Sunday, May 24th, 2009

Ward Shelley: Who Invented the Avant Garde (and other half-truths) and The Sleeper Experiment at Pierogi

17 April to 17 May, 2009
177 North 9th Street, between Bedford and Driggs avenues
Brooklyn, 718.599.2144
Tuesday through Sunday, 11-6

Ward Shelley Autonomous Art, ver. 1 2007-09. Oil and toner on mylar, 24-1/4 x 36 inches. Courtesy Pierogi.
Ward Shelley, Autonomous Art, ver. 1 2007-09. Oil and toner on mylar, 24-1/4 x 36 inches. Courtesy Pierogi.

Stamina. It’s a good quality for an artist to have in any economy, let alone a Recession. And Ward Shelley’s had it all along. In 1998 he teamed up with 2 other artists to live on a moving ‘Voyage Platform’, exposed to the elements in Socrates Sculpture Park. Their mission: to get from one end of the 4-1/2  acre park to the other, deconstructing, and reconstructing the Platform itself as they went. In 2007, Shelley slept, ate, showered and otherwise inhabited “Flatland,” a four-floor, two-foot-wide structure covered with “walls” of clear plastic that allowed viewers to see his (as well as the five other participating artists’) every move. The latter was housed, in Long Island City’s Sculpture Center, within the context of a larger high-concept group show (“The Happiness of Objects”). Years from now, few will remember the premise of that show. However, chances are they’ll remember Shelley. Pitted against hifalutin’ curatorial theory, ‘Flatland’ just had more staying power.

These days, however, if you are looking for Ward Shelley, you will probably find him asleep, inside a large cardboard box of his own construction, sited inside the back room of his one-person show at Pierogi gallery. (It should be noted that the larger box is also sited inside a hoard of smaller boxes—the latter part of an unrelated “Archive” installation that Shelley has co-created with artist Douglas Paulson).

If his ostensible state-of-hibernation may seem a little anti-climactic, it’s a rest he’s earned. The front room of the gallery is filled with 12 impressive, labor-intensive “Timeline” drawings, each of which takes the artist at least two months to research and complete. Shelley’s gone through three versions, for instance, of his graphic rendering of the state and evolution of art’s Avant Garde (“Who Invented the Avant Garde”); Media Role Models (2009) is a funny, and honest (not to mention chromatically interesting) mapping, in tree form, of the various role-model influences on Shelly’s life (everyone from Pink Floyd to Leave It to Beaver).

The drawings are funny, fascinating; they succeed both as artwork and visual document. That said, seen in concert with the Sleeper the show as a whole comes off as a bit disconnected. Viewers sense they’re looking at two very different manifestations of Shelley’s approach to processing information (almost like right- and left- hemispheres of the same brain) and turning it into art.  Still, they don’t quite jibe.

An important point is that Shelley isn’t simply sleeping in the gallery; in fact, Shelley, ever geared for stamina, isn’t getting much rest at all. He’s only sleeping during the day, while visitors roam the gallery. At night, he’s up and about having the gallery to himself, and making drawings (as per the gallery’s press release, he’s exhibiting and adding these new artworks to the show over time). Holes have been cut inside the walls of his cardboard-box bed to admit a pair of speakers, so that while Shelley’s sleeping (and while we’re watching), he can listen to computerized versions of texts submitted by visitors to the show (one can write to; or visit to participate). And, then, it’s on these texts that he’ll base his drawings. An accomplished draftsman, Shelley’s able to work pretty well under the constraints of his performative programme. That said, the day I visited, Shelley had let two whole days pass without completing a drawing. Even stamina has its limits.

Should we just let Shelley transition into being solely an artist who makes finite works on paper (albeit ones that describe infinitely interpretable data)–and let that be all? Or should we hold his feet to the fire, and assume he must constantly be taking on impossible tasks–and figuring out how to turn them into experiences we can share?

For the time being, we must simply stand in the gallery, thinking up what to say to Shelley through those speakers; while Shelley, the artist, is sleeping and dreaming up what to make. And ne’er the twain shall meet. Except, of course, in his future art.