Alan Shields, "The Worm Re-Turns (to the Big City)," Feb. 2-Feb. 27, 1999, at Nicholas Davies Gallery, 23 Commerce Street, New York, N.Y. 10014.
Alan Shields became a presence in New York's art world 30 years ago with his first show at the Paula Cooper Gallery. His work hasn't been seen much in these parts lately. Shields moved to Shelter Island more than 20 years ago and his last show at Paula Cooper was in 1993. It's a special treat to catch up with his paintings at the Nicholas Davies Gallery.
Davies converted his Commerce St. bookstore-cum-gallery to a purely visual-art venue two years ago, and recently has shown some strong mid-career artists, including Joe Fyfe in September. The 15 works by Shields look especially good in Davies's elegant, rather intimate space.
Shields' method -- stained and stitched paintings that are often unstretched and free-hanging -- has always evoked a kind of multi-colored euphoria. This exhibition primarily features work from the past three years, work that is full of cranky invention and visual pleasure.
Shields specializes in a quirky geometry reminiscent of quilts and old-time board games. His works are infused with the echo of '60s utopianism -- as though the Grateful Dead made something psychedelic and modern out of the tattered remnants of a folk tradition.
New to Shields' work is the use of a snaking form, starting with the title of the exhibition, "The Worm Re-Turns (to the Big City)." The suggestion here of a narrative reading seems whimsical -- although individual works move around the house, if you believe their titles -- Worms in the Attic, for example, and Worms in the Kitchen. The curving forms move through grids and behind nets, losing and reclaiming their identity in the process. Yarn embroidered into the canvas surface is sometimes built up thick like a sculptural relief, as if a world of digitalized patterns had started to grow a third dimension.
Particularly handsome, The Worm Spirit Ascends Olympus is a vertical painting with twisted, columnar "worms" stitched into the canvas, wending their way through a field of diagonal stripes and bulls-eye disks. The three parallel worms, varying from densely stitched to mere outline, rise to their apotheosis with a musical, stately rhythm. The Worm's Jail (Pest), with its outsized gingham pattern, seems a zone of sweet domesticity. The Star Crossed Worm Voyage has a dreamy mandala structure, like a spiral pinwheel overlayed with multi-colored circles.
The show includes three "pole pieces," which are essentially dotted and diamond-speckled slip covers for seven-foot-tall poles that Shields mounts vertically on bases. A hanging sculpture in the form of a 12-sided open lattice is made of dyed, canvas-covered members, joined to make hundreds of triangles. While of recent vintage, this room-size work gives a sense of Shields' earlier sculptural work.
The largest painting is The Hooks, a seven-foot-square work from 1998. Hung near the suspended sculpture, it demonstrates the changes that 30 years have wrought. The stained delicacy of Shields' earlier style has given way to the raucous image of a gigantic amoeba-like form in yarn and paint. It has the jaunty self-sufficiency of an organism that is happy to display that it is equal parts sperm and ovum.