Written by Audra Lambert (introduction) and Deianira Tolema
Pensive figures, veiled by mystery, traverse the haunted scenes of artist Shane Pierce. Pierce’s works, on view through March 24 at Last Rites gallery, offer a feast of contemporary noir for the discerning visitor. Shadows grip the figures in Pierce’s portraits, his expressive forms frequently possessed by otherworldly specters. Skulls and spirits trail mysterious figures, masterful brushstrokes delineating their outlines against foreboding nighttime scenes. Confused narratives are further complicated against layered symbolism built up in each work. Pierce superimposes nightmares into his illogical landscapes, confusing space in the vein of de Chirico: squeezing perspectival ratios to create masterful compositions deftly disorienting for the viewer.
Pierce’s layered sketches conceal rather than reveal their subjects’ psychological experiences. The artist employs chiaroscuro to dazzling effect, with figures seemingly emerging from shadows in rays of cold, steel light. In Wandress, a female figure drifts into existence, seemingly conjured from a pale moonlight. She moves ahead transfixed by the pavement, traveling through an obscured nighttime scene. The composition gives no further clues as to where she has emerged from, or where she travels to, yet she is compelled to move ahead, hovering over the comfortable suburban white picket fence at her feet. Pierce is able to grasp the everyday elements of the American experience, subverting these symbols – trains, telephone wires, suitcases – into potent transformative elements that serve as catalysts driving the ominous narrative forward.
Discomfort drives themes found throughout Nomadic Nights. Questions arise as the viewer continues down the carefully conjured rabbit hole of Pierce’s dystopic wonderland, encountering haunted scenes of shadow and fire. Natural elements play a key role in the artist’s oeuvre, infusing the narratives with mythic elements. Pierce traffics in the theater of absurd gestures: cinematic poses and mannerist stances permeate his apprehensive scenarios, displacing the silhouetted forms within them. Mostly the artist’s scenes seemed rooted to nowhere, alluding a la Heisenberg’s principle to scenarios not identifiably anchored by movement or location. The artist’s sweeping brushstrokes invoke a dream-like quality, imbuing the Nomadic Nights series with an ethereal transcendence. Unsettling yet hypnotic, Pierce’s works combine a life-like portrayal of flesh with dreamlike visions of the spirit world beyond. Menacing yet transformative, it is unclear whether the portrayals Pierce provides in his Nomadic Nights series are the victims of a higher power or agents of their own destruction. This indistinct allusion to the figures’ pasts adds to the feeling of anxiety endemic to Pierce’s artworks.
Background and foreground trade places along the picture planes intermittently throughout Nomadic Nights. Despite eyeing scenes from unnatural angles and blurring the edges at pivotal moments in his narrative sketches, the attention to detail in Pierce’s figures transfixes. Precise flesh tones and detailed fabric folds in Pierce’s work owe as much debt to Renaissance painting as the color scheme owes to a cinematic noir influence. With an eye toward mystery and wonder and a brush aimed at portraying the sublime within human form, Pierce reclaims notions of individuality and psychodrama within his terse, evocative paintings.
Poetry of the Unknown in Pierce’s Wistful Compositions
Remember when Napoleon smashed the tympanum of Notre-Dame’s main door – according to Umberto Eco, “a masterpiece of Gothic Art”- to walk through the cathedral’s hall and invade its naves with his large following? Some would say that was an iconoclastic act of self-affirmation, yet its aesthetic consequences ended up transcending both history and politics in a loud, theatrical outburst from which only the emperor’s roaring ego emerged victoriously.
Rather than physically taking out matter from a piece of clay, or vandalizing something historically relevant in the wake of what Austrian artist Uwe Jantsch did in Sicily years ago on a 1500-B.C. fountain in Palermo, Pierce conceptually steals from nothing but reality itself, and whatever is not visible, he can evoke with a single brushstroke. His chromatic journey through the sculptural consistency of oil paint begins when mixing up the palette he’s known for with an ever-evolving research that resides in his own, emotional anwer to color itself – as convoluted as this definition may be, it does give us a hint of where Pierce’s demiurgic skills come from, and what they bring to light in a dimension where the known and the unknown are intertwined with the same, poetically charged denominator: Pierce’s figurative metaphors convey hundreds of years of post-Romanticism individual “freedom” and awareness of our current prison state, and his talent stems from his ability to render on canvas our innermost anxieties. For Pierce, the real world, masterfully transfigured by his introspective yet imaginative take on it, is and remains an ongoing source of inspiration that finds its maximum expression in the peculiar color spectrum he developed over time; much like Picasso in his blue period, or Italian painter Russolo in his Guggenheim-collection work, “Solidità nella nebbia,” 1912, Pierce deconstructs reality without explicitly referencing anything but his own, unique, vision.
Light and Shades between Anti-Academism and Psychology
As for the artist’s figurative subjects, whose moving surroundings change shape as they breathe, they are just as provocative yet elusive as Boldini’s female characters according to Dwight MacDonald, indeed, the winding trend of their facial traits, hard to pin to the surface, exudes pain and angst when left undefined; the uncertainty of their emotional states juxtaposed to anatomical detail evokes Pierce’s obsession with non-academic technical virtuosity.
In the works, “Dark Schemes,” “Harvester,” “Show Yourself,” “Wayward Wanderer”, and “Roving”, what comes to mind is how depersonalization has often been associated with the ousting of nature not only in art but also in the psychiatric history of patients suffering from self-alienation; in Pierce’s most meaningful nocturnal paintings, feelings of loneliness and uncontrolled rage inadvertently evoke images often associated with masculinity. whereas the female protagonists of, “Dead and Gone,” and “Divinations” are stylnovistic angel-like women immune to the clutches of darkness. Pierce’s female characters, indeed, maintain their human features and are in control of their emotions – mostly disgust and resignation – which doesn’t promise anything good to the winking forces of Evil.
In the work, “Nomadic Nights,” everything is on fire, and the viewers are invited to tell the difference between whatever is left of humanity according to the artist, and the layers of paint resembling skies as thick as baroque draperies that appear to have a life of their own; a train has stopped in the middle of a desert at night, and the only survivors are two zombies wearing anonymous clothes and dragging their own dead bodies around with contempt – these men’s only companions are the eternal fog they were born out of, and their soul-carrying, leather suitcases.
Figurative Painting Above and Beyond Western Society
As Panofsky (1962) would say, “While the author uses his talent to catch the zeitgeist of his time, the viewer is invited to keep in consideration the culture where the artist’s visual and communicative philosophy was conceived,” although, according to Iser (1992: 245), “An artwork can certainly adjust to its viewer”: that’s where the concept of post-solipsistic “intersubjectivity” comes from, and if it’s true that as Nietzsche said “There are no facts, but only interpretations,” what we can deduct from this post-Et-in-Arcadia-Ego introduction on the role of Pierce’s work in the American society is that since each object and its structure are inseparable, so are Pierce’s work and its context. 1
According to Zolberg (1994: 128), the artist is a “social actor separated from society” especially when each of his subjects is the blatant reflection of an ongoing yet unfinished self-portrait folding in and outside of society: 2 this maxim can easily turn into a description of the dark-surrealism phenomenon and everything around it, including Pierce’s roots in this emotion-driven pictorial yet critical approach to the current, post-political, winding unease.
In a country where the rules of social acceptance vary depending on the sub-cultural category they belong to, Pierce’s work stands out in the guise of a liminal place where not only fear and anguish but also society’s failures converge.
In conclusion, there is no escape from the psychological conseguences of what Pierce has been successfully trying to make sense of with his contemporary yet vaguely anachronistic paintings: a general sense of oppression is what suddenly strikes our attention in the presence of his futuristic, Medieval knights straight out of a horror movie; his metaphors are so literal, anyone can relate to them, yet what hides behind the artist’s characters’ is the very essence of today’s glorification of self-negativity and society-related “nomadic” discomfort/displacement – what French psychiatrist Pierre Daco would relate to an “over-awarness” of the extrinsic dynamics that we are inevitably surmounted by. And it is through this perennial state of psychological overwhelming that Pierce’s art maintains it’s ability to reach viscerally into our unconscious.
1/2 Immagini Sociali dell’Arte by Daniela Bartasio, Italy, Dedalo Editions.