Joel Shapiro illustrates and conveys through the means of material and form. “Plaster, Paper, Wood, and Wire” is on display from March 2 to June 10, 2018, on the fourth floor of the Yale University Art Gallery. Shapiro’s collection takes on many different forms; shapes are suspended from the ceiling, structures are set on the floor and frames hang on the walls. Shapiro’s art speaks using materials as words and collections as expressions. His language is not excessive, it gives the observer just enough.
Shapiro’s minimal selection succeeds in achieving artistic nuance, while maintaining a specific thematic style. Nearly five decades of an artist’s exploration of material and meaning is put on display in a way that probes at what each raw item could or should mean. Shapiro’s purpose is covered with a convolution that contrasts with the simplicity of the pieces. Plaster, paper, wood and wire are all simple, everyday items sculpted into straightforward sculptures, and yet, the design, the placement and the nicety of the collection promise they have more to offer than visual form.
The exhibit is made up of 30 objects, five from the YUAG’s collection of Shapiro’s work and the rest from his studio. He worked with Pamela Franks, senior deputy director and the Seymour H. Knox, Jr., Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, to design the arrangement and bring his artistic vision to life.
What stands out most about the collection is its lack of excess. None of the pieces include more than two colors, none of the art sculptures look elaborately cut or manufactured and none of the paintings require magnification. Every object glorifies in its minimalism, demanding to be understood.
The oldest pieces in the exhibit are the most mysterious. One in particular: a long, horizontal frame, covered in fingerprints — all seemingly identical — stands apart. Fingerprints are usually used strictly to identify individuals; here, they seem to merge with one another. Side by side, one cannot begin to wonder whose fingerprints they might be or why it matters. From far away, what is hung on the wall may just as well be a rectangular image formed by smaller partitions of ink. The individualism of each oval is lost, confined into a polygonal space, desperately attempting to escape.
A four-part piece is set on the floor not far away. It looks slightly like an optical course made of bronze, balsa wood and basswood. Perhaps this is meant to illustrate a struggle, a formidable path, with each piece symbolizing a barrier that seems too simple and small to serve as a drawback but does anyway. Or these objects, one looking like a ramp, another like a long, rustic bowl, may signify the opposite. The roundness at the bottom of the bowl shows a softness that grants refuge to the eye, the ramp an escalation from the problems that exist on flat grounds.
Shapiro’s newer designs pursue the same abstract imagery. The combination of gouache and rag paper is used in some of the only colored pieces on display. Each framed shape is different, with both sharp and curved edges and an inconsistent level of opaqueness. The pigments rest on unfollowed edges, presenting a freedom that underlines Shapiro’s artistic drive. If each piece is designed to embody Shapiro’s human experiences, then the colored figures must have derived from a moment of self-actualization and autonomy.
This feeling of freedom lingers throughout the exhibition. In his charcoal-on-paper designs, Shapiro allows the amorphous form of carbon to stain the whiteness of paper surrounding the explicit, straight lines. The shapes are minimal, but the art is not confined and stiff. Just like the fingerprints, it finds a way to epitomize liberal exploration.
Arguably the most telling and most evident examples of this motif are the sculptures present in the exhibition. The smaller ones are made with wood and wire, the larger ones constructed with only wood. Each one seems to stand apart from normality, either hanging in an unnatural position or pieced together awkwardly. The way these sculptures are presented contradicts their either nonexistent or primary coloring. It is also juxtaposed with the regular, rectangular shapes of which they are composed. Even the materials are minimal, and yet, the final structures defy any standards of regularity.
Every piece, besides the two described in the preceding paragraph, is “Untitled.” Although Shapiro breaks this trend with “Really Blue (after all),” 2016, and “Flush,” 2016, he does not alter the underlying story being told within his art. Instead, he boisterously concludes it. Shapiro’s artistic timeline begins quietly, in black and white, then gradually increases in volume and color. The harmony between minimalism and creativity is striking, and its effect is absolutely liberating.
Joel Shapiro’s exhibition will be on view in the Yale University Art Gallery through June 10, 2018.
Razan Sulieman | firstname.lastname@example.org .