Canada’s representative at the 54th Venice Beinnale is Steven Shearer, a soft-spoken and mild-mannered Vancouver-based artist whose work delves deep into the seldom excavated, often explosive interior lives of teenaged boys.
Garage bands, long hair and grunge style are of particular interest to Shearer because they are emblematic of his suburban youth. It’s a subculture defined by anger and rebellion, as Shearer’s series of Poems attest to. These graphic, black and white text works are mash-ups inspired by the grotesque lyrics of heavy metal songs. The dramatic, billboard-sized Poem installed outside the Canada pavilion begins: “triumphant secretions / sculpted in foul mist / dehydrated spectral birth / at war with false metal…” Shearer’s obvious reverence for the rude and vulgar language of metal music draws attention to its poetry, and in turn speaks to the entire aim of Shearer’s project, which is to reveal the insecurities and vulnerabilities behind the walls erected by adolescents. The pavilion’s interior showcases Shearer’s soft centre. The paintings and delicate drawings of Longhairs (2004) and other subjects are unexpectedly beautiful, executed with a careful hand in eerie and unnatural jewel tones. It’s almost disorienting to see figurative painting at the Biennale, which tends towards immersive installation, spectacle and fanfare.
I was lucky enough to catch a quiet moment with Shearer at the end of the Biennale’s first preview day. We sat together behind the Canada Pavilion, close to the ground on the edge of a pallet stacked with magazines featuring the artist’s Self Portrait with Black Eye (2009) on its cover. Chatting casually in the dirt, I felt a kinship with Shearer, who cares little for the pomp and circumstance of the Biennale, and who only makes art that comes naturally to him, like a kid sketching elaborate daydreams in a notebook.
QThe White Review — It’s the end of a long afternoon for you, so I want to start by asking if there are any questions you’ve loathed answering today.
ASteven Shearer — In general I don’t like to talk about my work. The reason I started making art in the first place is because it’s a solitary experience, a way of passing time alone. Obviously, it’s all dependent upon people seeing it in the end, and I like that there is an audience for it and that people can relate to it; but I kind of hope that it all speaks for itself.
QThe White Review — So what has this experience been like for you then? I mean, being a national representative at the Biennale requires that you talk a great deal about your work, and the whole gig is about being on display. Do you find it uncomfortable?
ASteven Shearer — I’ve tried not to talk about the work all too much. If I had my way, I wouldn’t do any of this.
QThe White Review — One thing that I noticed initially, walking into your installation, is that it doesn’t seem typically Canadian on the surface. Recent national representatives, including David Altmejd and Mark Lewis, have leaned towards obvious Canadian cultural clichés — like the landscape, for example. Do you identify with the Canadian artist label?
ASteven Shearer — Well, Canada will always be where I am from; but for me the whole process is more about individual output. What’s powerful or poetic is when people relate to the experiences of others. You don’t always have to know the whole story. I would get lost if I tried to make something specifically Canadian or even something specifically for this event. That’s not really the way I go. My work is about an internal world, and I don’t think it would have been right to craft something representative of my country.
QThe White Review — Do you think that the Venice Biennale is an outmoded exhibition structure then, since it is so reliant upon those national labels?
ASteven Shearer — No, I think it can be interesting if it all comes together to paint a larger picture. I mean, I’ve never thought of myself as a Canadian artist making my mark in another place – I just make my work; but I am curious about where the work resonates. In a way, it has always felt like my art is less about its roots with me, and more about the connection it makes with curators and viewers. In that way I feel like I export myself to the wider world.
QThe White Review — Tell me about how you approached the pavilion project. Was it intimidating?
ASteven Shearer — When I was chosen as the representative, I honestly didn’t really feel like I was ready to take this all on and I hesitated; but after realizing that I would probably never feel totally ready, I accepted it like a challenge. The largeness of the event didn’t really add too much additional pressure to my practice because the only reason I make anything is for the joy of it. I tried to use the commission as an opportunity to produce work that I’d been keeping to myself, inside my head.
In the beginning, I thought a lot about the pavilion itself. When the building was erected in the late 1950s, it was intended to house traditional group exhibitions of easel paintings and drawings. I wanted to make a suite of work that would respect that architectural history; I wanted the space to compliment my pieces and vice versa. I’m drawn to the humanist element to the pavilion’s architecture — it has personality, and it responds to the surrounding environment; and so I thought it would be a nice context within which to showcase my figurative work.
QThe White Review — With that in mind, could you speak to the giant poem billboard in front of the pavilion? The structure completely obscures one’s view of the Canada pavilion itself, which seems to contradict this reverence you pay to the structure with the picture-hang inside. Besides the billboard’s obnoxious size, the text it features is blatantly loud and rude.
ASteven Shearer — It’s a false front. I hadn’t much experience with Venice; but I knew enough about the anxiety that the strange scale and structure of the pavilion had caused artists and commissioners in the past. The building has an almost total lack of functionality for artists and curators today because it doesn’t conform to the all-important white cube gallery format that we’re all used to working within. It’s also very quiet and set back compared to the neighbouring British and German pavilions, which were built in classical, imposing styles with imperialist aims.
The poem is an attempt to deal with some of those issues. My idea was to create a context for the pavilion and relate it to the surrounding structures. The billboard structure is just as mannered and brutal as the Britain and German buildings. The billboard facade presents a harsh outer reality, while the inside of the pavilion is about the bodies coming together and introspection. Additionally, the only public works that I’ve ever made have been these poems, and it so seemed fitting to adapt the model for the Giardini, which is kind of like a fairground.
QThe White Review — Typically your black and white poems are composed from appropriated metal song lyrics. Is it true that this is the first poem you’ve written?
ASteven Shearer — Yes, that’s true; but I don’t feel like this poem is any more personal than the other 127 I’ve done. The poem project is all about finding a voice. It’s a cultural voice more than it’s my own. I’m not trying to write for the metal audience here. I’m trying to explore how this specific, nuanced musical language can branch off and reach towards bigger traditions, history and philosophy.
QThe White Review — The entire facade is a hybrid of your two of your most iconic forms: the black and white poem, and the garden shed. Can you speak to this mutation?
ASteven Shearer — I liked the idea of incorporating the shed structure into the facade. I’ve always thought that the shed speaks to Canada’s identity as a residential nation, a suburban kind of place. Culturally, Canada is not avant-garde. We don’t have that history. I guess it’s all part of that same false front idea. Overall the entire, imposing billboard structure is meant to protect and animate the quiet, intimate space inside.
QThe White Review — I think you incorporate that juxtaposition between loud and soft into your work. Your interest in crude metalhead subculture, teenage rebellion and the inevitable identity crisis we all face as adolescents is softened, quieted by your traditional materials and approach. You’re a sensitive, figurative painter and your treatment is almost Fauve. What provokes this juxtaposition?
ASteven Shearer — I see the contemporary images that I reference as an extension of all historical images. They’re all connected organically. My knowledge of the past helps me enter into and navigate the found images that I use as a starting point. My image archive stems from a serious, almost forensic interest in how images are made, how they’re formed both physically and theoretically. I’m interested in making things that explore how we all remember and idealise each other. Today’s images are echoes of how people have always been depicted, throughout history.
Even my poems I see within the context of medieval illuminations and the universal history of persecution and torment. They’re humorous too because the language is so mannered, overwrought and, in a sense, baroque. I like the strange contrast between the bodily, grotesque phrases and the clean, orderly, austere graphic quality of the black and white graphics. It’s unreal and funny.
QThe White Review — This idea of duality is so powerful in your work. I’m thinking now about your simultaneous interest in skinny, greasy-haired metal heads and palatable, feather-banged boy pop stars. On the spectrum of male idols, each extreme is androgynous. Is gender something you are self-consciously exploring? Or is this just a happy accident?
ASteven Shearer — I think it’s both. I’m amazed by how long I can spend working towards something or guided by something like gender without having a strong sense of doing it intentionally. Themes seem to emerge without premeditation because I’m driven by compulsion, need. I suppose the androgynous nature of my figures is related to my interest in fashion, how we stylise and manner ourselves for others. It also speaks to my approach to art making, which has never been about physical reality; it’s about fantasy and release. It may be that I naturally gravitate towards androgyny because it reflects the freeing, fluid spirit of creativity that propels me forward. And really, when you think about artists like Gustave Moreau or Da Vinci, their idealized male figures also exist within a still point between the genders. In part, the long hair is a nice way for my hand to enter into the pictures, it’s a line; but it also creates this equilibrium. My subjects are male, but they don’t feel exclusively male.
They might seem dandyish and even strange to some; but for me the fact that I’m an artist standing in front of an easel making paintings is over-the-top strange too. It definitely feels like I’ve ended up doing something that I’m not supposed to be doing.