The Canadian Art Database

Arni Runar Haraldsson

Reid Shier
Western Front Gallery, Vancouver

C Magazine #27, Fall 1990
[ 1,112 words ]

I grew up in Calgary in a house in the southwest part of the city. My parents still live there. Behind the house is an alleyway which divides 'my' neighbourhood, from an adjoining neighbourhood. It runs east-west, beginning at Elbow Drive and ending in a cul-de-sac at the top of a hill. Our house is nearer to Elbow Drive than to the hill and I remember as a child being overwhelmingly curious about what lay over the crest of that hill. I imagined it must be the land of the Jolly Green Giant.

One summer afternoon my cousin and I decided to find out.

With these words, Reid Shier begins a brief autobiographical account of his initial infatuation with nature as a site of magic and fantasy; an outlook later abandoned following his transition from childhood to adulthood. The subsequent instrumentalization of nature performs its transformation from wonderland to hideout; a place offering escape from repressive conventions and the 'built-in' surveillance structure (both physical and mental) representative of the suburban grid. Thus, for
Shier and fellow 'outsiders', nature became an ideal place from which to laugh at the world, a place of delinquent behaviour, illicit drinking and sexual experimentation.

Incorporating personal history and memory as the subject matter of his most recent art, Shier has narrated his own artistic evolution, progressing from youthful rebellion and alienation to the transcendence of such negativity; a transcendence made possible only in conjunction with Shier's gradual maturation and self-realization as artist. No doubt, the notion of tracing the trajectory of the self is quite familiar to the artistic sensibility of modernity and is perhaps best exemplified by Joyce's fictional self, Stephen Dedalus and his voluntary exile from the provincialism of his native Dublin to the philosophical atmosphere of Parisian life in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. At first, Shier's titling this exhibition Vancouver seems curious since it concerns Calgary, but it would appear that the title is intended to recall the artist's own migration (exile) from Calgary to Vancouver. Yet, the title also suggests that Shier's Calgary is a construct, conceived of from the distance of another time and place: Vancouver. In this sense, the title alludes to a preoccupation with memory:

I go back to Calgary once or twice a year to visit my family. The first few times I was in the city as a visitor I would inevitably walk up the alleyway and wander around these escarpments reminiscing and sentimentalizing over my youth.

As the years passed I became less inclined to do this and last lime I was up there I wasn't surprised to find myself with very little feeling left for that place. Not that I don't remember what went on, just that you can relive certain experiences only so much.

The novel has traditionally provided the best means for allowing the unfolding of the inner dynamics and complexities of a fictional protagonist or an autobiographical self. In this exhibition Sheir's text is restricted to one letter-size page framed on the wall. Given the limitations of his visual media (landscape painting and photographic portraiture) Shier attempts to locate the idea of nature as a thematic framework that encapsulates what is otherwise a complex sequence of events: the formation of identity. Rather than telling a story, a gesture is made to signal the difficulty, if not impossibility, of a claim to truth. In this manner, Shier announces his suspicion of the very idea of 're-presentation', of the ability to 'tell it like it was.' This refrain, this doubt appears as an indirect commentary on the inner workings of memory, suggesting that something of the historical moment inevitably escapes recollection, since memory selects and censors of its own accord certain moments from lived life.

But more pertinent than this duality of selves is a duality between self and nature, whereby both function as a single force, separate yet unified: an actual physical site of combined beauty and sublimity (the 'poplar and fir trees [that] lay over the crest of that hill'); an almost uncontrollable movement from within, dictating the desires of the body ('later... I would have my first... sexual encounter among these trees'). A duality of forces recapitulated by Shier's division of the exhibition into two halves which play off one another: a dozen or so colour photo snaps of the artist (presumably school portraits), progressing in sequence from tot to teen, face three landscape paintings on an opposing wall.

These school portraits, although seemingly innocent, harbour something frightening; their generic quality recalls images of abducted children often encountered in supermarkets and various government offices. While, as familiar middle-class documents, these portraits are also fascinating as the recording of the gradual emergence of a face and 'look' recognizable as belonging to the person of Reid Shier. And yet this kind of portraiture has, in fact, little to do with the person it depicts. Due to its prevalence and familiarity, it is capable of reducing the person to a 'type'. Individuality is eradicated and replaced by the generic — genericness which says to the spectator: 'This is a portrait of you, too.'

The paintings, on the other hand, reveal an interest in more traditional approaches. Executed with confidence and rapidity are three views onto the wooded escarpments around the Glenmore Dam — the site 'on the other side of the hill.' These are essentially landscape paintings, populated with an assortment of trees amidst the odd glimpse of the man-made dam. But something else soon seeps through the appearance of what one might initially take to be an objective vision: there is an absence of colour. This absence places the paintings within the realm of the photographic. Yet it remains unclear if the removal of colour is intended to engage a dialogue with photography or whether the paintings are, for the sake of convenience, based on black and white photographs rather than the actual site itself.

Compared to the paintings, the portraits exist as the product of technology, as mere surface hype, 'capturing' only the outer appearance of their subject. The paintings, by contrast, appear as an attempt to delve beneath the surface of things to communicate the essence of a metaphysical experience which might otherwise elude the objectifying world. If Shier's metaphysic seems ultimately dependent on ambiguity for its meaning, it is perhaps in an effort to recognize that, for most, the process of maturity leads to a 'voluntary exile,' if only from a romantic idealism as we come to question and reflect on what was really there to begin with.

C Magazine #27, Fall 1990

Text: © Arni Runar Haraldsson. All rights reserved.

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
The Canadian Art Database: Canadian Writers Files

Copyright ©1997, 2020. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.