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Contents in Response to the Ministrations of the Woman in Charge

 


During the summer of 2006, my dear friend, Hudson, commissioned me to write the following essay about the work of the artist Nancy Shaver for a catalogue (forthcoming) to accompany her exhibition,  Retail ( at April 14-May 19, 2007), at Feature in Chelsea.



Henry (store front window), 348 Warren Street, Hudson, NY




Henry is the name of an intimate, idiosyncratic, storefront shop at 348 Warren Street in the town of Hudson, NY. Like the town, and the adjoining river that provided this small inland port with its 19th century economic raison-d’être, Henry is named for the ill-fated British explorer. Fate—ill or otherwise—comes to mind while poring over Henry’s eclectic mix of odd, old and not so old things, prompting reflection about the destiny of objects whose utility no longer suffices to justify their survival. A store like no other, Henry is the marginally profitable venture of its proprietor, the artist Nancy Shaver, who opened it in 1994, and has run it ever since with the sensibility and care that she applies to the luminous painted constructions and assemblages of found objects that comprise her studio practice.




As in Shaver’s works of art, in Henry’s well lit, soft white interior (redolent with the dusty aroma of old and used things), the visitor’s attention oscillates back and forth between focusing on the individual items on display and taking in the whole. This bifurcation of one’s perception brings to mind the similar split between illusion and flatness with which formalists identify modern pictorial space, and underscores the difficulty in deciding (if one must) whether Shaver is a sculptor or a painter, or both. Other aspects of this artist-shopkeeper’s work entail a similar blurring of boundaries, and are consistent with the complexities of evaluation and discernment that inform how and why individual works get made.



One blue block, red brick, 2004
wooden box, cardboard boxes, house paint
flashes acrylic paint, 13.25 x 10.5 x 4.75 inches

Feature Inc. (New York), 530 West 25 Street
New York, NY, 10001, featureinc.com


Anyone familiar with Shaver’s studio art knows how attentive she is to objects and images that have lost their original purpose, been cast off, and then resurfaced in the jumbled limbo of flea markets, yard sales, and junk shops. There, once the initial attraction locks in, she begins to consider whether or not—and how—to rescue, reorient, recycle and reuse them. Should they join the ranks of the collectibles she displays as part of Henry’s inventory? Or should they become elements within one of her constructions or sculptural installations?




Henry (store interior)
348 Warren Street, Hudson, NY

What draws Shaver to old, misshapen, unidentifiable, or merely used things are qualities that extend well beyond the limits of a narrowly defined utility to cast doubt on the meaning of “utility” and of “necessity.” At stake in these implied questions is nothing less than the place of art in life, and of life in art. What makes an object necessary? Is there a boundary that separates desire from need? To what extent are desire and need separable? There is something about an object’s obsolescence, and its fate as an obsolete thing that somehow survives in the world, that renders the quirks of its design more noticeable, more resonant. Yet the same condition may also charge an object with an emotional dimension, with nostalgia and/or the singular appeal of the anomaly in our increasingly degraded, flattened and brutal world. Focusing on the formal qualities of a given object—by which I mean its material, tactile, chromatic and even olfactory properties—does not preclude the establishment of an affective or emotional connection to it as well; nor does it preclude the capacity of the object, in relation to other ones, to spark associations that appeal to Shaver—as when, with wit, sincerity, and near invisibility, she placed a pair of men’s black leather brogues on the floor next to a small wooden tray table on which she arranged several bottles and containers, and called the whole Homage to Van Gogh and Morandi (1987).



According to Shaver, running Henry has helped her to earn a living, and has provided her, moreover, with a welcome opportunity to indulge in her “passion for interiors.” This passion for decorating—specifically, her taste for arranging, tidying up, finding or making order—has deep roots in the 1970s feminist project of valorizing the decorative and/or the “domestic arts” in forceful response to the latter’s cultural marginalization by the institution of patriarchal modernism.


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Henry (store front window)
348 Warren Street, Hudson, NY

Nancy decorates the interior known as Henry, as Shaver decorates the interiors of the old boxes she reuses to contain and frame assortments of similarly recycled wood blocks or cardboard boxes (the oblong rectangle of the “Stoned Wheat Thins” container being her favorite) that she either wraps in patterned fabric or paints, sometimes in gouache, sometimes in flashe, and sometimes in matte house paint. Employing such poor materials to achieve such luminous results is an implicit affront to the refinement of oil or the bravura of acrylic, and parallels the way Shaver’s deployment of the used, the worn, and the old is an affront to the new, the clean and, as Jeff Koons would have it, the virginally pure. Shaver is astonishingly sensitive and attentive to the sensual properties (design, color, shape and texture) of the objects and images with which she shares space; and to the history of those things as it is etched into their surfaces, tracing their passage from useful to obsolete to cast offs to their redemption as collectibles or elements within works of art. Such considerations inform the long stretches of time—weeks, months, sometimes even years—during which, in days and nights, in states of mild distraction and intense focus, Shaver adjusts the display and positioning of these things and contemplates the effects of their newly highlighted congruencies and complementarities, between like and unlike things. As in virtually all of Shaver’s art—and that includes Henry—contemplation is the open end of her work.



In 1992, at one of the most dismal moments of the devastating AIDS epidemic, the artist extended the meaning of “interior” to encompass the emotional life of the mind and heart by arranging a group of wooden blocks, painted wan shades from off-white to palest pink, and binding them together with a piece of fabric resembling a broad Ace bandage. Calling the whole In Sickness and Beauty—a chest-sized wall construction suggesting convalescence, vulnerability, and self-protection—this work referred not only to physical and psychological states of being, but also gave poetic shape to the situation that confronted the art of painting at a time when it was subject to one of its periodic bouts with critics who insisted on its categorical dismissal. 

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Retail : Installation Shot
Feature Inc. (New York) spring 2007


Imagine Shaver working on her monumental—and monumentally complex— Retail, a very large, Popish work on wheels that evokes what its title names through a cornucopian assemblage of small, hand painted, vividly colored blocks and boxes that she placed on the glass, wood, and metal shelves suspended from both sides of the piece’s central supporting spine. Shaver spent close to three years (1999, 2005-2006) on Retail, finding and refining the loose perfection of an interlocking composition of painted and fabric-wrapped cubes and oblong boxes, deliberating whether, for example, a certain group of evenly spaced, black-painted boxes should stand vertically or lie horizontally in relation to the squatter black-painted boxes in front of, and/or behind them. In what frame of mind did she notice that she could adjust the similarly modular but differently painted and wrapped elements on the shelf below so that the negative space between them would mirror the positive ziggurat-shaped volumes of the boxes above? While something of the feel of this work relates to Matisse, an artist she finds dear and inspiring, the rigor of her decision-making process is more akin to that of Mondrian.

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Fruit Box #1, 2005
cardboard boxes, paper covered boxes
16 x 22 x 5 inches
Crooked box, white curve, 2006
wooden box, cardboard boxes, house paint
flashes acrylic paint, 9 x 13.5 x 5 inches

Feature Inc. (New York), 530 West 25 Street, New York, NY, 10001, featureinc.com


Given the extent to which Shaver’s artistic process parallels and reflects upon Nancy’s work at Henry, it would be difficult, and I would argue downright perverse, to deny the permeability of the boundary that conventional systems of categorization would impose upon her activities, qualitatively separating Shaver’s studio practice from Nancy’s work in running her shop. While Shaver has alluded to that permeability in works like Retail (1999, 2005-06) and Shop (2004), it is noteworthy that throughout the latter half of the 1980s, roughly a decade before Nancy opened Henry, as exemplified by such works as Wrapped Goods (1989), her studio practice consisted mostly of arranging found objects not unlike the way she arranges things for display and sale at her shop. In more than one way, then, the artist has long articulated her own understanding that the boundary separating her studio art from Henry, or art in general from decoration, is arbitrary and attenuated.


Retail : Installation Shot
Feature Inc. (New York) spring 2007


To more directly and daringly affirm the centrality of Henry to Nancy and of Nancy to Henry, Nancy Shaver installed her spring 2007 exhibition in the central gallery at Feature Inc., displaying large- and small-scale studio pieces in the company of other objects from Henry’s inventory, and called the whole Retail. Given this decision, it seems more fitting than ever to argue against a narrow view of Shaver’s artistic practice, and in favor instead of something akin to a continuum of authorship. At one extreme of that continuum would be the painted constructions and installations, signed “Shaver”; at the other extreme are the objects designated as “Henry,” such as a small, low, round-topped steel, three legged stool straddling three leaf clover-like unpainted wood dolly; or an antique, bright green minimally detailed modern sewing machine displayed open within its lift-top case on a silver-painted, minimal, hand-made wood table/pedestal; or a pair of fanciful, upwardly pointed shoes, suggesting footwear for a genie, that sits on a wheeled table of painted or fabric-covered blocks of wood that very closely resemble some of the sculpture exhibited, but that is not a sculpture, only a table.

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One blue block, red brick, 2006
wood blocks, house paint
flashes acrylic paint, 14.5 x 14 x 3 inches

Feature Inc. (New York), 530 West 25 Street
New York, NY, 10001, featureinc.com


To complicate matters further, and throw any polarized taxonomy into further doubt, there are also the hybrid objects (Nancy/Henry?) on which Shaver not only spends time ruminating about color, texture, contour, light and other constituent formal considerations, but on cultural status and price as well. These objects literally travel back and forth between the studio practice and the retail of Henry. The ramifications of this practice turn on the feminist implications of Shaver’s longstanding commitment to decorating interiors. For example, Shaver recently claimed from Henry as hers, the artist Nancy Shaver’s, that is, a found moderne-style tubular steel chair (of questionable monetary value), over the dented, upholstered back of which she draped a length of raw silk onto which she had painted the diagonal, criss-cross pattern that has been a recurring motif in her work for over twenty years (Covered Chair, 2004). ($30,000.) The cloth is one thing, the chair distinctly another; but the two seem comfortably wed to form a hybrid old couple; an old, yet modern-looking object with a younger one—a large drawing on fabric—draped over its injured back. The artist has noted that this was for her one of the most significant works of recent years, as it allowed her to push the parameters of her working process to an extreme.




Shaver similarly claimed as hers a grid of vintage, cylindrical egg crate mailers that, with Shaver’s characteristically rigorous economy of means, she simply placed, slightly askew, on an open cardboard box topped by another sheet a cardboard, to which she gave the appropriately deadpan title Egg Crate on Cardboard Box (2006) ($4,500). But then what of the silver painted drawer-like crate containing seven or eight thick, vaguely translucent, red plastic sconce-like objects—car tail-lights from the 40s and 50s (I had to be told)—that Shaver arranged in a simple geometric configuration ($200). Why this assortment should be classed as “Henry” eludes me, and begs the question of exactly what is behind Shaver’s choices to designate the status of certain objects as “Henry” and others as “Nancy.’

 

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Retail : Installation Shot
Feature Inc. (New York) spring 2007


To adhere to the categorical boundary that wants to separate Henry from Nancy is to deny Shaver’s project its complexity. When Shaver speaks about the “hybrid” aspect of her project, she is saying that she has little regard for boundaries of the kind that would separate Henry from Nancy. That is to say, this artist, who long ago established her credentials as a master of traditional, which is to say modernist, formal aesthetic experience has at the same time been leading a more layered and complex life as an artist. Even as her practice has embraced the purely pictorial, the abstract, the tactile, and the affective, at the same time it acknowledges and accommodates the larger world of social relations—far more than merely transactional—through which meaningful lives get lived.