Through no fault or design of my own, a chance visit to Minneapolis provided just the right inspirational occasion for jotting down a few thoughts on the new and not-so-new work of Vancouver-based artist Steven Shearer (b. 1968), whose drawings, paintings, and sculptures will occupy the Canadian Pavilion during this summer’s Venice Biennale. The occasion in question was an exhibition titled “The Mourners,” which I was fortunate enough to see at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The exhibition’s titular grievers are a group of thirty-eight small alabaster sculptures, made in the fifteenth century by some of Europe’s finest stone carvers to adorn the graves of the Dukes of Burgundy: a procession of mournful, dejected-looking monks, many with their hoods pulled over their contorted faces, languorously shuffling in and out of the labyrinthine structure (meant to evoke the entrails of a medieval Carthusian cloister) that forms the pedestal on which the life-size sculpted effigies of the ducal deceased lie enshrined.
Although I first got to know these extraordinary (and extraordinarily expressive) sculptures through a book that was given to me as a birthday present by another artist friend, upon seeing this morbid sepulchral extravaganza, my thoughts quickly wandered off to Steven Shearer’s studio—and they did so not just because “mournful,” “dejected,” “contorted,” “heretical,” “languorous,” “morbid,” and “sepulchral” are adjectives that are often (and, it should be added, often too easily) applied to Shearer’s own work.