Canadian artists have suffered from a sense of inferiority since 1958 when they began exhibiting works in our own underwhelming space at the Venice Biennale, the world’s most prestigious art fair, which opens this week. But thanks to Steven Shearer, 43, the British Columbia-born painter, sculptor and draftsman, this is all about to change.
Shearer’s selection as Canada’s representative to the Biennale sent a thrill through the art world. The antithesis of the cerebral, photo-based Vancouver school of artists— including Jeff Wall, whose works have come to characterize Canadian art over the last decade—Shearer is best known for making majestically beautiful paintings of heavy metal fans. These works, which capture the aggression that is a counterpoint to polite society, have earned him an international audience and a reputation as an artist with an edge.
His Poem for Venice, an installation he created for the Biennale, lives up to expectations. A towering nine-metre billboard of heavy metal-inspired shock talk, the work projects skyward like an outdoor movie screen. With phrases like “triumphant secretions,” “erection of possessed flesh” and “shivering whore of light” set in 30-cm-high raised white capital letters, it is impossible for anyone to walk through the Biennale grounds without noticing Shearer’s modern-day frieze.
It was by accident, in 1999, that Shearer first began making such works, which he calls “poems.” While trying to come up with names for a series of paintings, he compiled a list of heavy metal song titles and found “they had a certain energy,” one he knew from growing up in suburban Port Coquitlam listening to Kiss. There, he developed an aesthetic interest in heavy metal, especially its dark, outlandish costumes and sets. It’s “an operatic form of expression for men,” he says.
The idea behind Poem for Venice came to Shearer about a year ago when he visited Canada’s pavilion—the nation’s gallery space—in the Biennale’s fairground. The structure is a small glass-and-wood building, which over the years has been likened to both a hut and a wigwam. “It’s not a bad space,” says Shearer, “but it has challenges.” Sandwiched between “colonial architecture” (the U.K. pavilion) and “fascist architecture” (Germany’s pavilion) it feels diminutive, and has caused Canadians to feel what Shearer describes as “an anxiety of scale.”
Now, with Poem for Venice fixed to the front of the Canadian pavilion, any national insecurity based on size is put to rest. Moreover, as Josée Drouin-Brisebois, senior curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Canada and curator of Canada’s Biennale exhibition this year, explains, Shearer’s work makes an important connection to art history. It presents in text “things that you would have once seen in historical paintings—imagery of bodies and things decaying. It’s very baroque.”
Shearer’s update of art history becomes even clearer once you enter the Canadian pavilion. More than 90 of his intimate-sized drawings and paintings are on view, works that for the most part have never been shown. Although many feature modern-day jean-clad, long-haired headbangers, they are painted in an early 20th-century post-impressionist style and resemble works by Edvard Munch and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. This is Shearer’s way of creating a powerful tension between the past and the present, says Drouin-Brisebois, art that “becomes this strange capsule of time.”
For Shearer, his representation of Canada in Venice has been an opportunity to explore the nature of time and its relationship to art. “When the pavilion was built, it was intended to exhibit drawings and easel paintings,” he says. “Today [it is] criticized for not being a great space to show contemporary art. But I liked it. I wanted to celebrate it.”
Poem for Venice will certainly draw more people to its door than ever before, but Shearer won’t be around to see how audiences react. Despite his larger-than-life style, he prefers to stay out of the limelight. He’s leaving Venice the day after the Biennale opens to get back to making art—an activity he likens to making music, and one he says is “done best in solitude.”