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Art

Cosmos Voyage

David Shapiro's Works Metaphorically Explore The Sky Above, The Ground Below

CIRCLE TAKES THE SQUARE: David Shapiro's "Clearing 12."

By Deborah McLeod | Posted 4/30/2008

David Shapiro: Twenty Years, 1988-2008

At Goya Contemporary through May 2

In the accompanying catalog for David Shapiro's retrospective show at Goya Contemporary, a defining incident is offered by the internationally celebrated midcareer artist. In a Q&A with co-curator Jacob Lewis, Shapiro reminisces about a Josef Albers color-theory course in art school. Shapiro had defended Diego Velázquez's subtleties of warm neutral tones to his professor, an Albers disciple, whose retort was that that was not color; it was mud. This parochial comment, intended as a rebuke, became the koan that Shapiro has ascended to in each of the nearly countless paintings, mixed-media works, and print editions in his 40-year career.

Instead of censure, mud assumed Edgar Allan Poe's "supernal Loveliness" for Shapiro. An Albers zealot might be hard pressed to revere wet earth as the source of all life, death, and interim physics, but that is in fact the demiurge with whom Shapiro appears to have allied himself. In the interim, astronomers have determined that the cosmos is a cappuccino color, not so dissimilar to mud, as well. All leaving Shapiro in fairly consequential company for expressing--through his grids of sepia, umber, ochre, and putty--his eloquent, abundant articulations on themes of consciousness and our connection to the immediate universe.

Shapiro's works intertwine the primordial and the new. Even though he doesn't profess attraction to newness, it has come to him uninvited, ostensibly in the threaded plaid strips that he exaggerates as if they are photo-microscopically enlarged, and in the cool Asian modernity of these Zen-like visual experiences. Many of Shapiro's textile-inspired designs embody types of being and ways of expressing. In a series titled "Seer, Actor, Knower, Doer," the corresponding personae in a martial lineup of variously textured strips assume theses given names. As characters they invariably stand in solidarity but express a natural experiential evolution, as if the last is a function of the first three processes.

Even though the textile-strip envoys never alter the representative positions, these agents do exchange their identifying patterns. "Seer" might be signified by a course wavering plaid in one instance, and display solid black the next, seeing perhaps being an activity of greater obfuscation or sharper clarity on different days. "Actor" might appear as ghostlike gray gauze, or a chaotic dark web of black tangled threads. "Knower" mimics pre-established designs, reinterpreting them principally through hue, while "Doer"'s fabric is generally splattered with the small telltale stains of attempt or engagement. The progression from one entity to the next is so slight and indeterminate that to be certain there actually is one requires viewing many more from this series. Such an extensive undertaking could even prove these observations wrong, but for this group of compositions, the title roles play out along those lines.

This game of nuance is the greatest pleasure of Shapiro's work--the slightness of every alteration in each similar image. His work implies time seen from a great, great distance. Something changes, something is restored, something matures, something is fortified, something sacrifices its influence, etc. A different series of works, "Origin and Return," especially conveys that ping-pong cycle of continuance. The same sensuous rag-paper textiles that became anthropomorphic through "Seer, Actor, Knower, Doer" become, in these works, atmospheric sequences and events.

These compositions are the most spiritual of Shapiro's series, in that enlightenment seems their pervasive, and evasive, device and subject. In one horizontal--they, too, read as a narrative--a spiraling calligraphic black mandala form is superceded by a black moon in a blond sky. It then disintegrates into electric-blue pandemonium before re-emerging. In its final maturation, a dilated blue orb presses against its boundaries. It has gathered the outline of the spiral mandala, and the circle from the moon, and organized the charged ions of anarchy. It is this particular narrative's culminating progeny, but ultimately just another element or stage for another composition. This nonhierarchical distribution of iconography reveals something simple and equally comforting as disquieting: that no stage of life, nor any satisfying fulfillment, nor dark period of deficit, can be expected to endure.

Meanwhile, as the minutes tick off, David Shapiro's captivating filament-enriched surfaces--composed of fine veins of silk and linen or tendrils of plant material, saturated with precise ink markings, tucked soothingly into gossamer sheets--resonate as sensory experience outside of time.

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