Simon Shemov

Museum of Contemporary Art

Simon Shemov is a Macedonian artist—not a Greek Macedonian, but, in official U.N. terms, a citizen of the former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia. This is an imperiled part of the world, with Serbs to the north, Albanians to the west, Bulgarians to the east, and Greeks to the south, all countries with designs on Macedonia’s borders. By the same token, Macedonia is at a crossroads: in order to get from one part of the Balkans to another you’re likely to have to pass through Skopje. Shemov’s work seems to reflect the instability of his native land and its hybrid culture in his mixing of conspicuously different visual languages.

This large retrospective exhibition, curated by Sonia Abadzievá, covered more than thirty years of Shemov’s work. It revealed a remarkably varied and rounded array of what have come to be known as self-consciously post-Modernist motifs: internal contradictions, stylistic pluralism, quotation, and pastiche. Those traits appeared in Shemov’s oeuvre before the idea of post-Modernism was really abroad in the visual arts. As early as Breakfast in the Grass, 1963, the work involved undisguised quotation of canonical artworks in the Western tradition. It was, in Abadzievá’s words, “a kind of palimpsest of the human being who has become cultured.”

Given the range and profusion of Shemov’s work, two large multipaneled screens are apt to come to be regarded as iconic: Child Games (screen II), 1972, and Shop Windows (screen), 1975–76. In both works up to eight approximately eight-foot-high panels are painted in emphatically different styles that comprise a kind of inventory of high- and late-Modernist stylistic vocabularies—the monochrome, the scumbled Expressionistic canvas, hard-edged abstraction, and so on. Shemov paints, in these works, as if he were not one but several different artists.

In Child Games (polyptych), 1972–73, 16 panels painted in different styles were mounted on the wall as a single complex statement, that somewhat resembled Pat Steir’s The Breughel Series (a vanitas of style), 1982–84, or the multipaneled works of David Salle. One interesting difference, however, is the dates: Shemov’s works of this type appeared about ten years before such self-consciously post-Modernist statements began appearing in New York.

In addition to such paradigmatically post-Modern works, the show included scores of smart and attractive pieces that evinced a dizzying, yet still somehow inwardly consistent, variety of moods and styles. Shemov is not fickle, he does not switch arbitrarily from mode to mode, but tends to investigate each deeply before passing on. Chronologically, his oeuvre has comprised a succession of extended sequences exploring different styles and materials. These range from the pastiche paintings of the ’70s to the sculpted paper works of the ’80s to works of the ’90s that incorporate herbs gathered and dried by the artist (somewhat reminiscent of Wolfgang Laib’s use of pollen).

Shemov’s oeuvre hovers delicately between Macedonian and internationalist stylistics; it seems historically relevant to both.

Thomas McEvilley