This compact survey of Alan Shields’s works from 1974-88 did not seem dated, although Shields (1944-2005) was part of the countercultural and post-Minimalist generation. Maybe because a hands-on esthetic has reemerged in contemporary art, his work looks fresh and lively. Mostly fabric-based and incorporating beads, machine zigzag stitching, appliqué and lots of bright colors, the wall and floor pieces evade association with the domestic. A viewer might wonder if Shields (like Yayoi Kusama) once worked in a parachute factory, or if he had some association with the circus. Structures, hues and motifs (dot and diamond, especially) recur on panels and on tentlike or cylindrical constructions.
The first work one saw in the gallery was Tin Man (1988), a roughly 2-foot square of watercolor and thread on handmade paper, bearing a typically inexplicable title. The ground, thick and felty, is punctuated with cellular clumps made up of square blocks of color, the squares typically on point and so giving a harlequin effect. The upper right corner of the work features a complex paper lattice appliquéd onto a grid fragment in soft but cheerful colors.
A lattice also appears In Diet Limca (1980-81), as freehanging cotton belting of considerably larger size. The web intersections are stabilized with appliquéd circles, zigzag-stitched into place. The circles seem to beckon across the room to much larger parti-colored (pun intended) circles at the corners of the acrylic-on-canvas Something Goin’ On & On (1984). These recall colored dots on a clown costume, and that association seems to connect to Dance Bag (1985), a linear construction of painted canvas strips suspended from the ceiling and attaching to an aluminum ring hovering above a round mirror on the floor. The work resembles a blend of circus tent, carousel and maypole.
The earlier works in the show are softer and less graphic. Finger Lickin’ (1974-76), for instance, one of the biggest at 118 by 113 inches, is a neat-edged unstretched canvas of delicate blue and red blotches and ghostly brushmarks, with a very open, spidery, string-and-bead net draped from one top corner to partway down the other side. The net may evoke Shields’s residence on Shelter Island and his occasional fishing trips, but it’s gossamer, not functional.
One weekend during the run of the show, the gallery presented Shields’s only video, Ballet Fire, dated the year of his death and never before shown. In it, his cast of geometric characters comes to stop-motion life, walking and dancing in both defined and undefined spaces while fragments of poetic language scroll across the screen to an almost random audio accompaniment, dominated by what sounds like tap dancing. If this is where Shields ended, it was in the fond company of familiar elements and in a euphoric mood.
Photo: Alan Shields: Dance Bag, 1985, acrylic, canvas, glass beads and thread on aluminum tubing, 40 by 48 by 48 inches; at Greenberg van Doren.