Alice Shaw on a path of self-discovery
by Kenneth Baker
San Francisco Chronicle
July 4, 2009
"Conceptual art" suggests a bloodless, humorless exercise, and much of it comes across that way. But not when Alice Shaw practices it.
Shaw seldom overworks an idea, never exaggerates her originality nor strives for depth when slyness and lightness will do. Most of the pieces in her show at Gallery 16 spring from thinking about how to dissolve the conventions of self-portraiture, a project begun by the doyen of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp.
Shaw consulted various specialists - a psychic, a graphologist, an astro-cartographer - to try to learn things about herself she might not discover otherwise.
The handwriting analysis that resulted, presented as a work in its own right, proves surprisingly detailed and sure in its assessment of Shaw's character and prospects. But the evidence the graphologist cites for these conjectures will seem to the untrained both systematic and fishy.
Rather than confirm or deny the graphological inferences, Shaw presents us with samples of her handwriting. "Palm Reading" (2009) takes the form of a palm reader's penciled annotations to the artist's inked right handprint. Shaw responded punningly with a pair of spray-painted silhouettes of palm fronds, titled "Palm Prints," of course.
My favorite piece: the psychic's report, a single typewritten page, also dauntingly confident in its pronouncements. Like an official censor, Shaw has blacked out key words in it. It reads: "You are a very
person and you will be ____." "Sometime soon you will __ ... You will be poor your entire life ... You are a little too ____..." and so on.
Wherever our curiosity spikes, information is withheld. So we come to read every blacked-out word or phrase as code for Shaw's fear, or recognition, that the person she consulted might be ... well, psychic, and the reading all too accurate in its revelations.
In the things that follow, Shaw undercuts that apparent credulity. In "The Artist as Medium" (2009), she appears - performing her own punning title - in a daguerreotype self-portrait, dressed as a Gypsy fortune-teller.
"Prediction" (2009) presents a crystal ball resting on a scarlet pillow in which we can see an urban mansion: a dream house conjured by a discernibly cheap trick, a color photo placed beneath the glass sphere.
"Tea Leaf Reading" consists of a teacup on a shelf at about eye level and a brief text relating that a savant, with whom Shaw shared tea, read her leaves and predicted a future health problem. The viewer naturally peers over the lip of the cup, expecting to see dried tea leaves, and sees instead a stubbed-out cigarette butt - a pretty good predictor of future health problems.
Rather than evoke a critical posture, as conceptual artists frequently do, Shaw demonstrates a bemused, nimble, appreciative detachment toward art and life alike.
ARTFORUM's CRITICS' PICKS
by Alice Shaw’s third solo exhibition at Gallery 16 finds the artist as mystic and rationalist, medium and maker. In “Auto(biography)” ––the follow-up to “People Who Look Like Me,” her 2006 show at the gallery––Shaw develops her droll conceptualism through an even more comprehensive picture of her primary subject, herself. With the help of an “astro-location reader” and the chair of the Graphological Society of San Francisco––whose findings about her ideal locale and handwriting sample are paired with the artist’s responses (pictures of the sea and desert, and a cursive exercise, respectively)––this show presents a selection of Shaw’s new photographs, prints, and drawings that interact in a Freudian game of fort da, in which her identity is repeatedly lost and found. The Artist as Medium (all works 2009), a Shermanesque daguerreotype, follows Premonition, a drawing of a tombstone with Shaw’s name on it. Color Field #1 is a monochrome in dark pink, a color that her “synesthete” friend associates with her name, while Color Field #2 is a snapshot of the artist wearing a gaudy dress of the same hue. Throughout, Shaw refuses to take herself (and her practice) too seriously. Tucked between The Past/The Present and Prediction—a crystal ball on top of a picture of her posing in front of an SUV and a mansion—is the collage What My Show Probably Should Have Looked Like, a depiction of a gallery that features several tawdry nude portraits of the artist. Here Shaw aims her mirror at the art world; perhaps wisely, she seems unconcerned with the results.
— Lauren O’Neill-Butler
Artist as Subject, Curator, and Author
Michelle Y. Hyun
June 3, 2009
Artist-curated exhibitions are a particularly interesting site of information and disinformation about the artist. Alice Shaw creates a prescribed path of viewing around the gallery in a trajectory that begins with what at first may appear to be a very self-indulgent series of work. It begins with a self-portrait, shot in a style similar to her previous identity-based work, and moves on to non-photographic work and documents created by others. Auto Portrait (2003) is followed by an exhibition statement, handwritten by the artist, hung in a diptych with a graphological (handwriting) analysis telling Shaw about her character and personality based on the lines, dots, and space in her writing. Consequently, these documents are followed by a handmade worksheet, Cursive Practice (2009), complete with dotted blue guidelines in which Shaw doesn’t quite fit the entire alphabet on one page.
The rest of the show follows in a humorous, associative manner, relying on wordplay and relating visual cues, making for a brief but fun exploration of Shaw’s conceived “autobiography.” A mysterious psychic reading appears to have been created on a typewriter and then redacted with black marker. This is followed by an astro-location reading, assessing the location of planets passing over the earth on the day of the Shaw’s birth and complete with suggestions by the astro-locationer of where Shaw would be most happy living. Following a list of disparate locations such as Hawaii, Sante Fe, Israel, and the western coasts of India and Australia, a diptych of Sea (2009) and Desert (2009) ties together the bisecting horizons of a blue ocean and brown desert in cyanotype and van dyke brown prints, respectively. Similarly, a block print palm reading filled with scrawled notes is followed by another diptych of “palm prints” of palm tree fronds in cyanotype and van dyke brown. To complete her series of call and response works, Shaw asked a synesthete to tell her what color he/she saw when hearing her name, “Alice.” The response to which is displayed in Colorfield #1 (2009), an 18 x 14 inch canvas painted over in dark gumball pink. Logically, or so thought in the artist’s mind, Colorfield #1 meets the Guessing Game (2009), a corner in which a gumball machine on a pedestal invites viewers to insert a penny and try to guess the color of their gumball before turning the knob. Although this author’s penny got stuck, one might hope that any or all the gumballs would come out pink – despite the rainbow variety seemingly possible inside the glass globe.
The next sequence of works appears to be a jocular pondering by the artist on her role as feminist or maybe just a female. Again, drawing upon puns and associations with femininity, Shaw shows us Colorfield #2 (a candid photo of the artist in a bright pink dress), Face Print of My Colors (2008) in makeup on paper, almost monochrome polaroids of the four seasons, a $10,000 envelope sealed with a kiss, Lacquer Painting (2009) made entirely with fingernail polish, and a photo of grocery store aisle sign listing off “Hosiery, Feminine Needs, Facial Tissue, Shampoo, Hair Care, Stationary, Magazines” in Feminine Needs (1997/2009).
The exploratory journey takes an interesting leap from here, though relating back to the colorfields, gumball machine, and monochrome prints. In A Portrait of the Artist at Work – 18% Grey, Shaw reminds us that she is a photographer. As only the third self-portrait in this autobiographical show, the artist is seen standing in a corner. In the photo, Shaw points at the intersection of two walls, one painted white and the other in 18% grey – a standard reference value against which photo light meters are calibrated. This is then followed by a sequence of “rainbows,” spray painted in black and white, depicted in as a water color palette, and then in makeup palettes staged along with q-tips and brushes on a wooden chair.
After rounding this second corner, (Auto)Biography leans again in the direction of the occult and mysticism. Premonition (2009) appears to be a rubbing of a headstone for “Alice Shaw,” which is then followed by an interesting group of works on three mini-shelves. The remnants of a tea leaf reading and a cigarette butt in a ceramic teacup on one shelf are flanked by two “daguerreotypes.” The Artist as Medium is an actual daguerreotype self-portrait, and Daguerreotype is an archival pigment print self-portrait. In both photos, Shaw wears a costume, of a gypsy and 19th century gentlewoman respectively, and both photos are presented preciously in book frames. One could spend several minutes creating multiple narratives about these two women and a tea leaf reading.
What follows thereafter seems to trail off and away from the artist as subject. Another series of diptychs play on words, media, and the word “medium.” Viewers who expected a truly autobiographical exhibition or deep insight into the artist may feel disappointed. Nevertheless, Shaw allays such concerns and wins us over with her light-hearted humor in a final sequence of works that seem to say “to be continued…” In What My Show Probably Should Have Looked Like (2009), Shaw depicts in graphite and collage the exact same corner of gallery space hung with two large “commercial fine art photographs.” Shaw then predicts the future in a crystal ball showing herself standing next to a shiny white truck parked in front of a stately white mansion in Prediction (2009). Her methods are never the stuff of magic tricks, as the crystal ball is simply just a photograph resting in between a glass ball and a red velveteen beanbag. Fittingly, (Auto)Biography concludes with six drawings from the Magic Tricks series, each of which reference Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” See Alice cut into three parts. See Alice in a mirror floating in midair. See Alice watch Mr. Rabbit disappear with a poof. See Mr. Rabbit reappear from the magic hat.
There is not any real conclusion when it comes to Alice Shaw’s (Auto)biography. Nor does the viewer come away with any better understanding of Shaw as a person. However, as an artist, Shaw has revealed a thought process, meandering through personal and universal associations, visual symbols, and the use of verbal puns, in a playful and interesting way. Shaw may have yet more to reveal through a post-medium practice, yet still as a photographer.
- Michelle Y. Hyun
(Auto)Biography: The delicate art of identity
96 HOURS: SF CHRONICLE
May 21, 2009
Palm readers and makeup artists, style-hopping dilettantes and spiritual mediums - San Francisco artist Alice Shaw is interested in constructing an identity from the information these know-it-all strangers have to offer in her new show at Gallery 16, "(Auto)Biography."
She's hired a handwriting analyst to dissect her show statement and then commented on that analysis with a work of her own. She's gotten a makeover and then made an imprint of this painted face. And she's had her name taken apart by a synesthete before photographing herself in her moniker's hot pink hues. In the process, last week, the Mission District denizen appeared to be putting together the perfectly imperfect portrait of an artist as a skeptic - unwilling to settle on a medium or any one medium's intuitive/off-the-cuff interpretation.
"This is something I've had in my head for a long time," Shaw, 43, said. She was still putting together the pieces for the upcoming show. Works-in-progress were gathered on a small card table and settees around her Victorian parlor, which was also strewn with antiques and stuffed animals. "Showing with (gallery owner) Griff (Williams) at Gallery 16 is great because he gives you complete freedom - he doesn't know what I'm going to be doing at all! That's the best way."
Shaw appreciates this creative freedom. Coming from a family of artists - her father and mother are ceramicist Richard Shaw and painter-printmaker Martha Shaw, her grandfather was a Disney cartoonist, and her brother is singer-songwriter Virgil Shaw - she's a maker who has "dabbled in a lot of different things."
Wordplay and teasing out the real from the unreal are factors she's toying with, as well as ideas revolving around doubled or mirrored selves - notions that popped up in her book, "People Who Look Like Me," and her 2007 solo exhibit, "Alice Shaw: A Group Show," also at Gallery 16.
The San Francisco Art Institute instructor was also provoked by those complicated yet all-too-easy fabrications facilitated by digital media. "I think a lot about how digital photography has created this society of skeptics," Shaw observed, "because you look at things and think, 'Well, I don't know if that's been changed or not.' " But rather than bemoaning the switch, the artist is taking notes from digital media's fake-book, making, say, faux salt prints and punning on the form visually by depicting "positive" and "negative" salt shaker images. "Sometimes," she said with a chortle, "I take things way too literally."
Reception today. Through July 3. Gallery 16, 501 Third St., S.F. (415) 626-7495. www.gallery16.com. Shaw is also in the group show "Gold Rush," through June 6 at the Lab, 2948 16th St., S.F. (415) 864-8855. www.thelab.org.
- Kimberly Chun
WATCH OUT FOR TRICKY PHOTOGRAPHERS
Special to the SF EXAMINER
May 20, 2009
Someone once told photographer Alice Shaw that she has the handwriting of a crazy person. When she asked a graphologist to analyze her written artist’s statement for “(Auto)Biography,” opening today at San Francisco’s Gallery 16, she got a more flattering take.
“The first thing she told me was that she was having a hard time finding anything negative about me,” Shaw says and jokes. “I found out I’m way more awesome than I even knew.”
Although Shaw often works in self-portraiture, the artist took self-examination to an unusual extreme for “(Auto)Biography.”
She consulted the handwriting expert and even a psychic before creating her pieces, using these outside perspectives to explore inner truth. The exhibition blends photography with painting, printmaking and illustration.
“I wanted to break out of the photographic mold and incorporate other forms of art into my repertoire,” she says.
“The parameters around the different mediums are not as defined as they used to be; at art schools the boundaries between departments are more blurred now. The show is a self-portrait of sorts, but for a starting-off point I hired people to tell me things about myself that maybe I didn’t know.”
Psychology and the exploration of identity are continual themes in Shaw’s work. Her photographs of other people often reveal as much about the artist as they do about her subjects.
“Lucy Lippard said that artwork that is the most interesting is that which is intertwined with another medium. I’d have to say mine is psychology,” she says, and explains that she was also influenced by the late longtime MoMA photo curator John Szarkowski’s theory that “a photograph can be either a mirror or a window. Some photographers take pictures of things they see reflected in themselves [mirror] and some investigate new territories with their cameras [window]. I thought about this and figured I was the mirror-leaning type.”
Shaw’s reflection on Szarkowski’s philosophy inspired her 2006 book “People Who Look Like Me,” a project for which Shaw posed with disparate people who — when Shaw manipulated the shot to her liking — do in fact appear to look like her. Shaw asked passersby to take the photos, after careful instruction.
“Some people have questioned my authorship, which was partly why I did it,” she says. “I knew my camera very well and would direct them. ... I pretty much knew what I was getting. Maybe more so than the person taking the picture.
“Photographers can be very manipulative,” she adds. “You have to watch out for them.”
- Virginia Pelley