If you’re familiar with Joel Shapiro’s sculpture in the Ringling Museum collection, you’ll be understandably surprised by his new work that is about to rise outside the new U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China. While the Ringling example is a tiny iron house-shaped object, the China example is a 22-foot tall stick-like figure.
But you wouldn’t be surprised at all if you saw an exhibit of Shapiro’s wide-ranging body of work at Ringling Museum in 1986. Demonstrating his many ways of expressing himself, Shapiro not only offered small solid shapes on the order of Monopoly game pieces along with large linear humanoid shapes, but also included monolithic totem shapes.
Reviewing his ’86 show, I suggested that there was no real philosophical difference in Shapiro’s symbols for houses, figures and totems. Each of them addresses the same condition called human and how it feels to be in that condition.
Side by side, one might even read the three aspects of Shapiro’s sculpture as a storyboard description of human development. The toy size, kindergarten simplicity of his houses parallels the early stages of man, while their iron material, like hard-shell hermit crabs, conjures the reclusive state. The awkward gangly stick-figures match adolescence. The mid-size-totems, smooth and unruffled, are analogous to retirees sitting on their front porch.
The inherent emblematic nature of the totem invites additional rationales for the sequence of his style changes. If one starts with symbols for vulnerability and proceeds to symbols for floundering, what could be more logical than the very personification of symbolism – the totem? Its mysteries, often scary, are also consistent with Shapiro’s concern with man’s psyche.
All that said, Shapiro’s work is not only about psychology. It is about art-making, too – mostly explorations in composition. Beside the expressive nature of his sculpture, it never ignores art theorems that his peers make into monuments. His stick-figures of attached rectangles can look as constructivist a David Smith geometric abstraction, and his tiny house can look as minimalist as Carl Andres impersonal order of forms.
But the human element prevails in all of his work. http://ovalpike.com/article/what-you-see-art-is-not-always-the-point As Shapiro has said, “There is no political narrative other than the celebration of individual spirit, which I think is a quality that can find common ground and transcend cultural parameters. This is adventurous, lively, and in the end perhaps revelatory.”
That Shapiro’s sculpture speaks of humanity makes it a good choice for China, don’t you think?