Black Metal, Black Humour: Steven Shearer rocks Canada’s pavilion in Venice

Steven Shearer: Installation View, Canada pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2011: Photo: Sebastiano Pellion di Persano.Steven Shearer: Installation View, Canada pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2011: Photo: Sebastiano Pellion di Persano.

By April Steele

Vancouver-based Steven Shearer is this year’s Canadian representative at the 54th Venice Biennale, the oldest and most prestigious biennale in the world. In the intimate display of paintings, drawings and sculpture showing in Venice, Shearer references heavy metal icons, and explores the themes of figure painting and its context in art history. He also utilizes many of the original architectural details in the Canadian pavilion’s 1958 design. On the pavilion’s exterior, Shearer has erected a monumental, nine-metre high façade as the base for one of his text-based works: an angst-ridden, visceral slew of words referencing the vernacular of black and death metal. The false front provides the small and inconspicuous Canadian pavilion with the same scale as its towering neighbours Great Britain and Germany; Shearer has finally brought the Canadian pavilion to the world stage. Shearer met with curator and writer April Steele in Venice to discuss his project, his practice, and what it means to be a Canadian artist in an international art fair structured around nationality.

The Fauves (detail), 2008-09: Oil on canvas, 166 x 120 cm. Private  Collection Family Hunting, The Netherlands. © Steven Shearer. Courtesy  Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich. Photo © Chris Gergley.The Fauves (detail), 2008-09: Oil on canvas, 166 x 120 cm. Private Collection Family Hunting, The Netherlands. © Steven Shearer. Courtesy Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich. Photo © Chris Gergley.April Steele: What does being chosen for the Biennale mean to you, both on a personal and professional level?

Steven Shearer: It’s a challenge. I don’t usually make site-specific work, but the context and the building are specific, so it was interesting to see how I could put what I do into this context and into the building itself.

AS. Did you feel that you were shaping your work to the pavilion, or the installation to your work?

SS. It was more about how I could take what I’ve done and integrate it into the space. I ended up thinking that the architecture was originally envisioned to show easel paintings, drawings and small sculptures, and I thought that this fit with an idea that I had of doing a show with just drawings and paintings, and that’s the path I took. I liked the idea that there isn’t one dominant wall so that you can see the work from different vantage points. There’s a strangeness to the space. I like the reflections.

AS. The Canadian pavilion is often quite challenging, architecturally, for artists to contend with in their installations. How did you work around that with your project?

SS. I really had to consider the scale of the pavilion. I didn’t want it to feel too small, and if I was going to make a public work I felt I had to activate a false front or façade to situate the pavilion amongst the other, larger pavilions adjacent to it. The only public artwork I have done are the poem murals, so I wanted to stay within this trajectory. I also wanted to sort of skirt the façade and situate the mural with the tool shed, to try to reconcile the structure with the idea of the Giardini. I wanted to keep it as sort of a residential vernacular, to create something monumental without a lot of weight.

AS. In your installation you’ve utilized some of the original exhibition elements from the pavilion’s 1958 design. I was wondering about your inclusion of the plaster panels for hanging paintings in front of the windows, which might seem very outdated to a contemporary viewer.

Facade View, Canada pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2011: Photo:  Sebastiano Pellion di Persano.Facade View, Canada pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2011: Photo: Sebastiano Pellion di Persano.SS. Those were all variations on the original details, and we plastered all the walls, as well. I wanted to use the pavilion’s natural light and to give the walls a sculptural weight. I thought that it would be good to have the plaster absorbing the light, and to let the light bounce off the paintings. I’m quite happy with the installation.

AS. If, for the sake of argument, we were going to take a very stereotypical outsider view of Canadian culture, the façade you created might not immediately resonate with that identity. Was that a conscious decision?

SS. Well, I don’t think the idea is for me to represent a populace. It’s just about my reality as an artist working in Canada. I didn’t feel bound by any expectations.

AS. How about within the model of the Biennale, where everything is so tied to nationality? That seems to be changing more now, but can you explain how that fits with your practice?

SS. I imagine most artists feel limited by the theme of nationality as it is usually expressed in the context of the Biennale. My work relates more to history than nationality in the way that my paintings and poems relate to history and place in their motifs. Medieval art has themes of torment and persecution and these themes are also present in my poems. It also relates to Venice as a place that is literally sinking. The façade piece is representative of a descent from the heavens down to the earth. It is mannered and aggressive, like some official architecture. Inside the pavilion there’s a book of 127 of the poems that I have made into drawings over the past ten years.

AS. I also wanted to talk about this juxtaposition of darkness and humour in your work. There’s almost a sense of absurdity in some of the language. Can you talk about that relationship?

SS. There’s a black humour in it. It’s over the top. It’s stylized. But it’s also a cultural voice, and an international voice. It’s not about reaching a consensus or a common ground. I think that’s why it might be affirmational in the sense that it’s an internalized voice, being projected onto this public space. Humour is definitely part of it.

AS. There’s also a real sense of beauty in the words you’ve chosen.

Night Train, 2009-10: Oil on linen, 61 x 45.7 cm. Courtesy the artist. © Steven Shearer. Photo © Chris Gergley.Night Train, 2009-10: Oil on linen, 61 x 45.7 cm. Courtesy the artist. © Steven Shearer. Photo © Chris Gergley.SS. I think so. Same thing with the paintings: there are things that might appear ugly or unharmonious, but I’m trying to make something beautiful. Same with the text, but it’s also how it looks visually. To try and make a picture out of text is difficult.

AS. How do you feel your work has been received differently in Europe and in North America?

SS. I don’t really know. Maybe the sensibility behind some of the references resonate better there.

AS. You don’t have representation in Canada; why is that?

SS. It’s just that [in Europe and the United States] there are more places to show, more opportunities. I just make the work and let everything else take care of itself. I just try to focus on making my work. It hasn’t been an intentional decision not to have Canadian representation.

AS. You were saying that you felt there were more opportunities in Europe for you.

SS. Well, up to this point I always felt like my work was being imported by other places, somewhere else where it resonated with them more strongly. It’s mostly been in Europe where I’ve been asked to show. The Venice Biennale is really the first time that I feel that I am been recognized in Canada through an international exhibition. It is also the first time that where I come from has been part of the narrative of the exhibition. You’d think that this would have made the exhibition more personal or autobiographical but it didn’t any more than it usually does.

AS. And, that’s not something that’s tied to your nationality.

SS. I think it’s more interesting for people to see an artist’s reality, how they exist as an artist working in that country, regardless of how its borders shape them or have had no effect on them. I think it should be free in that sense, and I try to allow myself that freedom and not just do something different for the sake of the exhibition.

The 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale runs until November 27, 2011.

April SteeleApril Steele is an emerging independent curator and writer currently based in Toronto. She holds an MA in Art History from the University of Toronto. Recently curated exhibitions include Liminal Place at Artspace, Peterborough; and Maidens, Spindles, and Mothers-of-all at Forest City Gallery, London.