catalog essays

Stuart Shils: Chasing the Sky, Tibor De Nagy Gallery
December 2 – January 8, 2005
catalog essay

And some time make the time to drive west
Seamus Heaney, “Postscript”

For a decade, Stuart Shils has journeyed to the west of Ireland, to County Mayo and the village of Ballycastle near Killala Bay and Downpatrick Head. There is an artist’s colony in Ballycastle, but what draws Shils is the weather, “the old Ireland,” he calls it, “the temperamental rain, the erratic light.” Shils is a landscape painter…no, he is a painter inspired by landscapes where weather is most present and active in the changes it brings. The more pronounced the counterpart between the weather and land, the likelier Shils is to encounter what he calls “the big chord.”

He has become a connoisseur of such moments, whether he finds them in rural Indiana, Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom or near his Philadelphia home. His art demands that he be alive to the instant, for he knows, as he wrote me last summer from Ballycastle, “in a moment it’s all over anyway because the clouds are moving like stage sets in front of the sun and now it’s gone flat.” But his paintings, though they look as quick as life itself, are not painted in a moment. To get what he is after, Shils must seize with brushes, knives and pigment what is right in front of him. This means that he must also seize what has just happened and what is about to happen. Irish weather stands still for no painter.

Shils thrives on such challenges. In this excerpt from a letter he describes the sort of bind he likes to find himself in: “A sheep, to our eyes, a blob of white a mile away in the context of a horrifyingly gaudy green field sitting next to a bay reflecting like ice glaring mid-morning-sun – all under moving clouds of the most exquisite lavender grey.” How to seize and simultaneously release the tension of this arrangement? As Shils says, “On any given cinematic day, the entire history of outdoor paining goes by.”

At work in the fields or in his studio, Shils is like an athlete. He’s not thinking, he’s doing instinctually what he can command from training and talent. When he succeeds, his painting, as the last line of Heaney’s poem has it, “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

These intense paintings want to say everything at once. How can it be otherwise when dealing with the elements where the action of light and wind on and with land and sea forms is saying all it can every minute? When Shils achieves a coherence that is not seen as coherent, but as time passing, past, and on the verge of becoming, his paintings are firsthand and timeless. Shils works like a mason soothing but not making regular the rough transitions that appeal to his eye. His surfaces look swiped on and solid, forms blending into the overall held together y light. If there are trees, a house, barn or some landmass, the while is more important than these parts.

Shils is a painter of fact—evanescent fact, to be certain—but no less fact for that. Like de Kooning his true subject is, in the master’s phrase, “things as they are.” Very strange and near impossible because few pairs of eyes agree on what this “areness” is yet, we know it when we see it: irreducible, mysterious and alive. This is the world Stuart Shils gives us.

William Corbett