Text: Alec Coiro
Photo: Steven Probert
I’m alway a big fan of painters doing sculpture and sculptors doing vice versa (when it’s done right). I first wrote about this with Sadie Laska’s show at Canada Gallery, a show which I still remember fondly. My latest gallery outing took me back to the source of the sculptor-as-painter with Alan Shields, one of the first artists to blur this line overtly. When I asked curator Laura Hunt which classification Shields would have gone by she told me he would have just called himself an artist. Smart.
Speaking of smart, the show is part of a series Hunt — Paula Cooper’s archivist — created and curates that pairs artists from Paula Cooper’s archive with contemporary young artists.
Of course, a concept is ultimately only as good as its execution, and Hunt has paired Shields very aptly with Ben Estes. Apt is probably not strong (or apt) enough of a word, as the show manages to both work aesthetically and also to reveal something new about both the artists, the sort of achievement that is the ultimate raison d’etre of a two-person show.
In the context of being paired with Shields, an artist Paula Cooper represented in the 1980s, we realize that Estes also blurs a line, in his case it’s between writing and painting. The paintings (or “heart poems”) consist of hearts and phrases imposed over a field of hand-drawn checks. Thus they are paintings (or perhaps drawings) that have textual elements. But they are also writerly paintings insofar as they elevate to art the sort of patterns and meditative shapes a blocked writer might draw in the margins of their page. What’s more, Hunt points out that Estes’s hearts evoke the “liking” mechanism at the core of everyone’s social media disorder. This invocation, it seems to me, further blurs the visual-textual line by foregrounding the way contemporary phone-based writing is reverting the written word back to hieroglyphics.
Because Shields’s paintings are also sculptures they rise up from the floor while Estes’s work is pinned to the wall, making for a nice combination in space. Shields’s work consists of a canvas that covers a metal pipe. Apparently the canvases were bought at a hardware store and were originally meant to decorate your garden hose. While sculptural and three-dimensional, the extreme skinniness of the resulting work serves to remove the dimensionality from the canvas. It is as though the canvas has gained a Z axis at the cost of its X axis. Consequently, you must focus almost exclusively on the patterns in the totem-like canvas, and then consider them in conjunction with Shields’s poetical titles like, “The Top is Not Here.” It’s a very similar mental exercise to the one Estes’s works inspire.
The space where the work is presented is a glass-walled storefront space without any reception desk or gallery accoutrements. It is very much — as the unofficial name “vitrine” suggests — a glass display. The floors are decorated with prismatic rainbows in the afternoon, and work, which in both cases foregrounds the hand that crafted it, becomes more rarified, and as we look into the glass box from without, we are encouraged to consider how the artists compliment each other, which is what is at the core of this series.