catalog essays

Stuart Shils, Tibor De Nagy Gallery
February 11 – March 13, 1999
catalog essay

An artist friend of mine once rather vehemently told me that he hated it when people told him his work was beautiful. I suppose he thought the word was a linguistic crutch, something to utter when you had nothing else to say, or a synonym for dreaded prettiness. Ever since then I’ve been hesitant about the word beautiful when responding to art. I think: It can’t be that—it must be something else first, and more importantly. But in the case of Stuart Shils, I’m afraid I can’t say anything about his paintings without first acknowledging their startling beauty, for it is that beauty that I primarily and most immediately respond to.

Shils paints those weird pockets of the day when people and life seem to have momentarily and mysteriously gone elsewhere. His hushed, abandoned world may appear devoid of human life, but the emotional wake of its inhabitants is elegantly rendered and keenly felt: these fields and facades are as eloquent as faces. Although Shils’ work is not narrative, it is nevertheless rich in human feeling and tension, and this emotional vibrancy is what gives his paintings their powerful resonance and consequent beauty.

Shils paints quickly on paper, and the resulting tension between control and abandon complements the emotion frisson in the images. It makes one happy to see – and feel – the artist letting go, responding, and that abandon is all the more exciting when it occurs alongside the precisely yet gorgeously rendered detail. One senses the artist’s race with the ever-shifting light, especially in the Irish paintings (Shils reports the summer weather in Ireland is “insane”). There is a madness, a violence, in his Irish skies that is more subtly felt in the stillness of his American vistas. Here one senses the quiet yet constant motion of life: the anxious trees that won’t stay still, the road that shimmers, the breathing fields of grass. The simple, inexorable motion of the day waning.

The humble (and often humorous) titles of these paintings corroborate what the images themselves surely suggest: what is important to Shils is the season, the weather, the time of day, and the direction in which he faces. Shils is a painter of specific moments, and that’s what allows him to revisit the same places (urban Philadelphia, rural Indiana, and the coast of county Mayo, Ireland) again and again. Like people – and this is why some of these paintings seem more portrait than landscape – every place is always changing, if you look hard enough.

Stuart Shils looks hard enough, but there is as much ardor as observation in his gaze. He admits to being “overstimulated” by the landscape, and the resulting passion is visible (even palpable) on each of these works. He clearly loves what he is making, and something gets added to the work by virtue of that love. Shils succeeds in not only allowing us to see a place but to also know how it felt—no: how it feels to be there.

Peter Cameron