FRANCIE SHAW Weights and Measuresby Craig Olson
A.I.R. Gallery | March 31 – April 25, 2010
With Weights and Measures, Francie Shaw continues her evolution into a remarkably poignant interpreter of images. This collection of 36 drawings uses black ink and brush on white paper as the only tools for her malleable, sparse drawings. All the images are culled from various newspaper photographs from the current year. However, when translated through the artist’s hand and material restraints, the images are transformed from calculated front-page news to something more unassuming and personal, and that’s what’s special about it.
This act of translation is an active effort by the artist to make sense of her place in an increasingly media-saturated world. In other words, she ceases to be the passive recipient of a newspaper photo editor’s professionally discriminating eye, and instead engages in a highly personal rendering of those very images, often eliminating surroundings to leave figures foregrounded against a white void. These are straightforward, carefully crafted images of human encounters and strange personalities, in which the original news stories have been waylaid. The source images are used for what they are—images. There are no obvious or simple-minded judgments being cast, no dogmatic positioning or pulpit posturing, only ink on paper. But these tools are enough to turn the image of an injured Zen priest into a strangely comical amalgamation of gestures, emphasizing the figure’s tension and frustration as much as its terrible reality. There are many other instances and characters in this exhibit—police restraining an Hasidic Jew, ominous-looking men in suits, riot-geared soldiers surrounded by unarmed women, sick children, moneylenders, a quadriplegic wrestler—but when removed from their contexts they become a strange and fascinating procession of ambiguity and anxiety.
Through her sophisticated understanding of composition and gesture, Shaw provides an entryway into the less familiar world of direct, physical understanding. She isn’t turning her back on the media that confronts her every day; she is confronting it, using it, and translating it into something else, something personal. It becomes a kind of Americana, a nexus of society and history, which the artist freely partakes. Like the tale that’s been told and told again, it changes, opens, or falls apart, depending on the telling or the context or the teller. It’s a place where ownership and fixed meaning are humorous asides in a flux of weird relations and volatile situations, where news is used as a generator of creative output.
This is the artist’s fourth solo exhibition at this gallery, and it’s a brave departure from her earlier work. Where other artists have found these same source materials as an avenue for theoretical diaper swathing, Shaw opens a strange and peculiar world with ties to the unpredictable and personal at an unexpected time and with unexpectedly strong results. All the big questions are there to be sure—authorship, originality, verisimilitude—but in a true folk sense they seem keenly undermined and not thrust forward in some academic mishmash. It’s what keeps bringing me back to these works and wondering how so much thought can be generated from such simple means.