Shelby Shadwell’s Eery, Contemporary Approach to the Sublime

On the one hand, they are photorealistic representations of spaces and objects, rendered with extraordinary precision. On the other hand, they are so dense and dark in their accumulation of pigment that they appear almost monochromatic, and indeed often depict monochromatic surfaces, objects, and scenes. Comparable to artists such as Steven Parrino and Banks Violette, Shadwell is excited by both the illustrative flash of representation, and the critical power of pure abstraction.

Working on paper that can reach sizes of more than six and a half square feet, Shadwell carefully constructs a dense layer of charcoal, which he proceeds to erase and rebuild in a long process, developing the highlights and shadows in his chiaroscuro images. Drawings such as Low Pressure 4 (2010) make only the subtlest distinctions between light and dark tones, casting the picture with a somber, even ominous atmosphere. Others, such as Low Pressure 12 and Low Pressure 13 (both 2011), are rendered with very dark blacks and bright, sharp whites, used to depict the movement of truck lights at night.

More abstract works by Shadwell include drawings such as Untitled 12 and Untitled 15 (both 2011), which depict what seems to be crumpled black paper or plastic. The subject is merely a jumping-off point, however, for complicated formal examinations in grisaille, using the kind of abject, violated surfaces that Parrino and Violette have used to mark a particular boundary for abstraction. Shadwell complicates that critique by making an exacting replica of such rude forms, yielding an image that is simultaneously abstract and photorealistic.

Other works focus on objects that suggest decay and disorder, such as those in a series called “AUNIVERSAL PICTURE” (non-universal picture). Auniversal Picture 3 (2012) is more recognizable and morbid than those depicting trash bags and the like. Reminiscent of Damien Hirst’s fly-covered canvases or Dan Colen’s birdshit paintings, Shadwell’s drawing of a pile of dead insects is as spooky as it is beautiful—all glistening surfaces and gracefully curving arcs. In all of his work, Shadwell revels in the beautifully gothic. His contemporary account of the sublime—full of terror and awe—is disturbingly opulent, provocative, and lush.