East City Art Reviews—Joseph Shetler In Pursuit of Nothing

By Eric Celarier on February 15, 2022
In Pursuit of Nothing by Joseph Shetler exhibition still at Culture House DC. Credit: Luke Walter Photography

If you quickly go through Joseph Shetler’s show, In Pursuit of Nothing, at southwest Washington’s Culture House DC, you will miss what it achieves. His latest installment of arrangements of horizontal and vertical lines appears so simple that their underlying complexity could easily be missed by a casual viewer. This exhibition is more than a mere reiteration of Minimalist practices. It is an update of the 1960s movement from which Shetler’s aesthetics derive. Unlike the exquisitely clean products of the earlier generation of Minimalists, Shetler allows for the roughness of his process to show, resulting in more expressive paintings. In short, where most of his predecessors eliminated the human hand as much as possible, Shetler balances his need for a firm formula with the relaxation of rigid control.

To fully appreciate how different Shetler’s practice is from past incarnations, we must remind ourselves that his Minimalist forebears sought to eliminate themselves from the creative process as much as possible, and sometimes altogether. Donald Judd had his creations fabricated and Sol LeWitt sold instructions rather than assemble his own work. This kind of divestment would be unthinkable for Shetler. The artist has stated this quite clearly: “I love the process, the physical nature of the materials, these paintings are certainly an exploitation of that on the surface.”[1]

Many of Shetler’s inclinations reflect his past. “I personally see my work as autobiographical but I do not expect others to see that in the work.” Once you know that he grew up as, and still considers himself to be, a Mennonite, it is easy to see those life patterns reflected in his compositions. Shetler says, “I try to minimize my life as much as I can, as much as society allows. My practice is certainly a reminder to stay centered. Why would I want to create busy, chaotic, loud paintings? I want to make and look at something that removes me from the chaos of the real world.”

We see this drive to live simply not only in the straightforward geometry of his compositions, but also in the workman-like way he approaches his production. Shetler says, “I like to connect my craftsmanship, intent, labor, and, in some ways, the forms to Mennonite values.” The fact that Shetler is personally committed to the fabrication of his own creations clearly puts an intimate stamp upon his work that is at odds with past Minimalist practitioners, such as Robert Morris and Carl Andre.

In Pursuit of Nothing thoroughly embodies this theme of individual production. Self-curated in collaboration with his gallerist, Caitlin Berry, Shetler has filled the Culture House gallery with black and white panels. Covered in carefully measured lines that crisscross his paintings to form grids, columns, and rows, Shetler builds a patchwork of patterns bound by hard incisions. By varying the size of the squares and rectangles in his graphs or by changing the spacing between repeated bands, he generates designs that allow the eye to wander through the rhythms they produce.

Rather than using a graphite pencil to create these lines, Shetler prefers silverpoint, because the metal markings will not erase which means they also do not smudge. The ground for his white panels is made with modeling paste that, when sanded, leaves a smooth finish. In paintings, such as Untitled (three in bar), marble dust is added to the mixture so that the silverpoint stands out from the matte, white background.

Even with the relative precision of his process, Shetler aims at subtleties of expression in these works. He purposefully leaves the edges unfinished where the modeling paste overflows onto the sides, as well as permitting the inevitable cavities to find their way into the surface. Shetler says, “I enjoy seeing the buildup of material on the edge, it tells the story of the layering process.” By mottling the white with graphite to add depth, he enlivens the ground on which his lines are inscribed. These small details might seem like imperfections to some eyes, but things as simple as an extraneous measuring mark are conscious choices that animate his paintings.

Untitled (three in bar), 2019, acrylic and silverpoint on panel, 60” x 48” x 1.625”). Image credit: Courtesy Caitlin Berry Fine Art.  Image credit: Greg Staley.

The counterparts to the white paintings are the black ones, such as Untitled (last of 35). Infused with graphite, a decrease in contrast with the dark gray lines should be expected, but it is surprising how well these metallic lines emerge from the background. In fact, counterintuitively, some aberrations, also seen in the white paintings, seem to show up better in the black ones. The inevitable variation in tone of the silverpoint, as well as the small cracks and pockmarks, seem easier to find. These anomalies not only testify to its handcrafted origin, but also to its uniqueness as an art object, a product of an unrepeatable process.

Untitled (last drawing of 35), 2021, acrylic and silverpoint on panel, 60” x 48” x 1.625”. Image credit: courtesy of Caitlin Berry Fine Art  Image credit: Greg Staley.

In Pursuit of Nothing renegotiates the potential of minimalist composition by suppressing some of its complexity just below its surface layers. From everything he has said, they seem to be an extension of his way of life, but, at the same time, they are composed of universal enough elements that encourage us to bring our own experience into play in trying to determine what they mean. Quoting Frank Stella’s famous quip, Shetler says, “In a lot of ways it is what you see is what you get.” Perhaps all nonobjective art operates this way. When asked directly what he wants people to get out of his art, Shetler says, “Underneath, I want people to slow down and consider. There isn’t much to look at so when they see the one thing that sticks out to them I hope they consider why it was done that way, or why did that grab their attention?”

Whatever we see in his work, it is clear that Shetler has created works accessible enough to allow us to do that. The simplicity of his designs may mask the overall complexity of his project. His drips and craters which puts him at conceptual odds with the slickness of his predecessors also create more elements for reflection. So particular are these chance occurrences, like the mottling of the background, it would seem strange to hand those choices off to someone other than the artist. While his personal involvement in the fabrication of his art may engage his Anabaptist values, it also seems necessary for creating work that cannot be reduced to a set of instructions. Whether it is cultural habit or religious conviction, Shetler’s compositions express an inner quiet, a quiet we might find in ourselves if we are inclined to receive it.

Joseph Shetler, In Pursuit of Nothing is on view through March 5th at Culture House DC. Gallery Hours are Saturdays 11-2PM and by appointment, at 700 Delaware Avenue, SW, Washington, DC, 20024.

[1] All quotations from Shetler were taken from direction communication with the artist for this article.


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