Venice Biennale 2011: Vancouver Artist Steven Shearer Represents Canada

Steven Shearer, 1900 (2005)
When I sat down to sketch out travel plans for my trip abroad this summer, I knew that I wanted to find a way to Venice to take in the atmosphere and energy of the Venice Biennale. Opening today and running until the end of November (with the film component of the exhibition scheduled for the end of August to September 10th—this is part of the time I plan to be there), the international event promises to be as grand as its 116 year old history, with representation of Canada coming from local Vancouver artist, Steven Shearer.

Shearer, a graduate of Emily Carr, has exhibited his work internationally at the Tate Modern in London, The New Museum and the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York, and the Galerie Eva Presenhuber in Zurich. In Canada, he has shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver. His work, which includes a broad range of media, has been described as engaged with themes of dissent, youth alienation, and the relationship between “outsider” human subjects and the world they inhabit. The decision to select Shearer to represent Canada in Venice was announced last summer to the delight of many who have followed his early career. His solo exhibition “Steven Shearer: Exhume to Consume”, is set to include a selection of Shearer’s paintings, drawings, and sculptures and will be curated by Josée Drouin-Brisebois, head of the Contemporary Art collection at the National Gallery in Canada. The exhibition will also feature new works by the artist including a nine-metre-high free-standing mural created in response to the architecture of the adjacent British and German Pavilions. As e-flux reports, “The mural is part of an alternate entrance to the Pavilion via a tool shed-like structure, one of Shearer's signature motifs. This monumental facade features a new poem written by the artist, drawing from the vocabulary of Black and Death metal music, which conjures the sublime, nihilistic power of language, and seeks to provoke a visceral response in viewers.” 

Steven Shearer, Poems XII (2005)
Several years ago Deborah Campbell wrote a great piece for Canadian Art titled, “Steven Shearer: Bastard Offspring of the Photoconceptualists” in which she explored the unique approach of the multi media artist (Shearer uses photographs, makes installations, as well as collages, paints, and draws) whose location in Vancouver is still loosely connected to similar themes of social alienation and realist subject matter of other major figures of the local art scene such as Jeff Wall, Ken Lum, Stan Douglas etc. In the essay, Campbell sums up the appeal of Shearer’s art works in connection to their readily accessible themes of transgression, youth angst, and recognizeable images of “outsider” culture marketed to kids both today and in the past: “Like Bruegel or Dou, Shearer takes as his subjects examples of a social type typically ignored by a society that finds their very existence discomfiting. His subjects will never visit an art gallery, if indeed they know that such a place exists. Shearer's message isn't really any message at all, but rather an anthropological study of what he knows first-hand, from growing up in the burbs of Port Coquitlam in the 1970s and 80s, playing guitar and listening to heavy metal and covering his walls with the images he now explores with a combination of empathy and analytical distance.” 

Steven Shearer, Portrait of the Artist as a Lost Teen Idol (2006)
In this context, his deeply personal work might seem an unusual choice to represent Canada at one of the world’s largest and most prestigious contemporary art exhibitions, but I think that the decision also reflects an understanding of how Shearer’s fascination with mass media, especially in its increasingly fragmented, niched, and decontextualized forms, signals a shifting tide in the way today’s visual artists are making sense of the contemporary and technologically mediated world they inhabit. I look forward to blogging about the Venice Biennale in late August and sharing how Canada’s contribution to the exhibition has been met by the international art press. I do not think they (nor I) will be disappointed.

National Galley of Canada curator Josée Drouin-Brisebois discusses Shearer's upcoming appearance at the Venice Biennale: