November 15, 2007

Old New England and the Big Hint

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A mussel reef hangs above big, black block letters to the right on the wall just inside the doorway of the main gallery in Tjaden Hall. You could say the reef crowns the title of Ben Shattuck’s ’08 new art show, New England: Fantasy, Love, which will hold a reception tonight at 5:00 p.m.
“The mussel reef is an old New England tradition,” Shattuck said. “Taught to me by my mother.”
Shattuck grew up in New Bedford, Mass. — known as the “Whaling City” — on a New England farm. He calls his mother a birder — someone who watches, identifies and studies birds — and his father a landscape painter. This past summer, Shattuck spent time in the Isles of Shoals, Maine helping endangered bird species. There, he took many photographs, which helped inspire one group of paintings in his current exhibit: the section entitled “Birds.”
“That’s a Hooded Merganser,” he said, about a painting of something I would probably call a duck. “So, I called it ‘The Hooded Merganser.’”
The paintings hang in four sections, which are indicated by written text on the walls. Some are obvious, like “Birds” and “Landscape.” Others benefit from their titles, like “Haunted Houses.” And still others require their title, like “Lovey-Dovey” and “Salem and Things That Happened.”
One of Shattuck’s goals is to objectify each of his subjects. By centering his subjects and framing most of them in black, Shattuck is able to make “paintings of things,” which are connected not only visually, but also by their titles.
Shattuck works with oils on board and generally coats each board with black house paint to start. Many of the birds remain framed by the black paint, as do a series of images called, “Party Girls (Zombies).” The black serves to structure each image as a “thing” or an “object,” according to Shattuck.
He paints birds, dogs, houses and people as “things,” and so, constructs a sense of uniformity. But, the consistency is not confinement. The visual repetition, instead, facilitates connections between the works.
As with “The Hooded Merganser,” however, the stable, solid and empty background gives many of these works a sense of mystery — the viewer can imagine a context and setting for each “object.”
But often, Shattuck already has a narrative in mind.
Like one painting of a cat — “The Cat Sarah Osbourne Turned into Just for a Second, for which She Was Hung, Salem, 1690.”
And another, simply of a mansion — “Haunted House at Dawn: Ghost in Far Right Window Standing Over Little Gretchen as She Sleeps the Morning Off (Out Late Last Night with a Boy).”
And still, another, of a fox — “Fox Pausing in the Woods to Think What it’s Like to Be a Fox.”
Shattuck warns, however, “a lot of the show is really ironic. The message you might get from it, [really] might be playing trick on you.”
For example, the painting “The Robin” really is an image of a Redstart, said Shattuck. You have to be in the know.
“All of these paintings — it’s a big hint,” Shattuck said. “But I’m not actually saying it.”
Perhaps one hint is in the show’s largest image, “Five Men Fighting a 1200 lb Swordfish on The Grand Banks, Newfoundland: The Northern Hunt for New England’s Historic Megafauna.” Five men strike various poses, all holding spears. No boat is physically depicted, yet the viewer will know one is there. In this way, Shattuck constructs hyper-specific narratives for his works, and still leaves space — literal black/empty board — for imagination and creative exploration to be done by the viewer.
Another painting plays heavily with this discourse between title, image and viewer. Shattuck calls the painting “The Last Thing Ichabod Crane Ever Heard.” Dashed white brush strokes frame a horse’s hoof in the center of the board. The viewer reads the white paint as motion and impact and yet the title calls this moment a sound. Shattuck layers meaning in his work by pairing narrative action (“the last sound he heard”) with image, the painting.
“It imbues the fantasy,” Shattuck said. “It’s like telling someone this is a haunted house [points to a painting in the section of “Haunted Houses”] and then all of a sudden you feel scared.”
But while each title and individual work has a specified meaning, each piece in the show is not as important as the collective, he said.
“The best way I feel [to instill the fantasy] is to isolate all these objects,” he said.
To Shattuck, each subject becomes an object. He explained that “a cluttered room” with “many things [or objects] from many time periods” could represent New England. “It’s packaged, you know?”
Perhaps one of the elements Shattuck tries to package — even if unconsciously or unwillingly — is his self.
“If you really want to boil it down, there’s a sense of building identity,” he said. “I would rather not think of this as a show about me. But rather a show that speaks to an influence on me.”
Still, many works in the exhibit clearly mirror aspects of Shattuck’s life: his childhood in New England and his time spent birding in Maine, for example.
With 28 untitled landscapes hanging on one wall, Shattuck tries to “enact the role of a New England painter who goes out and paints landscapes,” he said. “[I] try to experience that.”
Clearly some aspects of the exhibit are more fantasy than reality. Still, through landscapes Shattuck enables himself to perform a romanticized identity — to live a mini fantasy.
In this way, Shattuck’s landscapes are also about process, the act of painting and living an imaginary identity. In fact, one could say the entire show is about process: processes of growth and identity and interaction between artist and viewer.
In the end, the exhibit really does evoke a sense of place, and, not to mention, person. Shattuck’s new paintings brag technical skill and teem with excitement and imagination. Where is this New England Shattuck paints? I want to go there.
“If you were to get a package of New England in the mail — if you were to order New England — you would get a little box of nostalgia, a little box of history, a little box of haunted houses,” he said. “And you can collect these things into something that feels like a sense of home. But how do you describe that?”