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Shawn Roberts at the Big Orbit

Shawn Roberts' work is at Big Orbit through April 23.

Innocence Lost

Paintings and sculpture by Shawn Roberts at the Big Orbit gallery feature a strange combination of images of innocence and death and devastation. What’s most strange is that the innocence seems oblivious about its own annihilation in progress.

Or maybe the point is that true innocence should be oblivious of menace. On the other hand, the forces of death and destruction here do not seem particularly menacing. Death has lost a lot of its sting. The overall coherence of the work is an issue.

In an artist’s statement, Roberts says, “I do not enjoy overly intellectualizing my pieces. I find it more fulfilling hearing the story…developed by the viewer.”

All well and good. The viewer can make up his own story. But when we view art, first of all, I think, we want to know what is the artist’s story.

Tree stumps are a motif, as well as small trees, but barren. And woody flowering plants, but the flowers all dead or dying. And skulls, sometimes turned into planters. And also children, who proclaim messages—in slogans, in Latin, even—that boil down to memento mori, you’re going to die, we’re going to die. But blissfully don’t seem to get their own message.

Another motif has to do with humans as animals. In a nice way, by and large. Animals have human traits, and humans animal traits. And humans morph into animals, sometimes through formal transformations, sometimes just by putting on animal masks.

A little too nice, maybe. This traditional literary/artistic fantasy motif should have more bite to it. Humans here get animal ears, but not à la Pinocchio, not asses’ ears, and all that that meant, but Mickey Mouse ears.

And animals morph into their natural opposites. Wolves into bunnies, and bunnies into wolves. In other instances, wolves and bunnies co-exist in peace. But not in a peaceable kingdom way, the lion lying down with the lamb. The peaceable kingdom is a narrative of innocence. But this is a kingdom of death. The dead trees, dead flowers, the skulls. A realm of experience, in Blakean terminology.

Too many disconnects, I think. Too much of the fantastical, not enough of hard reality to underpin it. Opposite intellectual principles co-exist—much like the wolves and the bunnies—but with no explanation as to how they manage to do so.

Intellectual framework matters. The framework that allows for questions and answers.

This is art about nature and the loss of nature. But what nature, in which predator and prey have forgotten their roles? What is it that is lost? And if we don’t know that, who cares?

In one painting, a bunny wears a respirator. We’ve destroyed the environment, the atmosphere. But there’s no sense that anybody’s to blame.

There’s innocence and there’s death. Opposites connect, but intellectually don’t connect. Like the half-wolf, half-bunny.

The Shawn Roberts exhibit continues through April 23.

jack foran

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