PRINT October 2002


Recently voted the world's most desirable place to live, Vancouver, British Columbia, will soon add to its enviable list of civic and cultural amenities the Steven Shearer Gallery of Contemporary Art Featuring the Art of Steven Shearer. Not quite on the scale of London's Tate Modern, MOMA QNS, or the Guggenheim Bilbao (SSGOCA will be housed in the artist's recently refurbished studio in a light-industrial building in an otherwise anonymous Vancouver neighborhood), Shearer's (im)modest project might best be thought of as a three-dimensional homepage. Like its online counterparts, Shearer's gallery is to be a self-determined space—dedicated to and named after its proprietor—that will make public his abiding interests and occasional embarrassments. Unsurprisingly, the gallery's inaugural exhibition this winter will feature the work of Steven Shearer.

Since graduating from Vancouver's Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, in 1993, Shearer has worked simultaneously on discrete but interrelated bodies of works that collide the often debased, and sometimes deviant, mannerisms of adolescent cultural forms with the utopian aesthetics and desires of modernism. Working across a wide range of media, including painting, sculpture, photography, and installation, Shearer, whose works have recently been seen at New York's American Fine Arts, Tokyo's Mars Gallery, and San Francisco's CCAC Wattis Institute, displays both an affection for and affectation of the cut-and-paste look of early-'70s teen pop fanzines—publications that, owing to their primitive design sense, low budgets, and indiscriminate mixing of professional and amateur photography and graphics, created a unique scrapbooklike aesthetic that the artist sees as a “vulgar variant on the avant-gardist collage.”

Works from the delightfully titled “Puff-Rock Shiteaters,” “Craftmonster,” and “Swinging Lumpen” series (all 1997–) incorporate a dizzying variety of appropriated materials indicative of Shearer's ongoing interests—found photographs of blue-collar suburban rock fans in domestic settings, clippings of coy teen stars like Shaun Cassidy and Leif Garrett, publicity photos of long-forgotten glam-pop groups, images of late-'60s modular play areas, and reproductions of the crudely rendered children's craft art (inspired by modernist abstraction) that was popularized in the late '50s. Borrowing their titles from death-metal band names and lyrics, images from these series are shown individually as large photo-laminates or screen-printed acrylic paintings—e.g., Cradle of Filth, 1998,and Hatework, 1999 (both from the “Craftmonster” series)—or as flexible groupings of poster-size Xeroxed images. Shearer conflates this seemingly disparate material into unholy yet elegant cosmologies (in which photographs of child actor Mark Lester gleefully drawing swastikas on his hands might sit alongside shots of souped-up muscle cars, androgynous '70s boy bands, and Op art graphics) that bring to mind the social and (sub)cultural scavengings of a Richard Prince or a Mike Kelley.

In more recent works, like Metal Archive #1 and Metal Archive #2 (both 2001) and Guitar #1, Guitar #2, and Guitar #3 (all 2002), Shearer's lexicon of imagery has narrowed, becoming more focused and rigorously defined. The “Metal Archive” pieces are large-scale ink-jet prints of roughly schematic grids each created from several hundred individual postage stamp–size pictures largely captured from the online auction site eBay. Documenting a minute fraction of the shifting visual inventory of heavy-metal memorabilia—rare albums, picture discs, tour programs, musical instruments, effects pedals, T-shirts, Black Sabbath sweatbands, and obsolete 8-track tapes—that appears each day on the auction site, Shearer is ultimately interested in the quasi-anthropological account of a subculture that these homemade images afford. For Shearer heavy metal is not only a product of the music/culture industry but also a proletarian folk art. A significant side effect of these ad hoc images is that the socioeconomic status and lifestyle of the heavy-metal enthusiasts are baldly revealed in the details of the vendors' homes.

The aesthetic value of each image is as important for Shearer as the sociological, historical, cultural, and economic value of its subject matter. The posting of countless images of merchandise by the general public every week on eBay has unwittingly created a potentially endless and ephemeral archive of amateur photographic documentation that, according to the artist, “invites an inevitable connoisseurship of the fugitive effects of the unintentional color shifts, glares, and out of focus compositions” inherent in these hastily composed and technologically degraded images.

The domestic interiors subliminally registered in the “Metal Archive” works are more forcibly apparent in the as yet unexhibited “Guitar” series. For these Shearer surfed hundreds of individuals' homepage picture galleries in search of snapshots of children, teenagers, and adults either playing or showing off their axes. What emerges is a male-dominated activity played out in countless suburban bedrooms, living rooms, gardens, basements, and dens. As a lapsed virtuoso metal guitarist himself, Shearer has infected these mazelike grids of anonymous players with a single photograph of himself as a teenager proudly posing with his collection of electric guitars. In associating his own adolescent desires with the collective rock-star fantasies of these virtual communities of amateur and wannabe guitarists, Shearer creates a tension between the autobiographical and the anthropological. In doing so he frustrates our desire to read or dismiss his appropriation of these images as being a merely ironic or condescending gesture.

The precedents for the “Metal Archive” and “Guitar” series and for Shearer's investigations into the complexities of the archiving and indexing of ostensibly anonymous photographic manifestations can be found in sources as diverse as the Section Publicité of Marcel Broodthaers's Musée d'Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, 1972; Hans-Peter Feldmann's anthologies of banal and generic imagery; Gerhard Richter's encyclopedic Atlas, 1962–; Matt Mullican's untitled bulletin boards; and Douglas Blau's thematically arranged accumulations of found images.

Clearly what characterizes and distinguishes the “Metal Archive” and “Guitar” series from these art-historical precedents, and from Shearer's own earlier works, is their pointed engagement with the governing social, cultural, and economic factors that condition the supposedly democratic forum of the Internet and their subsequent privileging of the shifty pictorial qualities amateur digital photographs that to think of him of the anonymous Shearer proposes as an entirely independent genre.

Described by the artist Roy Arden as “catalysts for serious discourse on the intersections of youth, class, modernism, and culture,” Shearer's works are acute and often witty interrogations of photography's modus operandi. In this respect it might not be unreasonable as the bastard offspring of the Photo-conceptualists with whom his city has long been associated. Should you happen to find yourself in Vancouver later this year, drop by the Steven Shearer Gallery of Contemporary Art and say hello.

Matthew Higgs is curator of art and design at the CCAC Wattis Institute in San Francisco.