Joel Shapiro’s sculptures are a necessary reminder of human physicality in our present time

Installation View of “Joel Shapiro” in 2017 at Pace Gallery, London. © 2020 Joel Shapiro / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of Pace Gallery.
Installation View of “Chewing Gum III” in 2019 at Pace Gallery, Hong Kong © 2020 Joel Shapiro / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of Pace Gallery.
Installation View of “Chewing Gum III” in 2019 at Pace Gallery, Hong Kong © 2020 Joel Shapiro / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of Pace Gallery.
Portrait of Joel Shapiro. Image courtesy of Pace Gallery.
Installation View of “Joel Shapiro” in 2017 at Pace Gallery, London. © 2020 Joel Shapiro / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of Pace Gallery.
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American artist Joel Shapiro relies on the physicality of human experience from our body to our experiences with objects and space to create immersive art installations—a breath of fresh air at a time when art is increasingly synonymous with going digital.

TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of Pace Gallery

Installation View of “Joel Shapiro” in 2017 at Pace Gallery, London. © 2020 Joel Shapiro / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of Pace Gallery.

 

As we increasingly retreat into virtual and digital worlds for work, leisure and socialising, the physicality of our existence becomes more precious, sacred and necessary. The physical form of humans and objects become more significant, emphasising the fundamental thread of our existence that consistently connects people to the present. This heightened focus on an aspect of our lives we often take for granted is best fleshed out in the sculptures of internationally acclaimed American artist Joel Shapiro.

The New York-based artist’s iconic sculptures, built out of wood, wire and cast bronze, immediately question the viewer’s perception of their physical self, space, position and proximity. At first glance, his art seems unbearably simple; multicoloured painted blocks constructed into abstract shapes, or wooden parts from large planes or small planks, suspended as separate parts by wires from walls, floor and ceilings. The appearance of insignificance is his greatest con. Shapiro’s artwork is anything but simple—the very scale of the installations tend to take over the architectural spaces housing these works.

 

Installation View of “Chewing Gum III” in 2019 at Pace Gallery, Hong Kong © 2020 Joel Shapiro / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of Pace Gallery.
Installation View of “Chewing Gum III” in 2019 at Pace Gallery, Hong Kong © 2020 Joel Shapiro / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of Pace Gallery.

 

The most remarkable aspect of his art, and the reason it looms large in visitors’ interactive experience with his work is that these sculptures of abstraction he has been creating since the 1970s represent the human form, rendering his art right within the blurred boundaries of figuration and abstraction. Eschewing traits of differentiation such as gender or race to focus on bodily movements, his playful, colourful figures teach us that the human experience is singular and universal in a lot of ways. Yet there is an inexplicable complexity and abstraction to the physicality of being human and this is captured in the way he encapsulates the human body as rectangular volumes suspended in space.

Shapiro has an impressive career spanning five decades with over 160 solo exhibitions and retrospectives internationally. His breakthrough came in the early 1970s during the era of Minimalism and Conceptualism with the famous exhibition of tiny chairs and tables at Paula Copper Gallery in New York. Yet in this past decade, the artist, who is now close to 80 years old, has been creating art at an incredible pace. His work has been exhibited at the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas (2016); Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland (2017); Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven (2018); and Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Wisconsin (2018-19) as well as at PACE Gallery outposts in Hong Kong, Shanghai and London.

In 2011, the artist who once called his art “the projection of thought into the world,” transformed the expansive 43-foot-tall gallery at Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany with 15 vibrantly painted wooden elements. Building on the “marked simplicity of his most recent sculptural practice, which tends to be restricted to the usage of long rectangular shapes,” Shapiro displayed a series of long, flat, square, and rectangular slabs of painted wood, hung up on wires running from ceiling to floor, “effectively creating the illusion of a mad rain of suspended coloured forms.” There is a sense with the colourfully painted installation at Ludwig that even the boundaries of painting become blurred in his expert hand, taking on a three dimensional form. Physicality is everywhere for the artist.

Speaking in general about his art, Shapiro observed, “I am interested in those moments when it appears that it is a figure and other moments when it looks like a bunch of wood stuck together—moments when it simultaneously configures and disfigures.”

 

Portrait of Joel Shapiro. Image courtesy of Pace Gallery.

 

Of his most recent showcases, the three large-scale bronze and aluminium pieces unveiled in 2018 as part of the opening of the Sculpture Garden at Kasmin Gallery atop its MDA Studio-designed new space in Chelsea, New York, are the most intriguing. A visual and abstract representation of human movement while falling or running, they incite an immediate sense of unknowability about figuration and motion.

Moreover, the site of the works, in a rooftop adjacent to the highly trafficked High Line, an elevated public park with a lofty public art programme, and parallel to the Hudson River adds another dimension to the artistic experience. In fact, due to the roof structure, the artworks in the Garden could only really be viewed in full from the High Line or from buildings around the rooftop.

 

Installation View of “Joel Shapiro” in 2017 at Pace Gallery, London. © 2020 Joel Shapiro / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of Pace Gallery.

 

Shapiro himself was very mindful of the physical environment surrounding his artworks. He explained in an interview, “The sense of containment in sculpture is interesting, but not always at a public venue. My work is about surrounding its space without being imposing. The rooftop is only at a six-foot gap from the High Line, so there is that merger of public and private, or intentional and accidental.”

The veteran artist also enjoys playing with space in terms of suspension. In addition to his monumental showing at Museum Ludwig, in November 2013 to January 2014, Shapiro took over the spacious first floor of L.A. Louver Gallery with a complex arrangement of nine vividly colourful, mostly immensely large, wooden planks, floating in space. There are no tricks of illusion with visible steel cables keeping the lumber suspended and even the brightly coloured paint is a thin coat that allows the grain the be seen.

According to Los Angeles Times, the viewer experience is instantly immersive, a “jungle gym for the vision…The perfect cure for people who spend too much time with their eyes glued to tiny screens; their minds locked into scripted stories…Your eyes run wild, reminding you that they are part of your body and that there’s no substitute for first-hand interaction with 3-D reality.”

Even at a time when immersive art installations was already synonymous with the use of digital technology, Shapiro was able to create the sensation of being pulled into an art installation and thrown into free fall with the pure use of the physicality of human experience and body, physical objects and space .

It is not an overstatement that decades from now, his sculptures and installations will keep reminding us that physicality is not just a luxury of a virtually entrenched society, but a necessary aspect of the human experience.

 

 

 
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