I met multi-disciplinary artist Steven Shearer on a lazy spring afternoon through a friend at a coffee shop off Main Street in Vancouver. During a brief conversation, he was kind enough to invite me to his studio in the midst his busy schedule preparing to represent Canada in the Venice Biennale. I was already a fan of his work, however the spirit of the individual is what intrigued me the most. In a time of endless Facebook photos and social media documenting everyone’s every move, it’s refreshing to meet someone that is humble about his talent and also chooses to remain anonymous. Shearer’s art practice pays homage to youth, heavy metal and rebellion, and his poetry can resonate aggressively, but the person behind the work has a calm and soft spoken demeanor.
Steven answers some questions for 01 from Venice days before his highly anticipated exhibition.
Did you always know that you would become an artist? Was there a moment of self-realization where you realized that you were an artist?
No, it wasn’t even a possibility in mind. I never thought of becoming an artist. I knew that I had to do something and I thought of maybe going to community college and becoming a high school art teacher. I managed to avoid this. The teaching in my high school art classes was almost non-existent but I guess it was somewhat influential. There were volumes of Roger Dean’s “Art of Rock” and a pile of newsprint. We had assignments like paint or draw your favorite musician. It seemed like our teacher did nothing. I thought that under those circumstances I could do nothing too.
You were commissioned by Louis Vuitton to create an installation for their store in Vancouver. What did you end up producing for this project?
Yeah, they were very open to the selection of a work and asked me if I would like to make something or if I had an existing work that I thought would work there. I chose an earlier work, “Ragpicker’s Rainbow,” to install in their Vancouver store. The work is an edition of 17 silkscreens on paper. When I made this work in 2004, I wasn’t thinking about the work in terms of fashion or textiles. But in the context of Louis Vuitton Maison, I think that it reflects how textiles have the potential to become both rags or couture and how these categories are always in flux.
The images used in Ragpicker’s Rainbow were found in educational books from the 1970s. The books explained how to get children to make crafts that respond to a modernist aesthetic. They showed examples of ordered and balanced abstract paintings from art history that the kids were supposed to emulate. By trying to reduce kids’ wild craftsmanship to orderly design, it was kind of a failed experiment to start.
I was interested in how the experiment tried to direct the kids towards achieving a clean and harmonious look, but in reality the actual children’s crafts looked really rough and ragged. It was only through the low quality reproduction of the children’s crafts in the book that the formal qualities that the books’ authors were originally trying to direct were achieved. The layers and textures of the children’s original fabric crafts were reduced to these very simple, flat, graphic shapes and lines.
I composed the images in a kind of skewed way so that the prints would look like “off-runs” or “seconds.” I wanted them to look like the person who printed them just left the printer going without paying attention to how they were being printed.
You have made various reference books with thousands of archive images that you have collected over the years. What outlets do you use to find your sources of inspiration?
I’ve collected a lot of found photographs and old magazines from junk shops. There was this one place that was supposed to be an antique shop but the guy who owned it had so much junk that he’d leave boxes of old magazines on the sidewalk. It used to be where the old Zulu records was. I found a lot of photographs that people had thrown away there. I also find images and texts on personal websites and image shrines on the Internet.
My process of transforming these images in some way or responding to them by creating something else such as a painting or drawing is very subjective. I am less concerned with the personal narratives behind the images or the identity of the person who took the photograph. For me it’s more of an empathic thing where I respond to formal qualities and emotional content that the images evoke. I am not interested in forming opinions about the images or using them for humour in a hierarchical way.
Matthew Higgs from Art Forum called you ‘The bastard offspring of the Photo-Conceptionalists’ which lead Deborah Campbell to write a great article about you in Canadian Art. What did you think about being given this title?
It doesn’t bother me as it was written by a friend.
Can you give us a bit of insight about your oil paintings and drawings using androgynous/long haired looking boys such as Leif Garret?
The androgynous figure has long been a subject in the history of painting that has interested me. A lot of Symbolist paintings depict figures that have very mysterious and effeminate qualities. At the same time, they often depicted their androgynous figures in an idealized way. I can imagine that many of the Symbolist painters were interested in Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings of androgynous figures and of figures who displayed a stillness that made them seem both dead and alive in this intriguing way.
You are building a free standing mural featuring your poetry that will be connected to a tool shed outside of the Canadian Pavilion at The Venice Biennale. It will be nine meters high. What made you decide to make such a bold statement?
It will be a 9 metre high architectural façade that will act as a false front for the Canadian pavilion and make it appear to be as tall as the adjacent British and German pavilions. The Canadian pavilion is very small in relation to the two adjacent British and German pavilions which both have very authoritarian and severe architecture. I wanted the architectural façade to respond to this anxiety around architectural design and scale. The antagonistic and bombastic tone of the Poem responds to the dominant and mannered energy of the surrounding architecture. The structure of the façade is made of the same steel cladding used in provisional architecture like tool sheds. It includes a new entrance to the pavilion, where visitors will enter through a tool shed door. The tool shed relates to the site of the exhibition in the Giardini or garden, as these kinds of sheds are used to store tools or to hang out in in suburban backyards all over North America. These sheds are fairly inexpensive and usually come pre-fabricated so they are pretty ubiquitous. I liked the contrast between the shed and the rarified and austere aspects of much of the pavilion architecture in the Giardini.
The pavilion is potentially a really difficult exhibition space to show in since it was designed for exhibiting only specific kinds of work: paintings and small sculptures. When I went to see it last summer, the interior was completely blacked out since Mark Lewis, who exhibited there last, had made video installations. This is the usual state that it is in. In selecting works for the interior of the pavilion and deciding on the exhibition design, I decided to respond to the original intentions of the architects. I designed the vitrines, desk and other exhibition design elements with this in mind. I had a feeling for how the show should look and my designs ended up being similar to the exhibition designs of early exhibitions in the space during the 1950s and 60s.
What kind of work should we expect to see inside the Canadian Pavilion?
The interior of the pavilion will have paintings, a small sculpture, and over 60 drawings. Drawing has been a part of my work for a while but this will be the first exhibition that will focus on my drawings and paintings. I had been wanting to do a show that focused on my paintings and drawings so it seemed like a good opportunity.
It seems that you prefer to remain anonymous. Is that a conscious decision?
For me art-making has always been a solitary thing and it still is. I like that people see my work but when I make art it is ultimately for my own enjoyment.
Steven Shearer, Exhume to Consume (solo exhibition). Installation view. Canada Pavilion, LIV Venice Biennale, 2011. Photo: Sebastiano Pellion di Persano
Steven Shearer’s work can be seen at the Venice Biennale until November 27th.