Ward Shelley makes paintings with information the way historians make stories from facts. His new exhibition at Pierogi’s Lower East Side location is titled “The Felicific Calculus” and presents eight new paintings that tease out narratives on the subject of consumer culture. The paintings are presented within the context of “The Last Library.” This installation*, an ongoing collaboration with Douglas Paulson, is a collection of 3,500 books that should have been written, but have not.
Shelley’s research, pursued over the past four years, has led him to believe that “among the most optimistic thinkers of the 19th century there grew the confident notion that scientific and technological progress was bringing utopia within our reach. They reasoned that there must be a scientific way to guide our decision making so as to yield the greatest good for the greatest number. In a foreshadowing of the assured convictions surrounding data crunching in our current information age, Jeremy Bentham and the utilitarian philosophers formulated an algorithm for calculating the degree or amount of pleasure that a specific action is likely to cause. It was called the felicific calculus, or ‘greatest-happiness principle.’ It asserted that we could all be happy if we make the right decisions. Many others took up the problem of creating a happy future for all. Their approaches were various, from the Communist Manifesto to the American Dream.”
Particularly in America, it was thought that happiness was really freedom from want, and this could be achieved if everyone had enough stuff. Business and industry rose to the challenge by developing mass production, mass media, and scientific marketing. Everyone would benefit. It was just a matter of finding the right calculus. The ultimate product was the endless appetite of the American consumer, who was not only the producer, but also the market for everything that was supplied. It was our appetite that made us strong, a powerful cycle of growth. And choices – so many products to choose from – allowed the free expression of our individuality. Or so it seemed…
The timeline paintings included in this exhibition – with titles such as: “Work Spend Forget: The care and feeding of the consumer becomes a science,” “My Car Completes Me: The automobile century,” “Media Technology: Reality as we have come to know it,” “Free Speech: Vox populi on your bumper,” and “Extinction Scenarios (Tumbleweed): A map of how we can do ourselves in” – examine the development and current state of our advanced consumer culture.
This will be Shelley’s seventh one-person exhibition at Pierogi and The Boiler. His performance, installation, and timeline works have been shown widely in Europe and the US. His work was recently included in “Endless House: Intersections of Art and Architecture,” at The Museum of Modern Art, NY, NY. His most recent exhibition at The Boiler – “In Orbit” – received wide critical praise. He is the recipient of numerous prizes and residency fellowships including the Rome Prize and a Joan Mitchell Foundation Award, among others. His works are included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art (NY, NY), Whitney Museum of American Art (NY, NY), Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (Vienna, Austria), and the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum (Brooklyn, NY).
*The Last Library was developed with the generous support of Spaces in Cleveland.