Can A Painter Win The Venice Biennale?

by Paddy Johnson on June 10, 2011 · 9 comments Venice

Steven Shearer at The Canadian Pavilion

One of the great opportunities Venice affords is the chance for artists to fully transform a space. Nearly every pavilion gets a complete makeover every two years, but this came to mind particularly when looking at the exceptions. Take Canada’s Steven Shearer, a well-known painter and sculptor represented by Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. He’s worked in large formats before. In 2008, he produced a bad boy metal-music flop of a show at The New Museum that included a giant room-sized cube made of black PVC pipe. This year though, only a tiny bronze maquette of this same piece was on display in the Pavilion and it looked like it was for sale.  Add to this, a vetrine full of sub-standard sketchs and a poem in which the individual words did more to express the abject than their combination, and you’ve got a pavilion people will discuss almost entirely in the negative.

Steven Shearer's facade at The Canadian Pavilion

Having never understood the appeal of Steven Shearer’s figurative paintings, I told a friend at the Biennale that Canada’s choice of shows was the rough equivalent of the United States asking Elizabeth Peyton to fill their pavilion. In both cases, only a few pieces in their body of work go any way towards explaining their accolades. That aside, given artists’ predictable transformative interests and viewers’ predictable approval, it’s worth asking whether any painter – particularly one working in small formats – can compete.

It’s a dangerous bet, but I’d guess the best small Hernan Bas paintings would hold their own Pavilion. Other names on that list include  Thomas Nozkowski (USA), Alice Neel (USA), Neo Rauch (Germany), Tomma Abts (British) and Katherina Wulff (Germany), Whether they could win a Golden Lion is another question, mind you — a lot of politics inform the awards, and I don’t claim to understand what they are — but in a climate in which the goal is to produce a pavilion that stands out, their work would do so very economically.

  • Emily

    of COURSE a painter could fill a pavillion. Lets not jump to conclusions that a crappy artist who happens to be (primarily) a painter is the proof that no painter could carry a pavillion for their country. Alice Neel is dead, so she couldnt probably fit the bill, much as I love her.
    Luc Tuymans comes to  mind.  Ann Craven? She can fill a room. Hell, Charlene Von Heyl. Kai Althoff definitely. And if were going with dead people, Elizabeth frickin Murray.

  • Matthew Choberka

    The problem for Canada wasn’t the choice of painting as such, but of the weakest paintings almost anywhere in Venice at the moment. These would have fit right in at the Italian Pavilion.

  • http://dennisdalesandro.com Ddalesandro

    I’d vote for Erik Parker, George Condo, Allison Schulnik, and myself of course…

  • J@simpleposie

    I really like Steven Shearer’s work. And part of why I like it is I don’t always understand its appeal. All these skeins of Leif Garrett hair that look like they could have been rendered by Durer or painted by a despairing Munch. It’s classical and contemporary, debased and elevated and weird, ugly and beautiful all at the same time. I can dig that!  

      

    • Anonymous

      His painting has gotten better – now when he references Munch it doesn’t look quite so hackneyed — but I’m still not convinced there’s much there. Of course, unlike John Currin who’s paintings got worse as he became more skilled, Shearer is producing better work as his skill improves. I’ll give him props for that, but judging by the growth I’ve seen, I think was awarded the pavilion 10 years too early. Too much of the success he sees rides on drawing from “the right” musical subgenre. The work has to get a lot more sophisticated than it currently is to get past that. 

      • J@simpleposie

        Oh, I think he’s very skilled – in 1995 he was exhibiting sparklingly flawless abstract pattern paintings here in Toronto at S.L. Simpson Gallery. He’s not showing work that looks unintentional in any way.

        It’s quite possible he WAS awarded the pavilion too early what is he – 42 years old? And that logic, I think gets a bit closer to the bones of your initial question about painting at the biennale. If the question was painting, if Canada wanted to send a painter – who should they have sent? I like Sandra Meigs or Douglas Walker actually.There are all kinds of interesting painters (interesting in lots of different ways) in Canada. Sky Glabush, Yves Tessier, Michael Merrill…Robert Youds from Victoria makes pretty quirky work. But choosing a painter’s painter tends to  get you into a dialogue that’s either entirely individualistic or regionalistic – at best only tangentially seeming like part of the international art world. Risky stuff, I mean impolitical in an arty sort of way. 

        • Anonymous

          But choosing a painter’s painter tends to  get you into a dialogue that’s either entirely individualistic or regionalistic – at best only tangentially seeming like part of the international art world. Risky stuff, I mean impolitical in an arty sort of way.

          That’s right on the money IMO, though I’d add that the international art world is its own community and could arguably described as regional. Certainly there are stylistic tendencies within the international art community and they don’t always speak to painting. Obviously, I’m not a wild fan of Shearer’s work, but it’s not such a bad idea for countries to be pushing against the norms of this community in the hopes of making it a little more inclusive. 

          • J@simpleposie

            “…the international art world is its own community and could arguably described as regional”
            AGREED.

            “…it’s not such a bad idea for countries to be pushing against the norms of this community in the hopes of making it a little more inclusive.”

            And more peculiar! 

  • http://www.nu4ya.com K.I.A.

    while appreciating his technical abilities, i can’t get past the content, which to me seems overwhelmingly sentimental and/or nostalgic, mixed in with a bit of the fetish, celebrity and naive motifs so prevalent of the last couple decades of art– even with the classical riffing. 

    i do however like the contrast with the wordsworks. not the poems themselves– but the contrast between the works. 

    i also wonder if there weren’t major budgetary considerations regarding choosing a painter re: shipping, installing, technical considerations, equipment, reworking the pavillion, etc. if you don’t have the $ you can’t import a tank/reconstruct Turkey etc–so in that sense, perhaps it is very representative of canada — pragmatic, not too showy. maybe it wasn’t budgetary but a conscious reaction to biennale bravado…

    googling around, there are very few media or references to the canadian pavillion other than in canadian media. does the lack of attention mean a fail? i’m not so sure… i’m not a fan of the work but here i am talking about it.

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