“More is more” seems to be the default setting for a lot of painting and three-dimensional work made since the late 1960s. Reductivism has its practitioners and certainly its critical admirers, but the impulse to load an artwork with as much visual information as it can carry exerts an abiding hold over artists. Alan Shields (1944-2005) felt the pull of the additive early on. His carefully chosen survey at the Parrish Art Museum showed us an artist comfortable with a host of materials, techniques and organizational strategies—diverse to be sure, but yielding work of remarkable coherence and delight. Moving easily between painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture and, in his last years, stop-motion animation, Shields had certain touchstones. The grid (in its many manifestations) is almost always there, as are loose geometric orderings executed in luminous color. And then there is his line, persistent and quirky. Cut, drawn, beaded or sewn (or frequently all four), his line holds the pieces together, visually and often enough literally.
Shields had a particular fondness for industrial cotton belting. It is wide enough to hold a variety of painted marks or to read as a coherent bar of color, and it accepts paint well—especially the thinned out acrylic that Shields favored. It is sufficiently sturdy to stand up to vigorous manipulation and to complex machine sewing, at which the artist was particularly adept. The material itself evokes traditional artist’s canvas, while almost demanding to be organized in an open grid. A key, early and very big (8-by-16-foot) work, Devil, Devil, Love (1970) presents a network of glowingly painted belting, drawn on with colored sewn lines and ornamented with strung beads and painted wooden dowels tucked into the grids’ interstices. Like so many of Shields’s works, a relatively straightforward structure is intensively and intuitively elaborated upon, allowing for the artwork to be read overall and part to part simultaneously.
This is seen to strong effect in Shields’s three-dimensional works, like Ajax (1972-73), an 8-by-8-by-8-foot open-work hanging cylinder, composed of two horizontal circles of aluminum tubing joined by vertical strips of painted cotton belting. Another example is Dance Bag (1985)—a similarly suspended construction, composed in a tentlike manner, with one circle on the bottom and the canvas strips gathered together in a point at the top. Maze (1981-82), a large labyrinthine installation made of sewn canvas, cotton belting and aluminum piping, pulls out all the stops—Shields uses pretty much every device at his disposal to create an environment that merges the sculptural, the painterly and the theatrical. Very much in keeping with the piece’s character, it has served as an interactive dance set on a number of occasions, including a performance by the Stephen Petronio Dance Company at the Parrish this fall.
Shields made a big splash when his work hit the art world in the late ’60s. It felt lively and fresh, and seemed to be a reasonable way for abstraction to approach color, form and process without going down the Greenbergian path. Recent years have brought a marked revival of interest in Shields’s work. It again feels very much on time. We can hope that this smart and engaging museum show will be followed by others.
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.