DAVID SHAW - TEXTS
Q + A with Hudson, Feature Inc. 10.13.99
What is your interest in surface?
Surface can be seen as a vestige of the known or a boundary to some truth. I am interested in the dialogue between interiority and surface, and some questions regarding fundamental structures. A uniform surface (the artifice employed to render this) can allude to an integral form, base units, cohesion, unity. This presents an opportunity to play on our preconceptions of the recognizable. I have been using this holographic laminate as indicative of a more permeable state of things.
When you connect nature to technology, is it a connection of question or of belief?
I would have to say "of question," though it is not nature’s relationship to technology that I am interested in. There is no real separation in my mind; nature and technology each being a manifestation of the other. Rather I question the state of becoming of objects/systems/interactions. Maybe some of the fundamental structures alluded to with this work are known only through technological means, but my interest is in the direction of a more full notion of abstraction, merging abstract thought, consciousness, and everyday experience.
Is humorous deception of increasing interest?
Things aren’t always what they seem; it seems they rarely are. Humor is an excellent way to deal with that.
There are times when my self-deception becomes so obvious that it is humorous.
Do you wish your work to inspire a momentary blank state of pure perception and sequentially distinguish itself from the experience of reasoning?
Yes, except that I would hope that it is not a blank state; rather a more engaged moment of cognitive indecisiveness/unknowing/liminality. I am looking for an acknowledgment of the state of becoming before understanding.
How do sculpture and photography juncture for you?
In their reference to the real.
Q + A with Hudson, Feature Inc. 5.12.04
You seem to have become increasingly interested in light and invisibility, the disappearing, perhaps a manner of magic?
I, like all artists, employ common materials to transformative ends, but I do not think of this as magic. I think about things such as the physical flux of matter, its quantum wave potential, 4th dimensional (time) changeability, and the conceptual collapse that occurs with our cognition. I am most interested in the rooting that occurs when choosing one possibility over all the others and by the idea that we in fact choose. Sleight of hand on whatever scale is a form of entertainment in which I am not necessarily interested: I am always left thinking about the magicians, their personalities. If you were referring by “magic” to witchcraft or better alchemy; now that is exciting. With this at least there is hopefulness, a deep need to change things and manifest desire. As for the disappearing, I try not to exclude the possibility of the apparitional; it goes both ways. My use of holographic laminate and a high-key, full spectrum coloration is a way to see into things, past the surface, into an open possibility.
The drawings remind me of quicksand. I loose my footing when I am in them—not quite solid yet not quite liquid. Liquid crystal, like the new, flat screen TVs.
I think of the ideas surrounding these new technologies as conceptual fodder for the sculpture. Whenever you go into an electronics store they are showing nature footage on these High Definition monitors, “See how real these are?” It seems all about our desire to make technology produce reality, as if it isn’t already real. We seem so far removed from the natural world that our hubris attached to “understanding Nature” or even mimicking it seems quaint and limiting, turning nature into a static concept. The feeling in the drawings of a lack of solid ground is a situation I find myself in quite often. Cliches such as “In over my head” and “Seeing the forest for the trees” percolate through the process of exactly describing the chaotic event of a surface in a downpour.
Systems—what is it about systems? Interfacing systems?
Systems like a filter, a model or a map do not encompass reality: they delimit reality.
They are a way of viewing or conceptualizing. I am more interested in the edges of systems, the threshold areas and liminal spaces, where systems breakdown and accidents happen. It is here where other possibilities open up and more interesting structures evolve. There is slippage and
phasing and particulate.
David Shaw : Emblems of Flux
Stumps that flicker. A shelter that turns robotic then disappears. Bodies in crystalline decay. David Shaw’s wood and metal sculptures - cyborgs made of planks, trunks, steel and fractured spectrums - are always two things at once, yet always incomplete. As abstract allegories that cross-breed nature and technology, they are filled with holes and empty space, subdividing and splintering in some kind of digital decomposition. Examples of metastasis, they embody transformations. From raw and rough-hewn lumber to the ephemerally refractive holographic laminate that covers a range of planes and edges in his sculptures, Shaw incorporates a meticulous awareness of craft. All of the relationships between the components have to be carefully worked out not only visually but in terms of engineering. Each piece exists in precise but precarious balance.
Shaw invests wood with life. In his hands, it seems to succumb to mutation, grow prosthetic parts, or have its own thoughts. Root (2004) appears to be released from a single point in the floor like an ecstatic, stilled explosion. A simple skeleton matrix made of steel (coated in his signature material, halosheen) supports milled wood blocks from which cut limbs splay out in all directions. Root could also be a computer-generated tree with one skinny syntheticorigin. It is as though we are glimpsing the high tech core of the once natural thing. Hollow (2003) is like Root'sinverted, imploding twin. Sturdier and more earthbound, it resembles a figure turned inward. Here the reflective, angular support structure seems to pixellate like a low-resolution jpeg, but in three dimensions. The action culminates in a short tree trunk at its center. Like a vital organ, it initially contradicts the implication of the pieces’ title, until, upon close inspection, you realize that the center of the trunk, its heartwood, is missing. Hollow is like a computerized device with a natural center. In these, as in most of Shaw’s sculptures, the wood can be understood as flesh-substitute.
In Bump (1999), large logs are arranged in perpendicular relation, with silvery blocks on their ends that interrupt a purposeful-seeming journey around a small wooden table. The table invokes images of strange labors performed in a remote mountain shack. The piece as a whole might reference an invention gone haywire, a dead person sprouting machine parts, or a semi-digitized burial site. Shaw likes to play with the metaphorical possibilities of simple materials.
One might wonder, why wood? It conjures forests, de-forestation, houses, paper, fireplaces. We think of its flammability, its old-fashioned handyman utility, also its tribal or ritual functions. It is a basic material, but it is also visually dense, revealing things about its past from its interior. The “Log Lady” from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, carried a small log with her everywhere. It was a prop, a mute talisman, a channeling device: she was able to prophesy through this stump, issuing mysterious proclamations like "my log hears things I cannot hear. But my log tells me about the sounds, about the new words. Even though it has stopped growing larger, my log is aware." For her, the log was proof of her telepathy. An anachronism, it was suffused with myth and magic. Wood is also a symbol of the wide variation that occurs in nature. Forests are linked to the idea of the sublime, an unfathomable vastness that threatens to overwhelm. Similarly, the sublime envelopes contemporary man-made phenomena like the myriad skeins of wired and wireless networks that make up our world.
Wood is the antithesis of the synthetic. It can be situated in oppositional but necessary relation to the digital age. Shaw uses wood to re-enchant modernity, adding a basic grounding force to the complexity of technology. Wood becomes an example of the visceral, the anti-formal, within his hybrid assemblages. Shaw exploits and revels in the practical utility, the superstitious history, and the fundamental material fact of wood. He brings a Luddite survivalism and a sense of the supernatural to the high tech, and also to Minimalism. Knot (2004) is a familiar outline of a cube that curiously sprouts one stubby branch and two roots. Bent and twisted steel masquerading as wood grain and painted in fluorescent hues partially defines three sides. The sawed-off branches emerge from the pattern. This once purist, still empty cube, now infused with lyrical abstraction and references to a natural material, is like a model of a thought, or a metaphor for the mind - a fertile place where the idea of the real and the real grow like bacteria, one out of the other.
Untitled (Sawhorses) (2003) encourages a narrative reading and here Shaw flirts with idea of the fetish, objects that are believed to possess some animistic power. What appear to be bolts of energy or aggression attack and threaten to damage a red plastic mesh bag filled with wood pieces that sits on a pair of sawhorses. The sawhorse legs seem animal. The loosely bundled profusion of geometric pieces is like innards whose only protection from the onslaught is a thin, utilitarian bag. Shaw’s anthropomorphizing of inert substances is at times also humorous, as in Treeeeeeeeeeeee (2003), named by his three-year old son. A cored-out unit with three protrusions, this piece is like a tower or monument, with brightly painted steel and stubby branches, similar to Knot, that looks at a certain angle like a big cartoon face with a mouth and two eyes.
In Shed Out (2000), we see an incomplete structure with its interior emerging and disintegrating. Shiny planks are pulled sideways by an invisible force, away from their original function. Wood, the elemental substance of shelter, turns into a phantom version of itself, a container that is circumscribed by only partial limits, as its ghost parts shift and glint in the light. If wood represents the dependable, the corporeal, then the holographic laminate represents the intangible, the futuristic, that which has little need for physical existence.
The laminate that Shaw painstakingly applies to certain available surfaces makes his sculptures dynamic and subject to variability based on the intensity and angles of light. Muted shades of the rainbow keep things activated, incorporating light as part of the sculptures’ content. Streamlined, yet fluttery and elusive, the shiny unstill surfaces are temporal and ethereal. In some cases, the material is reminiscent of modern skyscrapers as in Split (2001). Here, the repeated, elongated planks are like multiple versions of the same thing. Split is planar, a simpler construction than other works, more purely abstract and formal. At odds with itself, it is simultaneously in comfortable, balanced unison. The log presents its own future as emanating rays. This cut tree might be having a reverie about becoming a building.
With all of this sawing, cutting, and bending, it is hard not to consider the meaning of violent acts in relation to art making. Picasso called it the “sum of destructions.” Each of Shaw’s sculptures is a singular unit comprised of repeating angles and truncated simple shapes, similar to Cubism’s attempt to break down images into their simplest component parts. A new way of seeing and understanding is possible through the deconstruction of recognizable things and the creation of new versions that rhyme with the original. The violence does not obliterate but provides an opportunity to reassess the familiar, to memorialize it in a new shape, in a sense, to idealize it. Through cutting up materials and carefully reconstructing them, Shaw generates artworks that are like imaginary diagrams of molecular processes; three dimensional models of energy; twisted, mutant doubles of objects that exist in other worlds.
David Shaw’s work allows open-ended readings, and its importance hinges on multiple interpretations through the simplest means possible. At times proto-structural jumbles, at times proto-figural amalgams, the sculptures always represent a transition, a morphing from the ideal to the real. Shaw is able to evoke both the abstraction of existence (that we are like hard drives filing away memories, thoughts, feelings, and information) as well as the physicality of existence (the pink gooey actuality of our bodies.) Halfway between thought and gesture, they combine the cerebral with the physical, the primitive with the futuristic - following the logic of the binary. There is a concrete vision behind this work: the interplay of wood and holographic laminate suggests a quasi-utopian world view, where nature and technology can work in tandem rather than mutually exclude each other.
-Jennifer Coates, 2005
One of the privileged objects of the sci-fi imagination is the artifact of indeterminate origin and indecipherable function. Think of all the weird crystal formations with their mesmerizing internal glow that suddenly appear in space vessels, the odd architectural structures with their destructive magnetism that scientists find in desert caves, or even the force fields that keep explores fettered to a particular landscape. These indecipherable objects generate narratives by their refusal to disclose function and origin, by keeping information hidden, by closing the channels of communicability, by simply being majestically hermetic and mute. Solid as they usually are, they function more like discursive or cognitive black holes that explanation, speculation, conjecture and fear urgently have to fill, even if this task is ultimately impossible to execute. Words, in their presence, are like bees buzzing frantically around a hive they can’t enter. Paying attention to the conceptual mechanics of these objects of refusal may allow us some insight into the way David Shaw’s sculptures work.
In the age of communicative capitalism, when messages get caught in the circular currents of a ballooning datascape and increasingly exist independent of a need to reach their intended targets, when the fantasy of participation in the multiple dimensions of public life replaces actual human agency, David Shaw delivers a series of objects that function precisely through the withdrawal of information. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it’s not information per se that they refuse the viewer, because data is being transmitted, as much as conclusive information, narratives with crisply delineated contours, static-free and direct lines of access. These objects never spell out to the viewer what they are about by coyly dropping more narrative hints than necessary or by highlighting some historical reference until its blinding radiance erases any alternative routes for reading to follow. These objects, in short, refuse to clear the road so that our interpretative drives simply glide through unobstructed, allowing us to confuse the prison of ready-made meaning for its opposite. In making theirs the (muteness) of this sci-fi object, they become platforms for a series of investigations at the edges of what we, with undue certainty, call reality.
In Shaw’s sculptures, antipodes rub. Their dialectical friction sets off sparks. Sci-fi and primitive, artificial and biological, sculptural and pictorial, objecthood and temporality, these antithetical couplings, as we catch them at an unstable moment in their synthetic reformatting, continually displace each other, thickening the texture of indeterminacy at every turn, closing and opening narratives with every viewing. Even Shaw’s signature holographic laminates, which negotiate bi-dimensionality into an illusory third dimension and a real fourth dimension (the illusion of the holograph only works in the temporal dimension of a moving perceptual organ), maintain a central destabilizing function. Object becomes image, image becomes object, phenomenological instability becomes narrative demand, narrative demand inevitably generates temporal feat. Time, thing, and representation are continuously engaged in a game of displacements. Each plays inassimilable residue, slippery excess, to the others, foreclosing on the possibility of some arch-narrative that ties everything up in a nice, manageable bow.
The multi-dimensionality that the holographic laminate points to, that it embodies as both an illusion and a perceptual fact, finds complimentary elements elsewhere in the work. For instance, the way Shaw paints some parts of the sculptures, using a sliding scale of gradation, points to the way things look when viewed in registers that don’t coincide with that of our eyesight. The color shifts are similar to those of heat scans and meteorological storm maps. It’s always amazing to think that a computer model of a storm, rendered in a range of primary colors, is as accurate, as
“truthful,” as the torrential downpour that you may glimpse from under an umbrella. The implication here is that these are but two ways in which the multi-dimensional reality of a moment can be mapped, and the question it ineluctably demands is: How many more exist? But the point, ultimately, is not to attempt to unearth as many more methods as are available, running down an inventory of representational techniques and technologies, but, rather, to revel in the insecurity that this knowledge lodges one in. Reality is always plural. Mind and matter meet at a point that exists in a state of constant mutability, at the confluence of endless readings, misreadings and the inevitable residue that is always left behind like a stain on our fields of knowledge.
-Gean Moreno, 2005
David Shaw - Feature
Beautiful Decay Magazine, August 20, 2007
Art like David Shaw's didn't even exist in films like Xanadu or Logan's Run. Even for these fictional futures, with their crystal-lined corridors and mirrored temples, it would've just been too out there. Holographic, both geometric and organic, sometimes moss-covered, and occasionally impossibly balanced, Shaw's works offers a through-the-wormhole experience, one that's imbued with spectral colors vibrating between the intensity of a sun-glint and a slick pastel. Best known for his eye-searing sculptures, Shaw is certainly no chromaphobe; his work employs a formal intensity that commands attention.
However, Shaw's work originally gained an audience roughly 15 years ago, under simpler terms, and perhaps with a bit less spectacle. Methodical and frank post-minimal works like "Untitled" (1991), a full-scale diving board that was created from a childhood memory, and "Last Steps" (1989), a large black ladder nearly reaching the gallery's ceiling that is missing all but its top three steps, put a twist on viewer's expectations by showing that site-specificity can move well beyond form. Shaw followed these groundwork pieces with "Junk" (1991), "Spooge" (1992), and "Vehicles" (1992). Metallic and iridescent, each of these works is a pair or trio of nearly virtually identical spills. They are doppleganger accidents that question the boundaries of what we are willing believe is possible.
Plugged in, but pared down, Shaw's sculptures have always referenced their minimalist predecessors; Imi Knoebel, John McCracken, and Donald Judd are just a handful of artists that come to mind. However, the works don't use these connections as a crutch so much as a sounding board, an art historical moment by which to measure contemporary artmaking. It is clear that Shaw's work operates beyond the conventional parameters of Minimalism; their interest in theatricality and a super reductive aesthetic partially gives Shaw's work its form, but only to address our understanding of space anew.
Today Shaw's sculptures appear as only as outlines of themselves. Chroma-colored lengths of steel that form the edges of recticlinear or trapezoidal cubes and planks leaning against walls are what distinguish many of his works. Some forms are rigid and mathematical, objects that are disconnected or organically expand out of their space and towards the viewer. As equally as they suggest a minimal cube, gallery pedestal, or adhoc assemblage, the sculptures still appear novel in how they develop a new path for some of formalism's oldest concerns. Select branches and twigs are fused to the nearly invisible sculptures. Suspended on their suggested planes, tree limbs act as the work's appendages. Works are augmented in multiple ways, by stacks of half-laminated that cubes look like a gigantic deposit of Bismuth, by cantilevered boards that provide an architectural quality, and by the subtle appearance of a green moss.
After an initial experiment with holographic laminate in an untitled installation, the sculpture "Open Seat" (1995) marks Shaw's first fully realized foray into working with the material. After this breakthrough, the laminate becomes a focus for Shaw's aesthetics and conceptual framework. Acting as a metaphor for the flimsiness of reality, it allows the surface of the work to both be present and absent, to oscillate between being accessible and being unreachable. Shiny, shimmering, and embracing a full spectrum of intense color, it creates a shifting interior for the work. As a material, it causes surfaces to liquify and gain a certain virtuality, adding an aesthetic depth that is seldom seen. The laminate is often accompanied by lengths of steel that have been coated in chromacolor sign painter's enamel, an iridescent paint that offers many of the same conceptual qualities. Shaw applies both materials to two by fours and other chunks of found lumber as well as the ends of branches and stumps, the result of such an uncommon juxtaposition is a collapse between the wood--the natural and real--and the holographic--the synthetic and unreal. In Shaw's work these two subjects are both literally and figuratively inside of each other.
The fusion of natural and synthetic was poignantly illustrated in Shaw's solo exhibition this past Fall at New York gallery Feature Inc. The exhibition was partially contextualized by text from Raymond Williams' influential book, Keywords. The chosen section could be seen as giving a second voice to Shaw's practice as much of its content coincides with the work's inquiries. In the text, Williams' explores the word “nature.” Perhaps one of the most abstract and unknowable words in our language, Williams sees nature as a word, but more so, a concept that is constantly changing. Our understanding of what constitutes the nature of anything, what something is at its most fundamental core, is not only continually in flux, but is also largely dependent upon advancing science and technology. A feedback loop is created where the two seemingly disparate terms actually work to redefine each other. Shaw's work presents this viewpoint by showing that in many cases nature and technology, or the duality of organic and synthetic, are codependent terms. They are not at odds, eternally dueling each other, but are two methods that seek the same knowledge. Like psychedelics, they seek to know what it means to exist. A gesture that undoubtedly shows up in the work; instead of reinscribing the duality of nature and technology, Shaw's pieces often collapse the two into one.
The works speak this hard science dialog through the aesthetics of psychedelia, a smart approach that allows the work to address a greater, more pop-inspired audience. Psychedelics offer a profound experience, one that temporarily loosens existential ties, allows one to see into other dimensions, times, and realities, resulting in life-affirming resonances even decades later. It's obvious that this isn't that trite mall store psychedelia, nor is it any easy sci-fi nostalgia, these sculptures, drawings, and photographs aren't so easily known. If anything in these works, psychedelia is only the most accessible gateway for showing that all these interests intersect at the same point. In its simplest state, Shaw's use of psychedelics create a place where where begin to see how we see. In this way, if the works are hallucinogenic, it is only because hallucinogens have often been our first choice for finding what we know can be seen, but is always out of reach in our scripted and performed daily lives. It is sculptures like "Root" (2004), "Hollow" (2004), and "Dimitree" (2004) that meld psychedelics with hard science, blend plastic into wood, and create a synthesis between what reality usually is and what it always could possibly be. Psychedelia often skips hand-in-hand with hallucinogens, and Shaw readily acknowledges the influence of drug culture in his work. For example, "Dimitree" is named after the slang term for dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a drug of otherworldly powers that is renowned fueling trips filled with severe out-of-body experience and near total ego death. DMT is extracted from Ayahuasca, a tough vine found in South America's rainforest, and the drug, along with the writings of Terence McKenna, an ethnobotanist and professional tripper, fueled a new popularity for hallucinogenic plants that works like "Dimitree" directly reference. For all its psychedelic awe, Shaw's work is thoughtful and rigorous, always looking to give form to how we see, understand space, and experience the everyday world.
Drawings and photographs often augment Shaw's sculptures, adding an additional voice to the dialog. The series of drawings known as "High Water" (2003-5) refer less directly to specific chemicals than to the general cognitive or bodily experiences one has when tripping or stoned. In them, multi-colored splashes, drips, and bubbles fill the space of the paper and come up to the edge of a muddy shoreline. They're pools that have been filled by a cartoonish rainbow rain, a drizzling ethereal space that reinterprets the holographic laminate in two-dimensional terms. This is a strategy Shaw's employed in other series, such as his earlier "Detail" (1998) photographs from the late 90s, where stacked slices of plate glass present a prismatic space, or in the "Mindpool" (2001-2) drawings where rays of color run parallel to the paper's edge and occassionally bloom with virtual color. The lines form concentric squares that are proportional to the paper's dimensions, overlapping with each other as they extend inward, creating forms that relate to Frank Stella's classic black paintings . The continual return to describing this interior space of the holographic laminate has become crucial to Shaw's practice, because it is this space that comes closest to representing a reality that we could've known, an in-between space that lets us have a momentary glimpse into another reality. That place where nothing is exact, a condition where time and space become a bit more liquid, and what composes life can be seen. It is in this way that not only Shaw's drawings, but the lot of his pieces are aware of what fundamentally composes them.
- Marc R. LeBlanc, 2007