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by Marlena Donohue

Peter Shelton's new images
have not yet been photographed.
Watch for them.
(L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice) Peter Shelton presents the latest installment of his now familiar tubular, organic sculpture fabricated from translucent fiberglas. His forms are rich in associations, these segmented, pod-like pneumatic objects ooze, grow, facet, seem to multiply on their own.

The work here is predominantly verticle, thus the anthropomorphic readings are particularly strong. Elongated appendages ambiguously suggest legs and tentacles. That is both the appeal and the strategy. We are asked to experience from the outside forms that seem like they belong inside. Shapes and objects that we associate with diminuitive scale compete with our own scale; shapes and objects that shouldn’t register locomotion have an energy and presence that propels them into our physical and psychic space.

Besides the amorphous tubes and lumps that look like they could be housed in or attached to our body, Shelton has over the years cast in bronze actual body parts like bones and a brain. Such weird fragments have been included in multi-piece installations, or bathed in liquid via fountain designs such as thingsgetwet (made for the Hood Museum at Dartmouth, but never installed). He has also toyed with what I would term ‘body holders’--chairs, dwellings, beds--functional forms and referents through which our body measures and knows itself.

Since Shelton’s early conceptual work he has perversely insisting of figurative/body allusion in these indirect and complex ways. Headroom Footspace [1980] was a wood, steel and cement house suspended to hover just above the ground. It was a dwelling, an enclosure, that did not enclose, a space you could not enter, and the only entrance situated viewers in an outside space placed below the floor of the floating house. Fastforward to 1993’s churchsnakebedbone, featuring a cast bed suspended in mid-air, a cast snake and bone on top, a perfect replica of a Gothic church sprouting upsidedown from the bed’s underside, and water dripping from its inverted spires into cast buckets. Gravity was defied, kinesthetic cues were displaced, negative and positive space were inverted. These confounded expectations recur abundantly into the present work, only with greater subtlty.

Shelton’s aesthetic is in part a reaction against the post-modern academy that is steeped in anti-figurative rhetoric. But he cleverly acknowledges the key tenet that art should go beyond description and into experience. There is no story here about the body, no overtly evocative poetry about our mortal coil. Instead this work forces us into experiencing our body in non-normative ways Explains Shelton:
“I was in art school at a time when figurative art was really suspect. I have always balked at any authority, so when the prevailing academy told me we were not making figurative art anymore, I moved toward the body anyway. To me it is basic to experience, to our experience of ourselves, our world and art. But that atmosphere made me just cautious enough of too literal references to the body in art.”

If the body is Shelton’s predominant theme, is is not as subject matter but as activity. This distinguishes Shelton significantly from more expressionist and lyrical abstract sculptors such as Martin Puryear or Eva Hesse. It is this strategy that places Shelton firmly in the conceptual camp that he chafes against:
“If the reference to the body is too literal, you have a very hard time conveying anything beyond good technique. You can’t control metaphor in art. People come with their associations, that is part of what art does, but I want the associations to come through direct exprience, not obvious storytelling.”

Shelton has been accused of sneaking personality back into art at a time when conceptual impersonality is au courant. His suggestions of containers, of organs, of the body as an energized, fragmented and valenced container finally succeed in getting past the percpetual, kinesthetic and cognitive associations. An engagement with notions of self, intimacy, safety, personal space vs. public space takes place in the most real-time experiential manner. As the artist puts it, “What makes sculpture strong is that it deals in the most physical way with the least physical of things. . .ideas.”