Rupture of Plane:
Alan Shields + Mimbres Painted Pottery
Dedicated to my father George Everett Shaw for his 70th birthday.
Opening reception Sunday September 9, 2-6 pm
On view September 12 - October 7
Wednesday - Sunday, 2-8 pm
1300 Glendale Blvd. Los Angeles CA 90026
Rupture of Plane: Alan Shields + Mimbres Painted Pottery pairs works in handmade paper by Alan Shields with a group of prehistoric ceramics from the American Southwest, illuminating aesthetic and spiritual resonances that transcend history, culture, and geography. The exhibition title alludes to a phrase repeated throughout Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane to describe the experience of hierophany: when the sacred reveals itself to us. “Where the sacred manifests itself in space, the real unveils itself, the world comes into existence. But the irruption of the sacred does not only project a center into chaos; it also effects a break in plane, that is, it opens communication between the cosmic planes (between heaven and earth) and makes possible ontological passage from one mode of being to another.” Within this text, Eliade elucidates many worldwide similarities of cosmological and cosmographic beliefs that human beings developed in archaic times. This exhibition intends to reveal the hierophany as a continuously occurring phenomenon, accessible in the present moment, universally throughout all time. The geometric abstractions of Alan Shields and those created by the female potters of the prehistoric Southwest both constitute spiritual cartographies, whereby the art object opens a portal through which one may pass “from one mode of being to another.”
Sometime around 900 CE the inhabitants of the Mimbres River Valley in present-day New Mexico broke from the traditions of the Mogollon culture of their surrounding area, evolving a unique belief system which is reflected in the radically innovative painted ceramics they produced. For two-and-a-half centuries, the Mimbres people flourished as an independently governed and autonomous society engaged in trade routes that extended from Mesoamerica to Mesa Verde. By 1200 CE, they had disappeared, abandoning their homeland and dissolving into nearby cultures, most likely due to extreme drought and climate change. Caches of Mimbres pottery were rediscovered and excavated by amateur and professional archaeologists in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Today, Mimbres ceramics can be found in the collections of museums across the world.
Mimbres painted pottery is remarkable for its technical mastery and meticulous expression of mystical principles. Although the Mimbres people traded their other ceramic wares, painted pottery was reserved exclusively for local, ceremonial use. Applying a mixture of carbon and hematite with the fine point of a yucca blade, the Mimbres artists executed intricate and expressive images with exquisite precision on the interior of hemispheric vessels. A mysterious and complex geometric iconography was rendered in both naturalistic and highly-abstracted images, depicting mythical and cosmological notions related to emergence, death, rebirth, nature, fertility, orientation, migration, ancestral spirits, supernatural beings, and the cosmic center. For the Mimbres artists, the hemispheric vessel itself was representative of the barrier between the Underworld of the dead and Upperworld. Painted bowls were often used in funerary rites, placed inverted over the face or head of the deceased. These bowls were usually “killed” - intentionally punctured through the center creating a literal and symbolic rupture of plane, a gateway through which the spirit may pass “from one mode of being to another.”
In her landmark study of Mimbres painting Within the Underworld Sky, historian Barbara Moulard argues that the “kill hole” is representative of the sipa’pu, the hole in the Underworld sky described in Pueblo mythology. She affirms, “this hole is symbolic of the original aperture from which the ancestors emerged from the Underworld as well as a passageway for traveling between metaphysical worlds. Because of the similarities between the form of the Mimbres hemispheric vessel as it appears in its burial context and the description of the Pueblo mythological ‘dome of the Underworld sky’ and its sipa’pu, hole of emergence, it is plausible to suggest that the Mimbres form represented a barrier between two worlds and that the ‘kill hole’ is a means of exit for the spirit of the Mimbres dead. It is within this context of meaning that all other elements of the Mimbres ceramic art form should be viewed... The geometric composition should be placed in the context of the interior of a dome-shaped object which symbolizes the surface of the barrier that separates two metaphysical worlds… On the interior of the ceramic form, this spatial model becomes a symbolic cosmological map.”
Metaphysical realities are most effectively communicated through symbolic abstractions. In the visual arts, the metaphor of compositional center as cosmic Center has occurred throughout worldwide modes of geometric abstraction from prehistory to the present. In The Raggedy Circumnavigation Series (1985), American artist Alan Shields created a suite of works which express the possibility of transcendence through material experimentation and a visual language of complex center-oriented geometry. Throughout his career Shields forged a deep connection with his materials in a lifelong investigation of their expressive capabilities that was almost monastic in its rigor and dedication. Yet, there is a persistent joy to his work - the joy of seeing, the joy of being. It is the joy of being brought into the present moment by the excitement of the senses. Shields described this intention in a 1998 interview, saying “I do have a spiritual connection with these things like my materials… [My] art is not about politics. I think it has more to do with introspection than with politics. My work is going to be completely about my philosophy of visual stimulation and visual energy. It’s a visual energy that I’m trying to present. That doesn’t have a language barrier, a political barrier, or even a historical barrier. It could’ve happened anytime. One of the things I’ve wanted to do is do things that were timeless. The pieces could’ve been made anytime, and they still are about what they’re about.”
In the 1970s, Shields was celebrated for works which blurred the distinction between painting and sculpture. The influential Gridworks were constructed from lushly stained and painted strips of canvas woven and stitched together into large grids which were suspended freely in space, to be experienced in the round. This aspect of viewer-engagement is essential to Shields’ artwork, presenting the art object as a tool for bringing the beholder more deeply into the present moment through visual and spatial interaction. When experiencing a gridwork, the viewer is struck by how the work permeates life, integrating into the environment; she not only sees the object in space, she sees space through the object.
During this time Shields also began experimenting with printmaking and papermaking techniques, which proved to be an equally fertile and inventive branch of his practice. In 1971, he created Sun Moon Title Page, an experimental work in paper which defied the traditional expectations of a print edition. Sun Moon Title Page is double-sided, the recto and verso offering complimentary experiences, like the two sides of a record. Across the edition of 100, no two are the same: the ground layer is stained by hand, creating variance in pattern and saturation. Furthermore, the surface is interrupted by a series of slits, through which strips of printed paper were woven in chance configurations by his assistants. These openings give Sun Moon Title Page a dimensionality which transcends the usual print. Through the rest of the decade Shields would explore the dimensional possibilities of perforated surfaces, delving deeply into the material capabilities of handmade paper.
These experiments came to a crescendo in The Raggedy Circumnavigation Series. Undoubtedly the technical and aesthetic zenith of Shields’ printmaking practice, the series debuted at Paula Cooper Gallery in 1985 and was featured on the cover of Artforum in March of 1986. The series is comprised of seven circular compositions, each 47 inches in diameter and constructed from multiple layers of handmade paper “lattices.” To produce these, Shields invented a technique where weblike patterns of strings were attached to a large metal hoop and dipped into paper pulp, creating intricate perforated sheets as the pulp dried around the strings and fell away elsewhere. Elaborate patterns were then printed on these sheets with a profusion of techniques: from woodblock and screen printing to embossing and glitter application, no available method went unused. Finally, these prints were arranged, stacked and stitched together into reliefs 2 or 3 layers deep. The resulting effect is transfixing. Patterns and colors rhythmically flicker through the network of holes in each layer. In the exhibition catalog Alan Shields: Print Retrospective, curator Ronny Cohen describes The Raggedy Circumnavigation Series: “Distributed throughout the surfaces of these multiple layer relief prints, the grids are the forms that hold the compositions together in a state of high energy. Colors pulsate; planes rotate. The grids are also the forces that draw the audience into the enchanted space of the prints, where more of their emblematic aspects are revealed. Throughout this series Shields succeeds in striking a sentient balance between the material and spiritual sides of reality. Again, he is breaking down boundaries.“
The Raggedy Circumnavigation Series can truly be considered a form of “climax ware,” a term coined in JJ Brody’s text Mimbres Painted Pottery to describe artwork “on which a certain set of visual ideals and values is pushed to its ultimate limits.” In fact, there are a number of particular affinities between The Raggedy Circumnavigation Series and the images found in Mimbres pottery. In much the same way that the Mimbres painters utilized a sophisticated geometric iconography to describe a cosmological orientation, The Raggedy Circumnavigation Series constitutes a metaphysical roadmap, in which notions of migration, interdimensionality and interconnectedness are expressed by densely layered grids, webs, and concentric circles. The compositions of both Mimbres painting and The Raggedy Circumnavigation Series display a visceral quality of movement - images appear to morph, spin and pulsate. Additionally, both seem to simultaneously depict a microscopic and macroscopic scale, a hallmark characteristic of elevated abstraction. Unlike Mimbres pottery, which is executed almost exclusively in a monochrome palette representative of the colorless Underworld, The Raggedy Circumnavigation Series is unmistakably alive, blooming in vivid color. This is not to say that Mimbres pottery is morbid or somber, although their culture has often been described sensationally as a “death cult.” In actuality, less than 40% of Mimbres painted pottery was recovered from a mortuary context, and many painted vessels bear markings from utilitarian usage by the living. Barbara Moulard explains, “While the vessels functioned as food, water, or ceremonial containers in daily life, the imagery on the vessels would have been a constant reminder of the spiritual realm.” In this way both Mimbres pottery and Shields’ paper constructions demonstrate art’s potential as a spiritual technology, offering the viewer access to “sacred time,” which, according to Eliade, “appears under the paradoxical aspect of a circular time, reversible and recoverable, a sort of eternal mythical present.” Hence, the rupture of plane truly describes a psychological barrier that exists between the “eternal present” and the profane present. This exhibition contends that artwork remains one of the primary links between humanity and hierophany, dissolving boundaries and offering access to the sacred, even in a desacralised world.
Alan Shields (1944, Herington, KS – Shelter Island, NY, 2005) has been exhibited widely nationally and internationally and is included in the collections of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY; Tate Collection, London, UK; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY. Selected museum exhibitions include: "Experiments in Form: Sam Gilliam, Alan Shields, Frank Stella," Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL (2018); "Alan Shields: Protracted Simplicity (1966-1985)," Aspen Art Museum, Aspen, CO (2016); "Alan Shields: In Motion," Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, NY (2015); "Into the Maze," SITE Santa Fe, NM (2014); "Stirring Up the Waters," Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY (2007); "Alan Shields: A Survey," The Beach Museum of Art, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS (1999); "Alan Shields: Print Retrospective," Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, IL (1986); "1968 – 1983: The Work of Alan Shields," Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, TN (1983), traveled to Lowe Art Museum, Coral Gables, FL and Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO; and "Alan Shields: Paintings and Prints," Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA (1981).