About the exhibitionShelby Shadwell
November 4 - December 17, 2023
Artist’s Talk: Saturday, Nov. 4, 4pm
Opening Reception to follow: Saturday, Nov. 4, 4 - 6pm
Drawing Demonstration: Saturday, December 16, 2 - 5pm
(free and open to the public)
The Paradigm Shifting Drawings of Shelby Shadwell
In today’s frenetic world, artists often forget about the nature of their works as objects in space, as things related to their bodies and those of their viewers. Today’s technology-driven infatuation with pictures on screens, moving and still, and the ubiquity of images in advertising have subverted many artists’ awareness, lulling them into forgetfulness about the reality of the substrate—the physical picture plane—and the important role of the artist as master craftsman. The more we look to our phones to fill the interminable gaps in each hour, the less in touch with the world we become. It almost seems that contemporary civilization conspires to keep the most capable visionaries among us in the mental flatlands presenting their work as merely “pictures” among the billions produced daily by so many willing producers.
Of course, the best artists resist such visual de-literacy programming—that of the Media insisting that its world is the only one that matters, or that of the art industrialists denigrating skill. They master the materials they choose to work with, breaking free of the event horizon fervently dragging so much else downward into a pixelated abyss. One could argue that this differentiation is a worthy prime directive of all artists, but it is a distinction that sets some outside the norm.
Shelby Shadwell approaches this concept head-on by titling his exhibit “HAECCEITY,” which roughly means “this-specific-thingness.” (I choose to read the word to mean “portrait,” which matters when approaching these works.) With this title as a prompt, he may be referring to his images, but the word is equally relevant to his finger-printed, masterfully rendered surfaces—abstracted in all their glory. His drawings are a celebration of the illusory picture within a picture plane. At the same time, they represent an embrace of the physicality of the work, its tangible nature, through scale and the sheer body force required to address every square inch of such large and compellingly rendered surfaces into eloquent duality. The works reveal a mastery of the illusion of image, and the formal intensity of the presence of the medium of charcoal on a light surface, infused with the presence of the artist who made them. Shadwell insists we see the subject, its form, and the energy of its creation as one unified and dominant experience right before our eyes.
The artist’s choice of subjects intensifies an irony divulged from the wholeness of his process and choice of media. In our conversation about his work, he mentioned such concepts as entropy, quantum theory, irony, an infinity of moments, and the American flag.
I’m not sure the things he’s been inspired by matter to the viewer or should even be considered here. Knowing the artist, that’s a deep well to dive into, which would take us away from the work at hand. Shadwell admits he wants his work to provide the open space for those who encounter it to bring their part of the equation—the missing variable—into the mix. And I tend to agree that the art should speak for itself, and his is surely capable of doing so. Whatever the artist was thinking, that was pre-history. What matters is the here and now—the works on the wall, the space and air between them, the participating viewer, and the time of their exposure to one another. For this reason, I do not believe the viewer needs to be told what to think or how to interpret Shadwell’s work.
The Subject Matters
Coal is a natural mineral that takes millions of years to form. Space blankets are a modern-day NASA invention initially developed for space travel. The one is the fourth most abundant material in the universe. The other is a polymer, a space-age extract, and an amalgamation of, among other components, coal. They both are used to keep a person warm. They can both keep us alive. And by their misuse, they can kill us all (see global warming, plastics pollution, and fossil fuel addiction).
Another subject, hidden right before our eyes, is charcoal—the very substance that has been used to make the marks by the artist’s hand, resulting in these compelling drawings. Charcoal is not coal but rather a contemporary product of the burning of trees or other woody plants. Whole countries have been threatened with losing all tree cover during periods in history when charcoal production was, in fact, a social/industrial imperative (it has been a component of the process of producing iron, among many other things, for thousands of years).
And herein lies the irony Shadwell hinted at. He uses real refined carbon to depict illusions of ancient time-baked carbon and modern space-age products derived from the same Earth-bound sources. Shelby Shadwell is playing with fire. Is he an Oppenheimer or Prometheus? And that missing variable, the viewer element, is it the fuse that can ignite a primordial realization—that coal becomes diamonds?
Shadwell sets the stage. His works are beautiful and seductively engaging from a great distance and upon close inspection. They dominate a gallery like images of ancient gods lining a temple to some long-forgotten but revivable ideal. Yet through their masterful economy, they maintain a Buddha-like dignity that allows them to sing in unison, a song of past, present, and future.
This is our wake-up call to dislodge our attachment to the “media paradigm” that insists our world is just pictures (or natural resources) to consume. In their bold, refreshing, and powerful silence, Shadwell's drawings are whispering at us to wake up.
- Jason Franz is an artist, educator, curator, and the cofounding Executive Director of the nonprofit Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Special thanks to the Sam Fox School of Art and Design at Washington University in St. Louis, MO and the Wyoming Arts Council for helping to fund this exhibition.