Los Angeles

Steven Shearer

In seventh grade, when whip-sexy Butch Lauer informed me that Kiss had really wanted to call themselves “Albatross Shit,” I thought I had finally made it. Despite never having been a big Kiss fan, I’ve never not remembered the band’s secret name and the guy who clued me in; and when my eye fell on an adorable snapshot of Steven Shearer beaming in full regalia (black-and-white makeup, Klingonlike costume) amid the long wall of photos and photocopies that make up Scrap #2, 2003, I felt punch-drunk love. (Has anyone come to terms with what’s cauterized—a psychic as well as libidinal branding/staunching—during adolescence through response to culture [all kinds]?) Another photo from Scrap #2: three stacked Black Sabbath 8-tracks (red 8-track on top of black on top of white), titled Masters of Reality, Sabotage, and We Sold Our Souls for Rock ’N’ Roll. When Shearer’s portrait and Sabbath 8-tracks are pinned near hair-rocker Randy Rhoads, an ad inquiring, DOES DAVID BOWIE GIVE YOU NIGHTMARES????? and another warning SHIT ROCK EXPLOSION / THE PUFFROCK SHITEATERS; when the penultimate item is the cover of a book entitled The Sexualized Mormon Children and the last a scrawled note—SORRY STEVE, WHEN WE TALK ABOUT CELEBRATING CULTURAL DIVERSITY WE DON’T MEAN YOURS—where does this leave us? Is Shearer a headbanging Prufrock, walking the littoral between death metal and puffrock, trying to make sense of that cradle of filth (as well as the golden shag pleasures) called culture?

When positioning Shearer’s work, critics have invoked everyone from Marcel Broodthaers and Gerhard Richter to Hans-Peter Feldmann and Richard Prince. But this veneer of recent art history—and, by implication, “criticality”—does nothing but obscure Shearer’s project with what Avital Ronell has called the “excess that we commonly call meaning.” A reference to Prince, for example, only highlights how Shearer’s systems are not similar to a Prince “ganging.” His indexing of every picture of Leif Garrett or Shaun Cassidy presents the sign (if not the actuality) of the fan’s all-encompassing obsessive collecting, not the dandy’s highly edited arrangement. Shearer’s blatant wish, in fact, may be to circulate the imponderability of Cassidy, Garrett, and Kiss as embodiments of nonbeing resistant to theorizing, to cherry-bomb and “sabotage” the idea of culture as necessarily redemptive and therapeutic, instead of an entity that eternally dismembers and consumes.

More apposite but no more helpful in coming to terms with the intractability of Shearer’s work is that of Sam Durant. Durant always pushes a framing device (e.g., modernist design, Minimalism) and an art-historical/critical imprimatur (Robert Smithson, Rosalind E. Krauss); his work illustrates (and decorates) what has already been sanctified and academicized. Shearer neither uses nor provides such frame or critical stability because, sadly, we do not yet have a theory of prefab backyard sheds, or Shaun Cassidy, or Leif Garrett (much less of Justin Timberlake or Nelly). And when art re: modernism appears in his work it’s already been filtered by someone else through popular design, i.e., Romper Room–like playpens. (One place to begin thinking, though, would be these words from Jack Smith’s essay “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez”: “Juvenile does not equal shameful and trash is the material of creators. It exists whether one approves or not.”)

Shearer’s work at times gains force through uncanny juxtaposition: In Owls, Butterflies, Corpsepaint, 2002, the spooky eyes of forest birds, butterfly-wing graphic design, and black-metal corpse paint posit an updated Á Rebours of culture against nature, or nature as felicitously artificial as culture. But when the past is juxtaposed with the present, things really start to rock. Near a seemingly straightforward, text-only printout of death-metal cassette names (EVIL OBSCURITY / ETERNAL DISMEMBERMENT / DETHRONED EMPEROR / CONSUME THE FORSAKEN / WOMBFUL OF SCABS / PURIFYING THE CAVITY, etc.) called xytraguptorh@yahoo.com, 2003, there’s Kaleidoscope, 2001, a plethora of teen Leif Garretts—blinding blond sunbeams who may also be evil obscurities, cavities. Both work in conjunction with the absent presence of Garret now. There may not be a definitive understanding of the self, and the dethroned emperor of the masculine may be the hardest to understand of all. Shearer places himself among these burnt sugar conundrums, and it smells like teen spirit.

Bruce Hainley