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Thoughts on Anne Kesler Shields: 50-Year Retrospective

January 10, 2013

The Anne Kesler Shields exhibition is particularly meaningful to me because I attend her alma mater: the great Hollins University, from which she graduated in 1954.  If one were to visit Hollins and peruse the halls of the Richard Wetherill Visual Art Center (the home of our studio art majors) one can see that social and political themes are highly prevalent in many students’ works.  It is a part of the Hollins tradition, and we are indebted to Anne Kesler Shields and other Hollins alumnae in the art world for questioning societal roles and politics and passing this custom along.  This exhibition ends Sunday, January 13th, so if you haven’t gone to this illuminating retrospective, you still have a few days left to see it! Believe me, it’s worth it.

The exhibition encompasses and celebrates Shield’s wide range of style, media and subject matter.  Though the variety in her work is expansive, there is an apparent interest in color and utilizing color to create strong, bold statements which develop and change with her practice.

Some of her earlier pieces that received national acclaim were bright geometric paintings that focused on exploring tension and opposition between principles of shape and color to create a cohesive image.  For example, the painting Blue Quartet is a dialogue between these two elements and how the opposing nature of each element can create striking harmony.  Shields uses complementary colors—blue and red—to create a near psychedelic tension. The blue and red make each other more vibrant, drawing the eye towards both and leaving the viewer without a focal point.  She similarly discards an apparent focal point through her use of shape.  Shields employs a diamond shaped canvas to create a tension with the blue dots that form organic shapes.  Therefore, both color and geometry are working together to create a tension that makes this piece entrancing.

Earlier in her career, Shields’ pieces were centered on such color and geometric forms, but as she grew artistically she began to use color to subtly reinforce her social and political statements.  Towards the end of her career, Shields was working almost exclusively with found imagery (images from art history and modern media) to juxtapose them and create a dialogue that reveals pertinent themes in art history. These themes are still widely prevalent in contemporary life, particularly themes of violence and perceptions of women.  This condition is exemplified in her collage, Bougereau Revisited, which overlays an academic painting with a contemporary, media-driven image.  The photocopies in the collage highlight each other and remind us that though much time has gone by between the creation of the photograph and painting, at their elemental level the depictions of women are virtually the same.  It is a reminder that problematic viewpoints and images of women still exist today and are reinforced by implicit languages.

Another piece that articulates her use of color and geometry to make a social statement is Return of the Sabine. This collage fuses contemporary images of masculine violence in sports (etc.) and women with the famous painting The Intervention of the Sabine Women by the neoclassical painter Jaques Louis David (1748-1825).  Shields uses color and geometric form to bridge the images into a unified work of art.  She breaks up all of the photos and the painting into rectangular facets that are integrated with one another to create the final piece. Solid blocks of color are interspersed throughout the conglomeration that mimic the colors and tonality in David’s painting, breaking up the black and white of the contemporary photographs while simultaneously pulling them into the collage.  This highlights their lack of color and the discrepancy between the times in which the photographs were taken and the painting was completed while also making apparent the connection between the images of male violence and the somewhat passive figures of the women. Through this piece, Shields is commenting on the continuing objectification of women as well as violence.

These are only three examples of the many works that demonstrate Shields’ command over color and geometric form, which are of crucial importance to most of her work.  When color and shape are not at the forefront of the meaning of the piece, they are still serving to present her social and political statements.  Anne Kesler Shields: 50-Year Retrospective allows us to see the ways in which Shields developed and honed her art to create subject matter that is controversial and thought provoking as well as beautiful and seductive.

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