By Annette Hinkle
As an artist, Alan Shields came of age at a time when the art world was questioning the relevance of painting. The declaration that “painting is dead” is one that has surfaced periodically throughout history, which is why in the early 1970s when the future of the medium looked murky, Mr. Shields wasn’t afraid to take painting off the wall and define it by a whole new set of parameters.
His response? To totally reimagine the way in which audiences experience painting.
Mr. Shields, a long-time resident of Shelter Island, died at his home in 2005 at the age of 61. This weekend, the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill opens “In Motion,” a touring exhibition featuring several works by Mr. Shields, many of which could best be described as sculptural paintings. The exhibit is curated by Jill Brienza, a longtime friend of Mr. Shields who also curated “Alan Shields: A Survey,” a traveling museum exhibition of the artist’s work. For this show, she has assembled a select group of Mr. Shields’ three-dimensional paintings, as well as a video of a dance piece and on-screen animation that speak to the concept of movement in his art.
Among the pieces on views is “Dance Bag,” a cone-like sculptural work comprised of colorfully painted strips of canvas suspended from a single point which attach to circular tubing, and “Ajax,” a similarly constructed piece that takes the form of a giant cylinder.
But perhaps no piece addresses the concept of movement more literally than “Maze,” Mr. Shield’s monumental 1981 work which takes painting off the walls and literally turns it into the walls themselves through a series of painted panels suspended from a grid-work of aluminum piping. In “Maze,” visitors are not only permitted, but encouraged to wander through the spaces defined by the canvas walls.
“When you walk through it’s an incredible experience,” says Ms. Brienza. “You’re seeing so many of Alan’s paintings and are surrounded on all sides — including in front and back of you. It’s a different kind of painting, a real painting – then you go back and find your way out.”
“It’s magical,” she adds.
Through her friendship with Mr. Shields, Ms. Brienza came to understand his desire to see his work travel. Despite its seemingly complex form, “Maze,” she notes, is designed to do just that.
“Alan studied engineering and you can tell. He left instructions, a very simple drawing of how to put it together,” explains Ms. Brienza. “There are no stretcher bars. It was a decision he made to put in a duffle bag. It’s rolled canvas, metal poles that connect and Velcro.”
Because the maze is interactive, it stands to reason that other artists have found ways to incorporate movement into the piece itself. Among the imagery on view at The Parrish is “Into the Maze,” a 2012 video of an original dance choreographed by Stephen Petronio using eight dancers from his company. In the piece, dancers explore “Maze” while wearing body pieces that were also created by Shields — though they were not specifically created for the dance. In conjunction with the exhibit, on Friday, November 7, the Stephen Petronio Company will be on hand to offer a live 20-minute performance of “Into the Maze” at The Parrish with a Q&A with Petronio to follow. Five more dance performances by the company follow throughout the day on Saturday, November 8.
Viewers of Mr. Shields’ work will find that it defies the notion of traditional painting not only through form, but through his use of non-traditional materials as well — things such as cotton belting, glass beads and wire. A native of rural Harrington, Kansas, Ms. Brienza explains that in his formative years Mr. Shields was exposed to what traditionally would be labeled women’s work — skills like sewing and quilt making. But the domestic arts served him well in his professional life and became an important part of his artistic vision.
“With Alan, his life and art practice weren’t separate. They were totally intertwined,” explains Ms. Brienza. “Quilting was a big part of family tradition… farming was a big part as well and he meshed that into his work. He had a sewing room, a bead room, a separate green house.”
“You would see this big tall guy working at a sewing machine,” adds Ms. Brienza. “Alan didn’t care about what others around him did – he did his own thing.”
This philosophy may help explain why Mr. Shields wasn’t particularly interested in being an active player in the New York art world. Instead, his most productive years were spent on Shelter Island where he settled into a quiet life that allowed him to make art and become an integral part of the local community. Mr. Shields was actively involved on Shelter Island. Ms. Brienza notes he was an elder in the Presbyterian Church, served on a number of committees and helped out at the Shelter Island School by teaching art. He even worked as a ferry captain on the North Ferry, plying the waters between Shelter Island and Greenport.
“People were clamoring for his work, but he wasn’t interested in being in a scene,” says Ms. Brienza. “He moved to Shelter Island when he was quite young – and that surprised people. He didn’t have an interest in hanging out all night networking. He would fish, grow his own vegetables and make art the way he wanted to make it.”
“He cared about the environment and cared about community,” adds Ms. Brienza. “He was very true to he is, and never changed his work to fit into what people might want.”
“Alan Shields: In Motion,” October 26 to January 19, Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill. Special members-only opening reception on Saturday, November 1 at 5:30 p.m. (reserve at 283-2118 ext. 181). New members welcome to join that evening.
On Sunday, November 2 at 11 a.m. curator Jill Brienza will talk about Alan Shields’ work in The Curator’s View ($10, free for members, students and children).
“Into the Maze” by the Stephen Petronio Dance Company will be performed live on Friday, November 7 at 6 p.m. (followed by a Q&A with Stephen Petronio and interactive “tours” guided by the dancers) and on Saturday, November 8, the 20-minute dance will sbe performed on the hour from 1 to 4 p.m. For more information visit parrishart.org.