BRIAN SHIELDS 

 

The paintings of Brian Shields are, in Barthes’ word, idiorhythmic, that is to say a joy of flexible, free, mobile rhythms, quasi-transitory. They are liberated from power-rhythms, those imposed on life, time, maps, speech. The first painting to follow, Los Vientos, is true to its subject in being equally and astonishingly vigorous and airy. Its unchartable depth, directions of movement, melded planes, unruly local growths, vapor- and dust-swirls, elude time in a panoramic performance of simultaneities. Even the low-lying ground of earth-colored shapeless shapes, wind-brushed, thrills to the atmospheric disturbances (decidedly plural). In accentual counterpoint, a small cluster of outlined rectangles at bottom left is like a handful of frames held up to contain the commotion—a joke, for we love the commotion. The background mountains shore it all up in two-dimensional outline. In its wiry, sublimely democratic spread and its delicate hoverings between real and fantastic shapes and the hithering and thithering mutual manifold influences of its colors, Los Vientos is a new thing in art. How brilliantly and with what grace it refuses a meddling alien unity. At the same time, it is independent of this or any particular period. It gives the illusion of an eternal way of seeing landscape as poetry. 

 

An “idios,” as Barthes puts it, “doesn’t fit [a] structure.” That is why this landscape abstractionist's approach to figuration, if more forthright than that of his beloved Joan Mitchell, is nonetheless skittish and approximate, a fantastic development of ”realism”: Taos in a key at once urgent and free. Imperiously amplifying the rare paint-dripping clouds in Twombly and Mitchell, among others, the gunky precipitation in the second painting (p. 122) is bizarre and menacing. Rain has never before looked so red, so thick, so much like filthy oil. It evokes ideology without allegorizing it—note the Hoffman-like red block, a rectangle analogous to rule and reason. It evokes, too, the reign of the oil industry. One can almost gather as much from its octopus-like aspect of hanging-over and dangling-down. The rain-maker’s revenge is to rake the block apart as if with a cat’s swiping paw into a  barbarous shag and gravity-dragged demise. 

 

Shields sides with transitivity and marginality—co-optationwith weeds against gardens, mesas against towns, fluencies against frozen landscapes. (His non-profit organization, Amigos Bravos, protects New Mexican rivers.) He has a positive, Thoreauvian feeling for wilderness. The packed, static scene in Polar Requiem (p.123) comments prophetically on environmental disaster: here the natural world has lost its rhuthmos, its “swing”; idiorhythm has been cubed and iced out of it By contrast, the final two pictures (p. 124), considerably smaller, have something of Cy Twombly and Joan Mitchell’s floral raptures, and more than a touch of their flinging curves and yarn-like tangles. They are vigorous with spontaneity, fecundity, and movement. (See their sister works on pages 177 and 182.) 

 

I learned about Brian Shields's work through a mutual friend. He should be receiving attention—beginning with, at the least, major gallery representation.

 

DESPINA STOKOU

 

By contrast, the equally anti-minimalist Greek painter Despina Stokou (residence: Berlin) is urban to the hilt and has major gallery representation (e.g., Derek Eller in New York). Her brash and gorgeous, her raucuous and harshly sensual paintings have forceful exuberance with traces of bewilderment and dissatisfaction. In a gallery where other work is being shown, you have to call a halt before hers—whoa!—and take the full blast of their big bright color field on which words in large crudely drawn struggle to articulate a theme that the painterly intention insofar as one survives, refuses to represent in the pre-modern style: it favors concrete abstraction, passionately dumb color. The paintings take something related to taste—a whiskey sour, a luxury yacht—and, instead of running with it, run straight into obstacles. The dominant color-field has to hold together the resulting fragments, the excess, the proliferation, which consists mostly of broken chatter about the topic (such as the phrases about malls, galleries, and selling partially framed by a necklace of pseudo-African masks in The Martin Creeds 2 on p. 127). Yet that supposed painterly intention resists and rudely interferes with the chatter. The artist layers words upon words, half-legible sentences upon half-legible sentences, as if trying to bury them with still more of themselves (a frustratingly perverse operation) and get back to “painting.” Meanwhile, her palette restlessly adopts and abandons colors. Nothing here is long in the telling. Even in the successive letters of single words vary—very prettily—in color. In sum, the paintings accumulate, and all but get lost in, complexities. It is all fun but not without an air of troubles. To an urban sensibility the “too much” (in the Longinian tag for the sublime) is daily food—both a pleasure and a problem. (Incidentally, the aesthetics that makes cousins of Stokou and Shields is one that co-mingles abstraction and entanglement, abstraction and representation—in Stokou’s case, the representation of words and occasionally of food, such as a baked turkey or “Chelsea pies” (a pun on Chelsea Pier, a gallery district), or, say, of a half-painted-over woman’s shoe or very small collaged magazine photos of male and female nudes. This aesthetic sets the canvases of both painters to vibrating, going two ways at once.)

 

At its densest and most chaotic, the congestion is disturbing. In Bermuda (p. 128) a green triangle on a black background sits calmly in the middle in blank indifference to the crush of clashes and accidents that make up its surroundings and encroach on it only a little. Stokou's work is no less serious for being sexy and humorous. Even pleasure, after all, is complicated. But her work isn't grim. She has too much game. “Ruin Art,” announces the title of a triplet of paintings, punning on Ruinart, the champagne (the sub-titles cite red, rose, and blanc). Ruin art? The paintings are hip failures, rather: frankly cut off from the classical, or for that matter the romantic, and thrown upon the baroque because the age is – (here append something from "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley"). Bewilderment art, rather. “Where is” or “What” is a typical beginning of a likely unreadable “sentence.” A few of the embedded magazine nudes border on semi-hard-core pornography but here the pornographic is overwhelmed by the chaoto-graphic: semantics and grammar navigating in the Bermuda triangle of language.

 

Culture in Stokou’s work is, then, bewildered; it lacks authority, clarity, grace, even “motor control as an earnest of sustained thought” (Marjorie Welish on Twombly). Script, Apollo’s rational hegemony, rarely appears on the canvas. You can almost see the artist biting her tongue like a child clutching a pencil crayon as she concentrates mightily on trenching a letter into the paint. All that mire. On the other hand, the letters, this one yellow this one red or blue etc., could be thought to enjoy their skinny, naked participation in color; it’s their claim to being sensation, a riot. (An atypical milk-white “hole” in the painting 05.05—see p. 126—is like a gasp for air in the midst of a party.) Stokou’s paint-writing is novel, an invention. It differs from Twombly’s in being bent on articulation, even if the effort chokes up; and compared to Sean Landers' quasididactic work, it is positively exuberant, cheerful, and chitchatty, though just as brutally obscuring.

 

Stokou is enliveningly ambivalent about semantics and syntax, as opposed to the obvious attractions of objects (peachy Bellini cocktails, a young man’s tan skin). “I LOVE YOUR DRESS!,” exclaims the painting The Martin Creeds, 1 (p. 125), “I LOVE YOUR HAIR!" "I LOVE YOUR BAG!” (Stokou would be fun to go shopping with.) Where does value lie, really? Products (Stokou includes floating symbols for British pounds and actual prices) at least have a known market value. In words, by contrast, is nothing sure. Often they hunger to gain more and still more meaning. What use does a painter have for words anyway? They are not her métier. Well, Stokou, for one, plainly requires them. The Martin Creeds, 1 asks, “WHO IS MARTIN CREED? DONT YOU KNOW MARTIN CREED? I HATE IT WHEN PEOPLE DO THAT—AND YOU JUST GO AHEAD AND REPEAT THE WHOLE NAME I JUST ASKED.” The repetition devilishly starves the question. The latter can of course be Googled: Martin Creed is a Glasgow artist; flicks room lights on and off; fills half a room with balloons, etc. But you are in a conversation and suddenly there is an interest, a wish to have the facts. The nature of words is to promise them. Stokou dramatizes the need for both words as information and color as sensation. Unlike other painters who combine the two, she paints, her tongue clenched between her teeth, at their crossroads. See her there, her hair scrambled.

 
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