Stuart Shils

Stuart Shils, while traveling in ancient lands, rag paper, likely watercolor

The whole point of study… is to stand before the world in awe…


I’ve been following Stuart Shils since I discovered him when he was juror for an annual group show five years ago at Prince Street in Chelsea. He’s one of the most consistently rewarding painters to follow on Instagram. He’s prolific as well, which makes him perfect for the ravenous maw of social media, but he’s able to keep the feed flowing with regular posts because much of his work is small and appears to be quickly executed, each painting seemingly just a freeze frame from an ongoing flow of paint. One of the aspects of his own Instagram stream that makes it unusual, if not unique, is that for a while it seemed to become a work of art itself, not just a way of sharing images of work done elsewhere: it was more or less the medium for his abstract photography. I could imagine buying a print of one of his photographs, but photography has been democratized to the point where it’s mostly digital now and exists in the ether as much as anywhere else, so when his shots appeared, they seemed to have their being there in that stream of images and nowhere else.

In those shots he was seeing the way he sees when he makes a painting: the photographs often had all the formal concerns and the feel for composition that magically give his paintings such a haunting quality of remembered immediacy, yearning and loss, shot through with a passion for color.

Most recently, he’s been proving that what he does may look like color field improvisation, but it’s also figurative in a broad sense: in extremely subtle ways, it represents the visible, physical world. It’s just as much about the ambiguous interplay of figure and ground as his earlier more quickly recognizable work. Lately, he’s using Instagram to create a diptych by pairing two paintings from twenty years apart, or thereabouts.  In the earlier, one can usually recognize the image at a glance. In the more recent work, it takes a while to see how the gestural paint both reveals and conceals the figure. Often, it can take some extended looking to decipher what you’re seeing, or might be seeing. In the pairings, he offers one painting from around the turn of the current century and another from the past couple years. He’s showing how even the stunning abstract and looser work he’s doing now concerns itself with the same issues he resolved in less intensely colorful and more conventionally representational ways two decades ago.

His titles are especially fun, but also coyly poetic. One image ostensibly represents a particular moment and place in Sappho’s daily life, which is quite a trick, given that most of what’s known of her could be reconstructed only from her poems, most of which survive in fragments. There is much reference in his titles to classic Greek culture and literature. One acrylic on panel is named, all in lower case, after reading leonardo scufolli’s account of visiting giorgione’s studio in Venice, 1507. The specificity and beauty and the length of the line is both funny and slightly thrilling, making you smile while you feel the unknowability of what’s being represented, wishing you could see it even more clearly and also wishing, as he apparently did, that you could have been there in that studio. But you don’t really want to see anything more clearly, because the painting is so originally and amazingly composed. This and many of his other small paintings remind me of both Turner and color field painting at the same time, but he has his own original way of creating precise forms that look purely gestural and abstract at first but offer up more and more visual representation as you gaze at them–without losing their lyrical power as abstraction. The rightness of what look like purely abstract compositions, in the best of these paintings, remind me of how much of Braque’s mid-career work looks perfectly inevitable and yet entirely improvisational, relying on nothing but its own authority to convince the viewer that not a mark could be altered without marring the work. (And I’m not going to try to do justice to how much of his work depends on what he does with the surface of his support, how tactile and physical his engagement with paint is.)

In while traveling in ancient lands, at first you see an extremely simple but dynamically designed grid of rectangles arranged in a sort of spiral that draws your eye from the upper left corner to the center of the painting. As is usually the case, his color choices are severely limited: deep pinks and a muted orange which is really almost a pale apricot in the middle chamber. Some indefinite shapes in a neutralized plum tone erupt at a couple junctures between the panels, seemingly applied with a drying brush. Again, it’s a delight merely as an abstract construction, but then you realize those could be hills in the distance, where the top red gutter joins that apricot rectangle, which now, ah-ha!, appears to be an expanse of desert sand. Only as I was uploading the image for this post did I see a Bedouin in a turban and long robe approaching at the right, where I thought I was seeing only some interesting brushwork. The whole image now for me is scene from the Middle East, pink sky, distant hills, golden sand, and an itinerant tribesman, a fellow traveler. It’s also amusing (and no doubt meant to be) to see Shils admit that he knows it’s rag paper but isn’t certain and probably doesn’t care if he was using watercolor or maybe a wash of acrylic when he painted it. Again, the touch of wit.

One can scroll many years back in his Instagram feed and find amazingly confident and innovative work, which has a very individual emotional quality: both friendly and formal, confidently executed but shot through with the sense of time’s passage, the inevitability of loss in a temporal world, and, in such tiny formats, a sense of mystery and grandeur and an almost erotic desire to convey how gratuitously gorgeous the most ordinary visual experiences are, if you see them with the heart. I return to his feed again and again, as that Bedouin would to an oasis that restores.






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