With his work represented widely in major public, corporate and private collections, it is testament both to the consistent power of Ron Shuebrook’s art, and the acuity of Angela Brayham’s curation, that this selection of work across 52 years, illuminates with so many key examples, both the trajectory of his creative development and the underlying elements that inhabit his work from the beginning.
A nationally and internationally exhibited Canadian artist, (born in the USA), Shuebrook has rooted his practice in a committed and serious exploration of abstract and non-objective art issues. However, to say that his formal means are largely non-representational, is not to say that his work is disengaged from the world. On the contrary, his art practice embodies a visceral connection to ideas of humanity, to expressions of human life and experience, whilst deriving inspiration from the ambition of early and mid-century modernisms.
Dark Spring is a key painting in the exhibition, and one which brings these elements together in a compelling tour de force. Large in scale, it is at once a multi- layered exploration across modernist tropes, a psychic landscape, and a dynamic abstract painting which foregrounds drawing. Yet it is also a work that addresses politics and tragedy: it is a modern history painting.
As a genre, history painting was of major significance in the 19th century, but was largely eschewed by 20th century modernisms. Yet magisterial works such as Picasso’s Guernica, or Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, showed that the languages of modernism could address momentous events with unrivalled emotional and instrumental power. For Ron Shuebrook, the catalyst for Dark Spring was the fatal shooting of four students at Kent State University in May, 1970. Aside from its historical significance, this massacre was of personal relevance to the artist: four months after the massacre he became a MFA major at Kent State and had direct experience of its aftermath.
Dark Spring, however, was created in 2008, and so is a retrospective work, completed when the historical significance of the event revealed a wider perspective, and when Shuebrook’s mature abstract language was in full flower. Four crosses, inset with a sense of horizon, signify the four lives lost, and suggest youthful possibilities brutally curtailed. The crosses float in fields of grey, articulated by Shuebrook’s serpentine and swirling line. Around the frontal picture-plane immediacy of the central greys, rectilinear insets infused with curved line, suggest windows onto other realities, to a world outside the tragedy.
Thus, humanistic content in his work is not depicted, but rather it is expressed through a highly sophisticated and expressive use of the languages of painting and, indeed, drawing. Language in this context is never static: in serious work it is subject to endless relativities, developments and configurations, in service to the continued creative vitality and development of art.
Shuebrook’s compelling array of motifs, compositional and formal concerns, shape-shift and transmute both within individual works and across the whole body of his work. His fondness for curved or serpentine line for example, often references the monkeyrope in Melville’s Moby Dick, whilst the more orthogonal shapes and lines are frequently architectural in inspiration: however, expressed in multiple permutations across his drawings and paintings, his formal method takes on a myriad of contextual meaning and perspectives.
In works such as Emma Lake Monkeyrope and Ishmael’s Lament, both in the exhibition, Shuebrook deconstructs and juxtaposes motifs and formal elements not only compositionally but also in terms of realization – hard edged geometries combine with fluent hand drawn line, and the gestural is invested with a sense of performance that acts in counterpoint to the cooler rationale of the composition. Each work pulsates with a balance achieved by different elements held in tension. In shape and line, serpentine and architectonic drawing are offset to poetic effect.
Shuebrook has maintained a significant drawing practice throughout his career. However, the role of drawing in his broad creative practice goes well beyond his body of work that may be called “drawings on paper”. It is central and key in his practice. Drawing underpins his painting and plays a dominant role over that of colour. Often, for example, a single colour such as yellow, plays a purely tonal role as a foil to his use of black.
If Painting in renaissance Venice could be said to emphasize colour over drawing, and in Florence to emphasize drawing over colour, then we can say that Shuebrook is, by sensibility, a Florentine.
There is indeed a sense of the renaissance man in Ron Shuebrook’s career. At once a distinguished artist, educator and writer on art, he has influenced several generations of Canadian artists. Whilst his art is rooted in the sense of formal and material exploration and discovery that characterized early and mid century modernisms, it is honed by observed reality, by his understanding of art historical precedent and discourse, and by his humanist sensibility. In a career that spans over 50 years, Shuebrook’s work is imbued with a seriousness of approach that eschews the easy ironies and appropriations of postmodernism, and demonstrates the ongoing vitality of modernism as an authentic site of artistic possibility for our times.
Ron Shuebrook: Selected Works 1965 -2017 at Gallery Stratford. September 30 to November 26,
Geoffrey Nawn 2017
Installation Views, Gallery Stratford.