References to “process” in art are so common that the word has become almost cliché. But in discussing the intriguing performative work of Chicago artist Stan Shellabarger, it is impossible to not talk about process, because everything he does revolves around it.
More than two dozen of Shellabarger’s latest works on paper and sculptural objects were on view in this solo exhibition at Western Exhibitions, a 10-year-old West Loop gallery where he was last spotlighted in 2011. These selections continued the artist’s dogged, even obsessive, investigations into ways of trapping the passage of time and tracing the relationship of the human body to the larger world.
Rather than making a drawing or assembling a sculpture in any traditional sense, Shellabarger creates works that record the residue of everyday activities like walking, writing and breathing. A prototypical example is Untitled (Walking Book X), 2014, for which he repetitively marched over two long, crisscrossed sheets of rag paper wearing shoes affixed with graphite pads, leaving sketchy dual tracks on each sheet, with circles at the ends and center, where he turned around. The resulting giant X, extending 7 by 14½ feet across one wall in the show, exerted a spare, striking visual impact.
In a similar vein were three pieces (alternately 25¾ and 35¾ inches square) in which Shellabarger laid drawing paper on the street and put his graphite-soled shoes to use again. In doing this, he essentially produced tracings of the uneven surfaces underfoot, including that of a patterned manhole cover in Untitled (Middle of Green St., near Intersection W. Kinzie St.), 2014.
One of the show’s centerpieces was Untitled (Drypoint), 2014, which the artist began by re-creating a signature floor piece by Carl Andre composed of 36 steel plates that fit together to form a 6-foot square. Following Andre’s encouragement to viewers to walk on his sculptures, Shellabarger incised a serpentine pattern across the surface of his re-creation wearing shoes with heavy-grit sandpaper (violating Minimalism’s penchant for neat, untouched surfaces in the process). He then used the etched plates to make intaglio prints with red ink, mounting the resulting pieces on book board and arranging them on the floor on a slightly elevated pedestal.
In an adjoining room were 15 multicolored examples of the artist’s balls of string known as “Walking Balls.” Three were one foot or so in diameter and posed on elegant mounts that jutted from the wall, and a dozen smaller ones extended out from another wall like a three-dimensional interstellar map. Each of these works is a compelling sculptural artifact of an action, in which Shellabarger attached the ball of string to a stationary object, started a stopwatch and then walked until the string was fully unwound. He then rewound the string and, as though the work were a specimen at a natural-history museum, attached a label with the date, location and duration of the walk.
While virtually all the works are direct traces of actions by the artist, Untitled (Fence), 2013, contains a degree or two of separation, as it is a photograph of an intervention sited elsewhere. Each time Shellabarger walked by a wooden fence next to a newly built house across the street from his home, he dragged a piece of sandpaper along it, wearing a faint horizontal line in the wood after a few months. Once the owners stained the fence, he stopped his ritual, capturing his somewhat vandalistic endeavor in the photograph exhibited here.
There is something visceral and wonderfully low-concept about Shellabarger’s art—shoes on paper, sand-paper on a fence, balls of string. And perhaps best of all, the product is as compelling as the process.