New Yorker Joel Shapiro’s first show at Pace London comprises seven vibrantly painted angular wood sculptures and some recent gouaches on paper. Placed directly on the floor or suspended by cords from the walls and ceiling, the sculptures’ severe angles are offset by their bright colouring, which lends a playful feel. Shapiro works like a geometrist run wild, crafting gaze-resistant warped prisms that cannot be fully perceived from any single angle. They reveal their secrets only by forcing the viewer to move around their irregular faces and overlapping vertices.
Careful observation is rewarded. The light conditions (from overhead or streaming through the gallery’s long window) affect the viewer’s already partial perspective by covering the surfaces in uneven shadows. This alters them such that the paint looks matte or patchy depending on the time of day or angle of vision, deepening the declivities in Really Blue (after all) and elongating the curves on Flush (both 2016).
It would be a mistake, however, to treat them as ‘picture puzzles’ to be reconstructed in your mind’s eye. They have no ‘original’ regular form, as if they were distortions of mathematical constructions that need to be corrected after the fact. This is also true of the gouaches, which originate as pairs made by blotting compositions on clean paper. This creates a mirror image that Shapiro then complicates by adding new colours or changing the orientation of the paper. The sculptures’ mangled geometries and the shifting conditions of visibility make them what they are, so you can never recover your first glance like a photograph or unsee the inconsistencies.
Shapiro counters the sculptures’ illusionism by foregrounding their material fabrication. Three-millimetre plywood is used to make hollow forms, which makes it possible to hang Yellow Then, Orange, and Flush (all 2016) from the ceiling. From a distance, these look like solid constructions; up close, they seem to melt into air, appearing almost weightless. They resemble constructivist architecture models reimagined as maniacal interior design: a twisted dinner table in OK Green (2016) or an elevated chair in Untitled (2017). Mundane objects become monuments, only to be undermined by the visibility of the screws and glue that holding them together, while scuff-marks, fingerprints and a painted-over trade sticker reveal processes of construction and transportation.
Really Blue (after all) and Yellow May (2016) are the most complex and peculiar objects in the exhibition, making the deformed cuboids of the other pieces look comparatively straightforward. Really Blue (after all) resembles a thick, contorted rocking horse whose body parts have been haphazardly jammed together. A cuboid head sits on a gradually narrowing triangular prism neck and its awkward, two-part polygon body tilts into the air. Depending on your angle, Yellow May could be a fluorescent iceberg with one threatening triangular peak, a sorrowful cardboard box bending in the wind or, when the shadow falls on its overhanging surface, a deceptively solid pyramid. They stand at a diagonal from each other, either side of a dividing wall that partitions the space, the awkward innocence of the former intensifying the danger suggested by the latter.
Shapiro realizes his interest in anthropomorphic and architectonic form through a set of contradictions: he subverts the grandeur of monumental sculpture by minimizing its scale, exchanging solidity with rickety hardware store materials and tempering its formal austerity with bright colours. Though there is an element of public sculpture in Shapiro’s work – Verge (2003–08), a commission for the nearby 23 Savile Row, comprises four bronze cuboids that seem to hover above the street – for the most part its energies are turned inwards, creating private experiences, seemingly untroubled by the political ambitions that often breathe life into such projects.
Main image: Joel Shapiro, 2017, installation view, PACE, London. Courtesy: Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, and PACE, London; photograph: Brian Griffiths