Joshua Meyer, Art New England

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Joshua Meyer, Art New England, December/January 1999 /2000
Barton Ryan Gallery, Boston
Stuart Shils: Dreams of Sun and Rain, Paintings from Ireland and Philadelphia

Stuart Shils’ landscapes at the Barton Ryan Gallery are big paintings in little frames. On his one—foot—by—one-foot squares of paper, Shils attempts nothing more grandiose than to paint the world around him. As simple as simple can be.

The most obvious thing about Stuart Shils is that he loves to paint. His brushstrokes are big and muscular; his pictures become juicy, rich and playful. Painting is not simply a means to craft an image but an activity in and of itself. His Kline-like strokes are all about urgency and dexterity, while his colors are subdued and delicate. Because the paint itself is so ferociously beautiful, it is all the more magical and surprising when the strokes coalesce into imagery.

This current exhibition is not so much a departure from his past work as a progression. He has entered, with a majestic stride, into Turner’s late period. The paintings are more focused on the atmospheric and the untouchable than they have been in the past. The energy is turned up a notch and the paintings begin to sing, dance, and move. A seemingly infinite variety of glowing yellows and sky-blues densely pack the surface, vigorously sliding in front of one another. Just as we start to forget the landscapes, though, a little light—the roof of a building, or perhaps a brushstroke moving in an unexpected direction—catches our eye and redirects us, reminding us of the representation and bringing us back down to earth.

The Beauty of these pictures is born of abstract interactions. Shils is not trying to write The Great American Novel; his is writing simple, lyrical verse. Constant surprises animate the works. He makes big and bold decisions, putting in only as much detail as is necessary. The uncompromising brush and knife give the paintings a robust quality that few tiny paintings can achieve. They are not overwhelming, but inviting.

His triumph, though, is in his honesty, the freshness of his paint, and his refusal to hide from the viewer. We are allowed to see the bare bones. Not a single brushstroke is covered up, so that we understand exactly how the work was created.

There are, have been, and will be painters who make brilliant social commentary, some whose pictures tell phenomenal stories, and even those who make beautiful pictures. Each is important, but in the end paintings are about the paint. And the most exciting painters are those who can make the paint move in ways that it is not supposed to move. Stuart Shils is one of those painters.