The Anxious Nostalgia of Steven Shearer

Steven Shearer, "Potter," 2021. © Steven Shearer. Courtesy The George Economou Collection, Athens, Greece.

There is a variety of rose called “Nostalgia” that is white on the inside and trimmed in red. The nostalgia rose is not a great metaphor for nostalgia itself, which is closer to the invasive and overpowering quality of a weed. At any rate, there is no place for flowers in Canadian artist Steven Shearer’s exhibition at the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver. This world, from the neon posterboard color palette to the drab plastic sculptures, is artificial and man-made—emphasis on man. Everywhere you look are men, Shearer’s longstanding preoccupation with the masculine aesthetics of Metal (long-haired bandmates, guitars, memorabilia) forming a heavy presence. So are the artist’s other touchstones: retro youth, found photography, art history, suburban ennui, and silly, youthful expressions of malcontent. All of this through the feather-haired lens of boys and men. These elements, seemingly disconnected, coalesce the way an industrial landscape radiates a weird beauty.

The Polygon Gallery looks out on the distinctive orange cranes of Vancouver’s port. When I leave the city, it’s those orange cranes I miss. Nostalgia will do that: turn an eyesore into something sweet. The work on view in Steven Shearer—his first major national survey since 2007—operates from this exact distance, the vanishing point where something dopey or even sinister acquires just enough glaze to become charming. Shearer’s tonal ambiguity about his subjects is where things get interesting—he is decidedly not making fun of these men, yet the impulse to draw them and dissect their subcultures turns them into a curio. He somehow manages to occupy a middle ground, at once celebratory and disenchanted. While middle-ness can easily slide into complacency, Shearer imbues his work with enough simultaneous pity, empathy, and distain to repudiate any such claim. Some of his best-known works (for instance Poem for Venice, 2011, not on view) take agro/gross metal lyrics and turn them into inert, weirdly bland poetry. He’s adept at neutralizing his subject matter in just this way.

Steven Shearer, “As a Boy,” 2006. © Steven Shearer.

The Polygon Gallery, an institution that programs contemporary art with a focus on photography, framed the show around Shearer’s use of a personal archive. Some 74,000 photographs and images inform his practice. Clutches of these meticulously catalogued images are on display—headshots of extravagantly coiffed men and art-historical clippings, mostly people sleeping—bound in matching black books like a leaden Tumblr. A few of the images, for instance what looks like a publicity shot of teen star Leif Garrett, are reproduced almost ‘verbatim’, as paintings.

An archive is not a scrapbook, and it’s the quasi-anthropological tone of the archive combined with the skill of the artist that saves the work from devolving into fan portraiture. That’s not to say that it’s superior—it occurred to me that a less pristine version of the show might have had more impact. If Steven Shearer is all about striking the balance between reverence and ridicule, the end result can occasionally feel anodyne. The Leif Garrett portraits are the primary example. As a Boy (2006), painted in dreamy shades of lavender, is a gorgeous, swoony portrait of youth (and one youth in particular). There’s nothing wrong with a merely beautiful painting, but I wondered if we as viewers are meant to see something deeper in the image, and how improbable it is that we might do so. Later, online, I unearthed the Leif Garrett backstory and discovered that the one-time teen idol grew up to live a life of “where are they now” tragedy. It’s a play at nostalgia that’s typical of the show. Sunny portraits of the young are haunted by undershadows of what’s to come. I wished the hauntings had been brought up for more light.

Steven Shearer, “Sleep II,” 2015. Edition 1 of 3. © Steven Shearer. Courtesy of Galerie Eva Presenhuber, and David Zwirner Gallery.

Shearer is obviously interested in the interplay between high and low, hoarding and cataloging, making fun and paying homage. It’s an ultra-thin line that flirts with snobbery but the show is no such thing. It is fun—a fun that feels at times weird and evasive, full of dad-jokes, queasy colors, and double-takes. Dogpile (2019) appears to be a photomontage featuring dogs. But on looking closer, it’s not just dogs and the dogs themselves are not right. The collage includes a disproportionate number of terrifying animal costumes, human beings trapped inside. One, a threadbare poodle, is what the internet might call “cursed.”

Steven Shearer. “Dogpile,” 2019. © Steven Shearer. Courtesy of the Audain Art Museum Collection, Galerie Eva Presenhuber, and David Zwirner Gallery.

Almost every work in the show gets a similar treatment—throwback images are presented as to maximize their weirdness. Sometimes the tweaks are simple, as in Xmas Trees (2005), where a grid of amateur snapshots of Christmas trees are turned upside down. Or in Toolshed, No. 2 (2002), another photo grid with a strangely musical quality—sequential pictures of outdoor sheds are interrupted by a single image of a man playing guitar. These pieces epitomize the silly form of iconoclasm at work in much of the show, the equivalent of writing “wash me” on a dusty car. Others, like the marquee sculpture Geometric Mechanotherapy Cell for Harmonic Alignment of Movements and Relations (2007-08), are more complex. Consisting of a black cube made of PVC pipe and accessorized with strange, gurgling sounds, Geometric Mechanotherapy is based on yet another archival image, this one of a metallic children’s play set. In Shearer’s recreation, the structure is blown up to more than adult size, and the sound elements impart an ominous quality. In a new context, and with a simple paint job, the stuff of childhood leisure becomes strange and ugly. As the focal point of the gallery, the cube sculpture acts almost subliminally; no matter how dopey and funny the surrounding photos or paintings, Geometric Mechanotherapy adds a note of disharmony. It’s a black box containing everything nostalgia ignores.

Steven Shearer, “Geometric Mechanotherapy Cell for Harmonic Alignment of Movements and Relations,” 2007-08. © Steven Shearer. Courtesy of National Gallery of Canada, Galerie Eva Presenhuber, and David Zwirner Gallery.

The Collector’s Visit, 2019. © Steven Shearer. Courtesy of Galerie Eva Presenhuber, and David Zwirner Gallery.

Like Shearer, I kept returning to the archive. Although only a few books were included, and they were under glass, the idea of an ‘archive’ alone reinforced the memorial function of the show. It also helped present change as a major theme—how a person reacts to change can be more complicated than the polarities of regressive reminiscence or joyous “good-riddance.” Even as Shearer’s work turns a bemused eye to the past, organizing masses of random pictures into an ordered system suggests anxiety, too. Disappearing is easy when you are one of 74,000, and preserved: it’s a type of death. That complexity felt timely; for all its focus on the past, Steven Shearer manages to capture something of the now—a disturbing mix of future fear and historical regret.

How is nostalgia like a rose? It is, of course, barbed. I found this show engaged with a wary type of nostalgia. The past, presented here as a wood-paneled rec room or a feathered haircut, appears at least as dark as the present. It’s no coincidence that the past is where outdated mores exist. In Shearer’s neon-hued world, prescriptive social roles are absurd and, of course, also sinister. It’s a subtle call to say goodbye.

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