In Steven Shearer’s bright, white Vancouver studio, a small photograph is pinned to the wall near the artist’s computer, serving, perhaps, as both companion and inspiration. Taken from an Internet porn site, the photo depicts a man and woman—their bodies shiny, toned and tanned—entwined in a peculiar embrace. The female model lies on her back, her feet toward us, while the man lies astride her, his face lifted to the camera. She sucks his toes; he sucks her white high-heeled shoe. It’s confusing. This is not Shakespeare’s beast with two backs, but rather a serpentine male-female fever dream, a 12-foot-long, two-headed hermaphrodite caught in the moment of self-germination.
Sitting at the computer next to Shearer, I watch as he takes me deeper and deeper into one of his paintings with a click of his mouse. The painting on the screen is The Fauves (2008–9), the key work in his exhibition at the Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this summer. It features, at centre stage, a dandyish, elfin male with flowing red hair and striped trousers, holding a crimson painter’s palette in his hand. Beside him, a rugged biker longhair turns away, also holding a painter’s palette (his is blue), his jacket emblazoned with the image of a pink pin-up girl. Overhead, a filmy female naiad hovers in the air (is she real, an architectural embellishment, or a mere figment of the imagination?), another rare female presence in the world of Shearer’s art.
Shearer, who is a tall, blond-haired, green-eyed man of 43, shows me the soft brushstrokes in and around the eyes of the central male figure, and the confetti-like fall of brushstrokes that swirls in the background—the kind of mystical pointillist effusions of pigment that one might expect to find in the work of Odilon Redon, Gustav Klimt or Gino Severini.
There is irony, of course, in the fact that we are experiencing this painting through the surface of the computer screen, from whence it originated. Shearer’s source for the central figure was an Internet image of the drummer Frost, from the Norwegian black-metal band Satyricon. Having begun his career lifting imagery from print and digital media, Shearer is, by his own avowal, inventing more and more these days, moving from photo-appropriation (such as his early digital compilations of images from the Internet: people sleeping, guys hanging out, smokers, inventories of Black Sabbath paraphernalia) to photo-based painting (such as his moody redheads from the 1990s, many of them reprises of a found Internet portrait of Larry LaLonde, from the band Possessed) to the increasingly hallucinatory realm of pure painterly imagination that is less and less tethered to the real. The colours, too, are becoming more synthetic and strident, the brushstrokes more wild, the mises en scène more dreamlike. But the content—the male figure—remains the same.
Observers of Shearer’s art have tended to note three things. First: his ability to work across a variety of media—painting, photography, sculpture, concrete poetry—all the while avoiding a signature style. Second: his interest in both subversive and pop teen culture. Finally: his predilection for working with borrowed images, with sources ranging from the Internet to the deep archive of art history.
These lines of inquiry, though, have tended to obscure the signal thrust of his art from its earliest inception: the questioning of male identity in its more flamboyant variants, and the emergence of the female within the male. Shearer’s display at the Canada Pavilion is entirely devoted to paintings and drawings that negotiate this gender threshold: depictions of shaggy rock-and-roll über-dudes at one extreme, and, at the other, long-haired, slender male sirens, their tender shoulders, auburn tresses and luminous doe eyes expressing a signature sensitivity and effeminacy.
Shearer is also showing a series of small and finely detailed red-pencil drawings from 2004 and later, portraits that derive from an archive of more than 700 images he found on the Internet—some from sites devoted to gay and bisexual longhairs looking for connection, some from music fan sites and some from the site of an online figure Shearer calls “Birdy,” a mysterious character who models hairstyles in cyberspace. Executed in the manner of the European masters, the drawings definitively refute Shearer’s early mis-categorization, in some quarters, as a cyber-slacker. Like the later small-scale drawings he produced in the teen-doodling medium of ballpoint pen, they call into being a host of urban peasantry worthy of Brueghel or Dürer, revealing both a sensitivity of observation and an investment in time and traditional artistic craft that are remarkable and unexpected in contemporary art.
Scanning his history, it’s clear that Shearer has been worrying at the problem of masculinity right from the start. Some of his art-school projects at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design featured male bodybuilders. One work, painted in the steroidally enhanced pictorial mode of a phone-sex ad, bore the inscription “Let’s investigate stigmas and stereotypes around figurative representation together.” (The image was taken from a girlfriend’s male-porn magazine.) Another work appropriated Diego Velazquez’s portrait of Mars, an image of hypermasculinity in peaceable, presumably post-coital detumescence. “I went to art school at a time when the depiction of women in art had become such a tired tradition,” Shearer says. “All the discussion was about the male gaze.” But the feminist-inspired art generated in resistance to that had, by the 1990s, become nearly as canonical and restrictive. The male body offered him a more open field, he says—although the gay students at the college criticized him for trespassing on their homoerotic turf. “But I liked the idea of my own body coming into play, and I had no other models to work from,” he says. “Also, I was interested in how constructed the identities of these men were.” A chance discovery of a stack of used 1970s teen heartthrob magazines in a junk shop—shortly after Shearer’s 1993 art-school graduation—sealed the deal. He had found his muse.
Shearer entered the art world with photo silk screens of these teen stars—in particular, Leif Garrett and Shaun Cassidy, effeminate pop idols whose facial features and slender bodies verged on androgyny. But Shearer’s art would also soon express his fascination with the gender-bending pageantry of heavy-metal culture and performers like Ozzy Osbourne, who broadcast their social defiance through displays of raw noise-making, long hair, flamboyant costumes and gender masquerade. In Shearer’s art, the phenomenon of creativity was fused with the motif of gender transcendence.
Speaking of his own internal sources of creativity, Shearer acknowledges the importance of this ambiguity. “There is a sensitivity that it takes to get to that point of making the picture,” he says, “the sensitivity to other bodies and to your own. It’s a kind of fluid, undefined thing, and it involves not having reason define everything. This is the ideal subject,” he says of his androgens. “It’s something I feel in touch with when I’m painting.”
This ambiguously gendered subject may have particular resonance for Shearer for personal reasons. His mother, Patricia Carter, was an artist, as was her brother, Jack Carter, a transgendered art school–trained painter who was fascinated by screen idols like Mae West. Shearer describes his uncle as creative and temperamental. “He had long, blond hair,” Shearer remembers, “and satin cowboy shirts, and he wore face powder. It didn’t seem artificial or anything. It just seemed like who he was.” Two years ago, Shearer organized a small exhibition titled “Uncle Jack, Mom & Steve” for a gallery in Vancouver called The Apartment, signalling the significance to him of these familial artistic mentors.
Over the years, Shearer’s fascination with gender blending has continued to deepen and develop, and his work, in turn, has become a contemporary manifestation of a theme as old as art itself. In the Western tradition, the hermaphrodite has long served as a symbol of transcendent beauty and infinite procreative capacity. We find it in Book IV of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in the fictive narrator of Antonio Beccadelli’s collection of often lewd erotic verses (penned for the pleasure of Cosimo de’ Medici), in Algernon Charles Swinburne’s swooning 1863 poetic evocation “Hermaphroditus” and in Jeffrey Eugenides’s 2002 novel Middlesex.
The Greek God Hermaphroditus—a woman with male genitalia who was the idealized offspring of Hermes and Aphrodite—was often depicted in Greek and Roman statuary, most famously in the Hermaphrodite of Rome’s Villa Borghese, a Roman copy of a Greek original. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the figure haunts the fantasies of the French symbolist and the British Pre-Raphaelite painters, turning up in the modern era in Marcel Duchamp’s sphinx-like Rrose Sélavy and, more recently still, in Matthew Barney’s sumptuous phallic celebrations.
In conversation, Shearer reveals a deep consideration of this tradition, directing me to Leonardo da Vinci’s strangely lurid painting of St. John the Baptist (1513–16), and to the effeminate artist figures that populate the faux-medieval scenarios of the French symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, who professed a passion for Leonardo and often copied his works. When you dig, you find this fascination goes deep.
Shearer’s installation at the Canada Pavilion can itself be read as a spatial exploration of gender. On the exterior, it’s all male headbanging. One of his white-on-black concrete poems—a series of upper-case incantatory phrases drawn from black- and death-metal song titles and from the artist’s own imagination—is inscribed on a massive false front: “TRIUMPHANT SECRETIONS/SCULPTED IN FOUL MIST…” it screams. “FUCKED AND QUARTERED/ERECTION OF POSSESSED FLESH…CADAVERIC CORNHOLINATION/FLUORESCENT DISCHARGE OF/SLOPPY VIVISECONDS.” Apocalyptic, dark and raunchy as hell, Shearer’s seething utterance brings to mind not only rock and roll, but also the poetic ravings of Baudelaire, the scatological excesses of teen gross-out contests, Allen Ginsberg’s ecstatic declamations, and the daily horror show of the evening news. (Shearer’s home town of Port Coquitlam has recently become notorious as the site of Robert Pickton’s pig farm, where numerous female sex workers and drug users were slaughtered between 1983 and 2002.)
Inside the Pavilion, however, you enter a pristine modernist picture gallery installed with a selection of Shearer’s paintings and drawings from the past seven years—a space as demure as the exterior is defiant. Here, the long-haired redheads gather, their eyes shyly dropped, their silky hair cascading over their shoulders.
Increasingly in Shearer’s art, these two modalities of maleness are being imagined together. Night Train (2009–10) depicts a blue-faced, long-haired man in profile, his expression meditative as he takes a drag on his cigarette. Based on an Internet image of Quorthon from the black-metal band Bathory, it is the newest of Shearer’s paintings of smoking men, and is the artist’s fourth iteration of this specific figure. Here, the smoker sits in a railway carriage, overseen, from behind, by a luminous pink nimbus of owls—symbols of dreams, clairvoyance and magic. At the man’s side, a small boy—who could be drawn from the realm of Pablo Picasso’s harlequins—turns his wide-eyed gaze to face us. The rocker rebel longhair and the sweet-faced youth find harmonious balance at last.
As in all of Shearer’s longhair paintings, one senses vividly the artist’s touch, as he moves the paint in long, undulating strokes. The beautifully painted area of the smoker’s wrist and arm is particularly alive, offering a very old-fashioned kind of aesthetic pleasure. These paintings may have arisen from the depersonalized realm of the Internet, but by adopting these images, making them his own and glazing them with the artistic tradition of the centuries, Shearer has re-humanized them, rescuing them, in a sense, from the anonymity of the lonely digital void.
In this, they are emblematic of their historical moment. It is often said that the Internet offers us voyeuristic intimacy without connection. Shearer’s paintings may represent a kind of resistance to that, even as they celebrate the bounty of the endless archive. Shearer’s paintings are more and more about touch. “I think they show a connection with people that you don’t always have in life,” he says, philosophically. “It’s nice to have a caring relationship with the making of something.”