New York

Joe Shannon

Joe Shannon, a figurative painter now in his mid 50s, continually strips away pretenses. Since he first began exhibiting in Washington, D.C. in 1969, a time when the “Washington School” was being trumpeted as the latest triumph in the history of art, Shannon has been an iconoclast going his own unpredictable way. He has done so by continually reinvestigating the relationship between content and style. More important, while most figurative artists of his generation were either taking stylistic cues from formalist abstraction or were being stubbornly reactive, Shannon found a way to get past both of these alternatives. In contrast to, say, Alex Katz, Shannon has never evolved a slick signature style, never used it to transform the observed world into a palpable equivalent of upper-class urban comfort, never pitched his work toward the art world’s coolly sophisticated audience. In other words, he hasn’t confused authenticity with fashionable modern style, which is often simply a product for the consumer. In retrospect, one could say that Shannon’s decision to evolve along a less accepted path isolated him from neomodernists like Katz and Philip Pearlstein as well as the more traditional realists.

The artist appears frequently in his works. In Fisherman, Model, and Vigilante, 1986, Shannon portrays himself as a fisherman, together with a nude woman and Bernard Goetz (the “subway vigilante”). Goetz, holding a gun and cut off by the painting’s left edge, looks as if he is about to enter the picture—a formal device that doubles as a comment on how the world continually intrudes upon our lives. City in the Country, 1986–87, is an imaginative, operatic gathering of mythical figures, nude men and women (including an antlered man on horseback), and familiar urban types. Shannon shows us a variety of people with whom we might or might not identify, in various states of dress or undress, thus stripping away the layers with which we usually protect ourselves. Here, the artist has depicted himself standing on a wall in the middle distance, with an excessive number of arms, like a cross between a sideshow freak and an orchestra conductor. This realist pastiche of futurism is used to suggest a futile attempt to orchestrate—i.e., to make order of—the world. Both City in the Country and Fisherman, Model, and Vigilante are fantastic scenes done in a realist manner. They convey the extent to which fantasy and fiction have become increasingly difficult to distinguish in these confused, confusing times. In many of the works, Shannon combines various styles, makes abrupt changes in scale, and inserts collage elements in order to short-circuit the “normal” hierarchy of narrative realist composition.

Shannon’s paintings are vulgar, harsh, discordant, and humorous. Although he has often made paintings that can be considered political or social in content, the most successful of these—the ongoing “office” series, for example, one of which was shown here (High Rise, Low Down: Messina, 1986)—have focused on bureaucratic settings and banal moments. Instead of attempting to change or make history, Shannon concentrates on observing the fringes of ordinary life. His work reveals both the heartlessness and helplessness of being a witness. Like Rabelais and Voltaire, he is a moralist whose acid wit eats away at our preconceptions about what art should be and what the world is like.

Reviewed by John Yau.