connecticut to enjoy the green lawn and high caliber art exhibition that have made the Brant Foundation’s Art Study Center a destination for seven years. And while the artist of choice for this season’s exhibition, Steven Shearer, shows little of the confrontational attitude of the preceding artist, Jonathan Horowitz, there was no lack of material to be contemplated upon in the context of the collective trauma of the past weeks.

Steven Shearer Untitled Drawings, 2008 1 of 7 drawings; crayon on Japanese paper 6 5/8 x 3 1/2 inches

Steven Shearer’s work, in fact, provides the artistic and personal analogues to many of the quandaries that are so of this moment. His highly original mode of portraiture, which culls subjects from the obscure grunge and metal subcultures of the Pacific Northwest, situates itself out of time. Shearer’s painterly hand references art historical material with ease; both The Fauves and Symbolist painters like Edvard Munch are frequently cited as forbearers who similarly chose to show their subjects within a dream world haze of saturated colors and exaggerated, often grotesque, proportions. Shearer’s subjects, like those of Munch, also seem to be expressing an internal dilemma, which remains unheard and unseen. Indirect eye contact and side-glances, as in The Mauve Fauve (2007-15), are the cues of a hyper-individual boy who is at once youthful and overburdened beyond their age. The anachronism in the works points the viewers in two directions, to both a stylized past which held the existential individual in high regard and an inconsolable future where everyman is an island.

There is an allure on the faces of the longhaired boys on view, but also no easy path to entering their narratives. The feeling of constantly being drawn in and hitting a wall creates an uneasy aesthetic distance, which is the most profound effect of the portraits.

In the less trademark works presented at The Brant, the problems of a highly individualized expression are taken up. The nine selections from the ongoing Poem series use the vocabulary of heavy metal lyrics to amalgamate darkly absurd manifestos. “MYSTICAL NECROFEST/ WEAPON OF MASTURBATION/ CIRCLE OF GOAT SHIT/ PROSTITUTION OF INNER LIGHT,” all belong to the ciphered language that a particular subculture uses, and has used, to express a personal dissent for decades. When viewing them (especially in the shadow of the election), one is left wondering how much one has in common with these emotive texts. Is that expression a viable one? If I spoke that language, and felt that they emoted my inner conflicts with the world, would I use those phrases? Can I find an expression more suited to the vitriol and despair I have towards the establishment? The vulgarity of the language used may push some away, while others may find it as the most highly original and representative form of speech.

Steven Shearer, Selection from Poems XXVI, 2011, Charcoal on rag paper; individually framed. Overall installation dimensions: 153 x 113 ½ inches

This work points out that people have different codes around which they build their own personal dissent and its presentation in an art venue so far removed from its original sub-cultural context asks the viewer to reconsider the impetus behind such brash pronouncements.

Despite the ennui that had consumed election week, viewing Steven Shearer’s unequivocally unique exhibition provided both a respite and an engagement. Those gathered to see and celebrate art obviously lapsed into political discourse, and the event remained tinted by the conversations that have dominated the week. The idyllic setting may have seemed escapist, but the works were, in fact, tunnels into the heart of many of the issues at hand; namely that individual expression has a right and a necessity to exist within a world that sees difference so ambiguously as both a downfall and a way forward.

Steven Shearer Studio at night, 2014 Oil pastel and ink on paper 8 1/2 x 10 7/8 inches
Steven Shearer, The Mauve Fauve, 2007-2015 Oil paint and oil pastel on jute 25 1/8 x 20 7/8 x 2 7/8 inches

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