New York

Alan Shields

Although barely farther uptown or more accessible to the general public than most New York artists’ studios the Paula Cooper Gallery (a second floor loft in the downtown factory district), housed one of the most exciting and surprising one-man shows of the season. Kansas-born Alan Shields has shown only one or two of his earlier machine-stitched unpainted canvas “hangings” previously; in a group exhibition which opened the same gallery, and in a “Soft Art” show currently at the Trenton State Museum (which does no justice to his concerns). It is difficult to call these first attempts paintings in the literal sense, or even objects, since they verge on both and yet are neither. Like Richard Tuttle, with his eccentric dyed and crinkled polygons, Shields conjures a distinctly personal, idiomatic expression with the most candidly traditional materials—canvas, thread, hardware hanger eyelets, acrylic paint—used in entirely freewheeling, unconventional, often unsettling (and thank goodness), unsanctimonious ways. His works are all at once charming, authentic, out-and-out lyrical and expressionistic, though far from flimsy or sloppily considered. Their often splashy informality is qualified by a restlessly confident hand.

Big squares, triangles, hexagons, or rectangles of cotton duck are machine stitched with colored grids whose sewn emphasis is willfully varied in color, angling, width, stitch pattern, and thickness, while painted zones run across them or create their own distinct forms and visual actions. A stiff bordering of heavier cloth replaces wooden stretcher bars. The pieces are hung directly on the wall with nails through large metal eyelets (grommets), so that the only sense of real pictorial armature is found in the literalness of the machine sewing within the illusioned space of the field, or sometimes in the differentiated color of the tougher fabric edging—ambiguously situating the works between the boundaries of definitions for both objects and pictures. So far Shields seems to have no need to repeat himself, his experimentation with each separate work being bold enough to move his own interest on to different areas of thinking and expression rather than to gradually develop a series from one given problem. He is working actively to discover where the special charge of his art lies, but to my eye this dispersion of energy evident in his first full showing does not make such divergent trials any weaker for their variety and risk.

The involvement with machine stitching began as a kind of exercise in drawing, but the delicacy and elusiveness of this still formalized linear graphing of the surface—deliberately mechanical, but later articulated in a freer, more erratic way—suggested itself as a partner to the soaked areas and definite painted shapes of the work currently in progress. The object quality of the pieces is thus defined by an actualized drawing which later turned out to function as one of the more ambiguous optical factors in the work. Shields became more involved with multiple spatial and chromatic levels (Larry Poons’ recent shift to such expressive interests comes to mind), using this sewing less as a kind of zoning than as an independent, though coexistent, literalized foil to the casual drippings, blottings, squirtings and washes of lush color which are bled into the fabric from both back and front. In certain ways these works seem very unserious—yet one can hardly help but give in to the almost childish appeal and utter delight which the artist has taken in both the broadness and the incidents of his expressive methods (trailed dottings, blending floods, roughly stained squares and amorphous patchings).

Like oversized circus banners in the abstract, works such as Plum Pudding E. (92 by 228 inches), with its upper edge of multi-colored pennants and its rainbow hued allover splotches, are certainly confusing and hard to take on first viewing, for their very bizarreness; but they are also forthright and guileless enough to lack pretension, even on such a large scale. One of the more diaphanous and lyrical works, more successful than Plum Pudding E., is Hart Sunkissed-Lie, an expanse of cloudy, dappled lavender-grey edged with lime yellow and stitched with proscenium like arcs at the ends of a sewn checkerboard grid. The puddling of the ground color first dissolves the threaded drawing and then makes it reappear like a thinly glistening web both on the surface of and floating within the stretch of fabric. Other pieces are more festively colored with hues like deep marine blue notched by corners of lavender, yellow, or pink (Dumbo E.), or triangles and squares banded with combinations like russet, peach, and emerald green or milky lavender (Ivory, Seventh, Little Blue Ferry (Bay Belly)).

Obviously Shields’ uninhibited manner of working risks many false leads, and they are not unapparent: awkward interruptions and disruptions may often occur between the instinct to draw and the instinct to work more freely and openly with color and a very liquefied paint medium. Sometimes he just can’t get away with mere freakiness or size (although his sense of scaling and his ability to combine really impossible, ingratiatingly sweet colors are frequently remarkably apt and confident). Some double-sided watercolor sketches of spectrum arcs, blotty-dotty checkerboards, and mirror-imaged pennants also suggested how some of the fresh spontaneity of a pleasurable and canny sense of humor might be retained in larger canvas works using similar motifs and painterly approaches. I was a bit staggered by the variety of things happening in this showing of only 6 to 10 works, and at the age of 25 it seems assured that Shields can move such actively diverse energies in many fruitful directions.

Emily Wasserman