On ViewSteven Harvey Fine Arts Projects
November 19 – December 21, 2014
After years as a landscape painter, Stuart Shils has assembled a wide-ranging show at Steven Harvey, integrating painting, photography, and sculpture, often in the same piece. Connecting the works is his ongoing investigation of visual perception. With references to the Renaissance and Classical Antiquity, Shils takes up the long Western preoccupation with visual truth, which painting has largely conceded to photography. But Shils takes his paintings in a direction more consistent with recent theories, like those of perceptual psychologist Alva Noë, which understand the visual field less as a photographic image than as a framework of activity for both eyes, a virtual space, within which we explore and focus at will.
A master of luminous surfaces, Shils interprets landscapes with irregular patches of paint, often in the form of foliage against buildings, lending his modestly scaled paintings a fine-tuned resonance. Resisting the impulse to sharpen his focus, to achieve uniform high resolution, he holds his subjects at a contemplative remove. Paintings from Italy capture the sun-baked architecture of Morandi, while works from Ireland take on rain and fog—the atmospheric turbulence of Turner—as though to test the limits of vision. His 2012 show moved further from sharp focus, as he simplified the light-infused envelopes of his landscapes into densely layered, near-monochrome veils—handheld Color Field abstractions that situate Greenberg’s picture plane within the plein-air, pictorial tradition.
When he inherited a camera in 2007, Shils found photographic equivalents to his recent paintings in relics of demolition and reconstruction, and indulged in high-resolution renderings of urban surfaces. There’s a startling clarity to the digital prints exhibited here for the first time, accompanied by a book with an essay by David Cohen. In “Interior on Germantown Avenue, Near Washington Lane” (2012), with its collage-like deconstruction of ruptured walls and peeling wallpaper, Shils rips open the delicately woven veils of his paintings, as though to examine the world without his customary aesthetic filters. Shils’s colors can evoke the lush photographs of William Eggleston, or seem like photographic translations of Josephine Halvorson’s painterly renderings of industrial walls. They can also put focus itself in question with images deliberately obscured, like his photos through airplane windows of cloud-shrouded fields.
Shils extends his play with photography from its rendition of surfaces into the third dimension, with a composition of small colored blocks (made by a student, Greg Biché), perched on a shelf before a mirror that reflects its hidden side. Whether or not Shils subscribes to Alva Noë’s suggestion that we “actively see” the hidden sides of objects, he shows us the occluded view of the blocks on the mirror’s flat, luminous surface, where its crystalline reflection links it to nearby photographs. Brunelleschi is said to have displayed his first perspectival painting through a pinhole, reflected in a mirror, and here the blocks reappear in a photo, digitally collaged onto a Giotto fresco, combining the Renaissance artist’s pioneering construction of depth with its magical compression in the camera. Elsewhere, Shils photographs the blocks along with pieces of cut paper, in what might be described as trompe l’oeil digital prints, recalling the collage-like paintings of Harnett or Peto, but with the camera taking on the traditional role of oil paint in rendering the material surface of things.
Shils literally reincorporates photography into painting by covering prints with pigment. In “his angels surrounded by fields of crimsons” (2014), he works over a Giotto with red paint, using the densely layered colors of his monochrome paintings to suggest the urban walls of his high-resolution prints. He’s compared his monochrome paintings to memory filters, and there’s a visionary aspect to this evocation of a graffiti-scarred wall, from which images emerge, as with Rimbaud’s “seeing a mosque in place of a factory.”
These layered images recall Robert Rauschenberg’s “transfer” drawings, but Shils, with his base in observation, takes them elsewhere; the blocks inspire a new investigation of still life, and his most interesting new works are those in which he paints freely over the printed blocks, less interested in their material texture than in their mass. Under baths of red and purple pigment, Shils endows the objects with substantial form. Titled with reference to the Aeneid and Odyssey, but without literal pictures showing through, they approach the monumental intimacy of Giorgio Morandi (who also worked with painted objects) or of Philip Guston in his small still lifes. Shils reminds us that what’s lost in photography is the work of the hand; photographers can create soft focus within the camera, but not the coordination of eye and hand, the literal “touching” to which Alva Noë compares vision itself. Shils suggests that painting, within a fluid visual field, can maintain its access to a world of stable, monumental forms and reassert its traditional claim to truth.