James Sheppard: Newspace, Los Angeles, California
James Sheppard's cloud paintings are loosely based on a series of photographs taken by moonlight in upstate New York. Although at first glance many of the paintings appear mostly black, the landscape images begin to emerge as you walk around the room. This emergence of image is a strange sensation, as the gallery is perfectly light. Your eyes are forced to adjust as if to a completely dark room. One can imagine the dark nature of Sheppard's photo studies, and how general the descriptions of the trees and the sky must be. However, Sheppard's memory must have been reactivated at seeing the pictures because the paintings, for all their airiness, are incredibly specific. The work defines a very interesting line between representation and abstraction--so specific are they about an elusive piece of reality (clouds) that the images are necessarily abstract.
These paintings have a lot to do with Warhol's "Rorschach Paintings" (which also use a mostly black-and-white palette), because Sheppard's clouds force the viewer to make associations about what the clouds must be, i.e. a figure, or two trees trying to dance with clouds. But instead of giving the viewer choices, or allowing substitutions of this tree-character for that cloud-person (in the way a Rorschach test is open-ended), these images are all under the control of Sheppard and already have their own personalities. Vik Muniz uses cloud imagery in his "Equivalent Photographs" (based on Stieglitz's open-ended "Equivalent Photographs") to accomplish a similar end--control over the viewer's perception of an abstract form (a forced equivalent to an abstract form).
Sheppard has a major interest in Decadent literature, and all of the pieces are titled after Decadent characters. The figurative nature of the clouds and their quiet activity make the viewer feel like the voyeur of a sensual scene. And the paintings feel almost addictive at that level because, like the readers of Wilde or Baudelaire, you know the material is somehow immorally luxurious (yet you want to know about it anyway). Sheppard's night paintings tell a kind of somber tale, as well. The absence of color, and isolated, lonely subjects are obviously tragic. The act of painting is being mourned these days as a dead medium.
These paintings have the same attention to surface detail as the "Night Paintings" of Alex Katz. Sheppard uses sepia color and his twenty-five year-old sable brush to move the paint around in strokes that do anything but follow the course of the forms. In other words, the marks are totally unexpected--they are not attached to the clouds--perhaps because nothing can be attached to real clouds. The surface is very unlikely for this reason, but always fresh-feeling. The ultimate effect is a painterly surface without any impastoed or scraped areas; a kind of soft-flowing across every inch of the surface. And, like Katz (who also works from photographs), Sheppard says that he makes paintings basically from start to finish over a one or two-day period (night included) because he likes the first mark to still be wet when he makes the last mark. And, like plein-air painters who work quickly wet into wet, Sheppard captures a particular subject and moment in each piece. These Sheppard paintings have another connection to Katz's "Night Paintings"--both painters are isolating the image in the black field as if the subject has been taken out of context, and are therefore necessarily abstract. Katz will often isolate the windows of Manhattan buildings in black fields so that the painting looks like a geometric abstraction, whereas Sheppard's are more like figurative abstractions.
Sheppard's paintings ask, and then answer, their own questions about abstraction. At first, the viewer must struggle to see these images, and after finding them, cannot look away. The way the surface presents the subject in an unemotional way, combined with the obvious absence of color, gives the paintings one of the strangest, yet best relationships to black-and-white photography. The fact that these strange characters have emerged from the field calls into question the viewer's own perceptions about the actual nature of abstraction.
New York, New York