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The art of Richard Shelton contains a certain vitality charged with vibrancy—each piece seems to take on a life of its own. The art gallery describes his works as “social-political scenes [created] by shifting gestured to controlled, minimal to elaborate, amalgamated to fragmented, static to fluid, power to powerless.” His works displayed are heavy with historical themes and social commentaries. More often than not, one can find various meanings, metaphors, and symbols in his works as they can have more than one interpretation. He touches upon a multitude of subjects within the light of social throes, many of which I found were strikingly appealing.

When I first entered the gallery, the first painting I saw was Suitable/Unsuitable (2001). More than half of the canvas’ space was devoted to a large brusque man in casual wear; he sported a blue button-up shirt, jean-shorts, tennis shoes, a cap, and sunglasses. The other half of the canvas was devoted to a much more refined figure—a thin man in a suit presenting himself in a more “civilized” manner. By juxtaposing a casual man with a corporate figure, this painting summarizes the many themes portrayed in the gallery—that there are struggles between and within the different social classes of a society as well as in the inner workings of an individual’s mind.

Many pieces portray the players of the white-collared enterprise as if they were in a world of their own. Forward March (2002) was an interesting piece in that he painted a figure with watercolor onto a ledger paper with accounting work on it. The figure was of a white man in a suit, without the jacket, walking as if he had deadlines to meet. Although it was a simple piece, the fact that Shelton paints the figure on a piece of ledger paper really puts the man in a perspective that brings out his world—a world of numbers, calculations, deadlines, overtime, clients, and dollar signs. Another piece with a similar theme, entitled No Rest for the Weary (2002), is a large painting of a group of corporate bodies walking along a clean sidewalk. These men are in suits and shiny shoes, carrying books, a briefcase, a pager, and other items that give the impression that they are important figures in a hurry. Behind the group of men lies a black man on a bench dressed in a descent green jacket, hat, white slacks, and clean shoes. His items indicate that may not be a homeless man, but perhaps a common worker resting. What brought this piece to my attention was the title. To whom does the title refer? The white-collared workers are bustling along a street probably running errands or trying to get back to work, hardly having any time to rest. The black man may be working so hard that the only rest he gets is a short nap on a sidewalk bench. However, no other painting blatantly portrays the iconic status of a white corporate figure than Calling the Chosen (1997). The scenery is of five men and one woman in suits walking in, out, and along a building. The main figure in the back is of a man in a suit, not unlike the other figures, differing only in the fact that he holds out his hands in an upraised position and is outlined with a yellow glow. Shelton portrays him as a Jesus-like figure with open arms to either embrace his kind of world or to direct our attention to the world he created.

Shelton also shows the status of the female figure within the working world. After the Meeting (2002) shows a group of men in suits in a room with a nude woman sitting on a bed with disheveled hair and obviously looking weary. Suzanne and the Elders (2000) is a painting of two men and a woman, dressed only in a black skirt, standing in a hallway outside of an office. Suzanne’s defeated expression indicates that she is holding back from verbalizing her discomfort as she lives in a world dominated by men. Midnight Special (1994) takes this theme out of the work setting and into a more generalized view. It shows the torso of a woman with a man’s hand poised as a gun pointing at the woman’s heart. Although women are allowed to work in the same places as men, there is still inequality between the two genders.

Shelton directs the viewers’ focuses inward at a more personal level in his paintings Untitled (2002), Blue/Green (1996), and Abandoned (1996). Each painting is of a nude figure: a man, a woman, and a girl. They are positioned in ways that communicate to the viewer’s emotions such as distress, helplessness, conflict, suffering, and all the shades of pain. The way chaos is painted in Untitled and Abandoned is layers of thick, heavy, violent strokes of red, black, brown, and blue. Shelton uses white people in these paintings, figures that were also used in his paintings that portray high-class and wealth, to show, perhaps, the two sides of a race that is stereotypically portrayed as “dominant” or “superior.”

My favorite piece of his “handgun” series is Cultural Handgun (1999). It is a picture of an old woman’s wrinkled hand pointing diagonally downward as if it was a gun. The hand wears a silver watch, a large teal ring, has red-painted fingernails, and is holding a small bust of a nameless Greek mythological figure. I asked one of the gallery staff if she knew who the female bust was, but all she was allowed to say was that Shelton refers to Greek mythology in some of his works. I wondered if the Greek figure symbolized fertility, power, or wealth, but I am not sure. She also described that the angle in which the “handgun” was pointing represented energy. This piece is painted onto concrete. This may indicate the artificiality of reality that wealth can bring as concrete is a man-made thing used for foundation. The accessories the hand exhibited indicate that the woman has some wealth. Referring back to the title, perhaps this woman is trying to grab hold of a culture, or her culture, that is quickly slipping past her with time. Or perhaps the growth in wealth she is obtaining or has obtained is slowly changing her personality and lifestyle. Perhaps with each change triggered by money, another piece of her old self is lost as her new self takes form. Perhaps she is shooting down her own culture.

My other favorite painting is Morning Paper (1994). It is a scene of a corner of a sidewalk with a trashcan overflowing with crumpled newspapers, soda cans, and more trash stuffed into the broken base of a street lamp. Behind this heap of waste is a newspaper stand. In the corner of the painting is the bottom half of a man wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase, and walking away. The atmosphere is gloomy and dark. Newspapers are thrown haphazardly into and around the waste bin. It seems that Shelton points out how the days come and go like the morning paper, which is important on the morning of the day, but dumped and forgotten by the end of it. Despite the presence of people wealthy enough to help fix the environment, nature still falls victim to abuse and degradation. Money, it seems, is devoted to self-interests as waste accumulates and is ignored.

The gallery of Robert Shelton “[highlights] our spiritual and social dysfunctions.” His techniques and subjects help deliver his message in a powerful manner. I enjoyed his works very much and look forward to learning more about him.


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Stephanie W.



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The following comments are for "Pieces of Richard Shelton"
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