of the Rings
Broken down into
its visual components, David Shapiro's art doesn't amount to much. A
handful of basic shapes - circles, half-circles, screenlike grids,
checkerboards and tangles of squiggly lines - appear over and over
again in his paintings and works on paper. His preferred colors are
black, gray and an array of earth tones. He uses acrylic paints.
But when Shapiro combines these simple elements in a painting or
print, something unusual happens: They far exceed the sum of their
parts. The shapes hum with a paradoxical energy, alternately
attracting and repelling one another like magnets. That tension
brings the colors to life, high-lighting the wealth of surface and
sub-surface textures that Shapiro weaves together in his subtle,
strange, mesmerizing works.
Some of Shapiro's recent creations, on display at Numark Gallery,
are so richly textured that they look like tapestries made by
stitching together panels of flannel, felt, tissue and wall-to-wall
carpet. In a monoprint such as "Seer, Actor, Knower, Doer," the
panels are connected horizontally and each bears a different shape.
But the pictures aren't meant to be read from left to right, like a
sentence. The shapes, such as a glowing black circle, pull the
viewer right into the middle of the panels and give him two options
for getting out. Both lead through surprisingly deep thickets of
If that sounds weird, it's because it is. There are times when it's
tough to look at Shapiro's sequences of shapes and not think of an
optometrist endlessly testing the world for astigmatism.
But what saves some of the pictures from being eye chart knockoffs
is their spiritual resonance. The good ones, and there are a bunch
of them in Numark's show, have a meditative, Zenlike hum, the visual
equivalent of a mantra. They pack an evocative punch that spans art
history from hieroglyphics and Asian calligraphy to the Brice Marden
paintings that were shown at the Hirshhorn Museum last year.
Shapiro's ability to turn relatively simple shapes, materials and
ideas into artworks rich in physical, intellectual and spiritual
allusions has put his works in some of the country's foremost
museums of contemporary art. At age 55, he's still mining more from
less in ways mysterious and mystical.
in Art in Print
January - February 2012
Like Zen storyboards, David Shapiro’s compositions offer sequences of states: color, line, texture, patterns of marking. One panel follows the other, harmonically related in tone, but distinct in composition and facture. Each is a response to what came before; each generates a successor. According to the artist, the title Origin and Return “refers to the continuous and cyclical process of perception and feeling. There always has to be a first step, but never an ending.”
Shapiro has made prints before, often fusing multiple printing techniques into a single work, but this was his first foray into digital processes. With Andre Ribuoli (formerly of Pamplemousse Press at Pace Editions) Shapiro manipulated a set of his ink drawings with Photoshop. The drawings had been made with a specific Japanese paper in mind; on the computer the artist was able to play with the relationship between substrate and image virtually, without wasting beautiful paper, and without the inhibitions that can accompany the knowledge that you might be wasting beautiful paper.
Some of the final images were printed directly onto the paper as digital pigment prints, others were used to create photopolymer intaglio plates, and printed as etchings. Each panel is not only a response to those on either side, but to the process and materials of its making: “I try to collaborate with the inks, plates and tools by not seeing them as passive, neutral entities, but as active players in the creation of an image. I never start a print without finding a paper first. The paper gives me clues to what it is I want to emerge from that particular paper.”
What emerges is complex, unexpected and beautiful.
in the Chicago Sun-Times
May 6, 2005
by Margaret Hawkins
local Chicago freelance writer
David Shapiro's abstract paintings look
like music made visual, like bands of sounds frequency painted in
stripes. Each one is divided into registers of color and texture,
and each of those seems to represent a phase of some process or a
facet of some multidimensional thing too complex to represent in
only one way.
Now on display at Perimeter Gallery, his "Seer, Actor, Knower, Doer"
series is vertical. Four stripes of color run down each canvas, each
stripe with a different surface. Together, they are like vibrations
recorded on a screen -- some look like static while others call to
mind a harmonious hum. The titles direct us to think about them as
states of being. The grid-like surface of the "Actor" panel suggests
the orderly thought required for purposeful action, while the
floating strands of light against a deep dankness in "Knower" seem
to refer to the more unpredictable process of intuition.
Shapiro's "Origin and Return" series is horizontal. Balanced but not
equal blocks of color and texture are lined up in row. These works
contain more organic, biomorphic forms. A hazy circle, like a sun
seen through fog, and wormy lines resembling life forms viewed
through a microscope set off bands of textured color. Placed
together, they are what a chord mike look like, if you could see it.
These paintings have a Zen-like, meditative quality that is most
pleasing. They serenely blend pure thought with nature, the
contemplation of which produces an agreeable state of calm
David Shapiro and the
by Janet Koplos
What are the
boundaries of being American or Japanese? What does it mean to have
exotic interests or local ones? How do we explain a deep feeling for
ideas associated with a place we don't know?
Maybe when considering a case like the painter David Shapiro, ti's
necessary to assume that a particular aesthetic resonates for a
particular personality--not nationality--and just go on from there.
There's no reason to psychoanalyze the artist to explain it. We can
simply accept the fact that the sensitivity to materials, a feeling
for emptiness, a love of circles, the ability to perceive and
respond to subtleties of texture and color, and a preference for
shallow layers rather than perspectival space in paintings--allthings
associated with the arts of Japan-can be equally right, equally
natural, in an American artist.
Shaprio's art justifies itself. The paintings, etchings and other
works in this exhibition have a calm consistency that is the sure
sign of an artist's comfort with his subject and his means of
expression. Shapiro, now 54, knows what he wants: openness. His
persona is only distantly present in the work. Since he was schooled
by second-generation Abstract Expressionists, this renunciation of
gesture and ego must be the result of personal resolve. However, his
approach to art can be seen as a product of its time, in that
Eastern philosophy was an important undercurrent in New York
avant-garde art in the '50s and '60s (due to the influence of D.T.
Suzuki's teachings on John Cage and others and to the "alternative"
preferences of the counterculture movement). Shapiro explored Asian
art in New York museums and it had indirect connections to it
through some of his teachers. But where he went with this influence
is entirely individual and probably relates to meditation. His
series titles support a meditative interpretation. "Anecdote and
Parable," "Mudra" (Buddhist hand symbols), "Savasan" (lying-down
posture for meditation), "Seer, Actor, Knower, Doer" and "Origin and
Return" are either Buddhist terms or words that make you slow down
Shapiro's paintings generally consist of multiple panels or parts.
Whether they are vertically oriented rectangles or squares set in
horizontal rows, there are even numbers and thus no center. At least
one panel will feature a circle--that remarkable shape of dynamic
motion that is at the same time continuity and stability. The circle
is an important Buddhist symbol, but in Shapiro's work it is simply
a strongly graphic form which pulls attention to its center, whether
it is solid, outlined, concentrically repeated or spiraling. The
circle is graceful, fluid, pneumatic and, significantly, hollow: it
seems clear that Shapiro regards this void as the Eastern one of
potential rather than the Western one of absence. There's nothing
plaintive or needy about his circles. They often evoke pulses or
sustained tones--like the long exhalations or drones of the various
schools of meditation.
Invariably, another segment of these multipart works will be
strongly figured. Shapiro favors a tangled line like unspooled yarn
or the interlocked elements of a basket or even the drip patterns of
Jackson Pollock's canvases. These tangles may also bring to mind
Brice Marden's "Cold Mountain" paintings, which, not coincidentally,
also make an Eastern reference (being named after a Chinese poet).
Shapiro's lines are never an impenetrable thicket. They might be
seen as paths, routes to an unknown destination. They also introduce
a rocking, irregular rhythm. The lines may lead outward, beyond the
confines of the canvas on which they appear, and they sometimes seem
to echo the circles or arcs on adjacent panels.
Other segments of the paintings may be subtly textured like
plain-weave cloth, more strongly marked with basketweave pattern,
plaid or solid colored. The semblance to cloth is never unequivocal;
Shapiro does not illustrate. Still, the sensed association elicits
such thoughts as tactility, warmth, softness, enclosure. Another
frequent motif is a checkerboard or title effect. And that's about
it. Why would a pointer restrict himself to such a small number of
iconic elements? Probably because they represent all necessary
basics, like the essential food groups that provide all nutritional
needs. Beyond that, the restriction suggests that these are not in
themselves his subjects. His paintings are really about
relationships, and movement, and a kind of mental space.
Shapiro's use of color is open to random influences. He believes his
true palette is black/white/gray/natural, but he discovers color in
daily experiences and chooses it without preconceptions. He says
that he is looking for an emotional response, which color can
generate, and although he avoids "pushing the traditional buttons"
he notices the psychological properties of colors. He paints in
acrylic, typically adding pumice, metal filings, alcohol and other
substances to temper its "nasty plastic" nature.
It is significant that parts of Shapiro's works have no prescriptive
relationship to each other--not in size, placement, color or motif.
One of the pleasure of experiencing them is observing yourself in
the process of response. Shapiro says, "The center is wherever
you're looking, wherever you want it to be." And so you discover. In
Origin and Return 5-97-P, the orange/gold check at the left is the
brightest panel and may catch your eye first. Overall, the hues in
this work are warm and inviting. The circle appears three
times--once filled in, once as a wide outline, and once as an arc
(that is, a partial circle) rendered in a thin, tremulous line. From
left to right (the direction we read), they grow larger, and each
involves a different use of red. The tangle motif, which appears
behind the broad-outline circle, relates to arcs and circles. The
partial circle at the right prevents your eyes from continuing off
the canvas; it boomerangs you back toward the other segments. In
this free land of elements and positions, Shapiro finds
opportunities to suggest a feeling or a pace or draw out haptic
implications. Viewers enter the work through any of these doors, and
roam within the painting space.
This kind of unprogrammed sense-stimulation is an invitation to
contemplative thought. In Japan, meditative paintings often are more
repetitively structured than this, involving, for example, the
seemingly endless recapitulation of a single short brushstroke as a
mesmerizing and meditation-inducing labor. Shapiro's approach is
rather American in its vigor and indulgence. He says, simply, "Life
is about constant scanning." He adds that this viewer-dependent,
non-spoon-fed process of discovery "makes you understand that you're
the engine of self and the initiator of activity."
His interest in materials is demonstrated in this exhibition's array
of techniques and substances, including etching, monoprint, and
painting on canvas and on cast paper; some works also include silk.
IN each case, the visual character of the whole is influenced by the
details of each part and each material. Japanese artists are known
for their attention to materials; they may assume that their
audience will see, study and respond to this aspect of their work.
There is also a cultural preference for sharp contrasts between very
different materials or appearances. Although Shapiro was not born to
either attitude, he combines materials with a striking tenderness.
He seems to use each because of the particular feeling it
establishes. Such combinations as silk and paper, which communicate
physicality despite their thinness, give viewers a poignant
experience of the ephemeral. He also wants to convey a sense of
craft without revealing exactly how things are done. He coats the
edges of paintings with black to hide their archaeology, and that
reinforces the appearance of depth and increases the "objectness" of
the work. Shapiro's sense of proportion is also noteworthy. This is
nearly as unquantifiable as his feel for materials, and just as
convincing. He works in modest scale. The markings seem human in
their measure. There's no large motion of the arm from the shoulder,
nor does color speak in a loud voice. He is good at determining an
effective relationship of parts in two materials, as in the
"Anecdote and Parable" series. In these parings of opposites, one
doesn't dominate the other, only sets it off. The 1995 "Mudra" works
have a dynamic pattern, such as a spiral, at the center of a wide
border that seems to cradle and quiet it. The '98 works with the
same series title, which are etchings are the simplest of the
compound works, with just two panels of equal size and unequal
motion or density: they consist of small, concentrated marks, such
as concentric circles, within a thick square of a different color.
In all these cases, as in his paintings, Shapiro wants the work to
"be a process of getting in touch with your own consciousness." To
enable that, he devises these quiet compositions of possibility.