Stephen Shanabrook

Stephen Shanabrook
Born 1965 BirthCleveland, USA.
Lives and works in HomeNew York and Moscow, USA and Russia.

Katherine Carl.  Inviting the Dragon to Tea.
( introduction for catalog )

“Those who find ecstasy do so not by visiting the shrines of civilization but by trudging in the swamps of human destitution and misery. Our literature of ecstasy recounts the dark nights of the soul and encounters with mystics in the slums and in the refugee camps of genocidal wars.” Alphonso Lingis (Abuses)

“To worry or to smile, such is the choice when we are assailed by the strange; our decision depends on how familiar we are with our own ghosts.” Julia Kristeva (Strangers to Ourselves)

Destruction can at times bear wondrous fruit if actively scouted and transformed. Shanabrook plunges into the depths of the abyss of destruction of objects, values and meanings, and through the arduous process of dragging himself out he finds joy and beauty. The oblivion from which he emerges is a visual field strewn with, on one hand, the bizarre fetishes that society regards as normal and, on the other, the fundamental human biology and psychology that is considered repugnant or, at the very least, impolite.

This passage through destruction sprouts from confusion of identity, and thus causes a collapse of expected boundaries. For his Melted Plastic series Shanabrook seeks out hard plastic objects from popular culture including action figures, plastic cd cases, bright colored lighters, ballpoint pens, toy guns, and even telephones. Generally assumed to be throwaway objects, Shanabrook selected them particularly for their vivid color and durability. He subjects them to extensive repetitious heating, squashing, and cooling, and through these acts of recycling and transformation expose the contradictions of the grotesque and the beautiful. Destructive force is exchanged for delicate jewel-like fragility in the glittering guts of his suicide bomber plastic figures. Hurting is confused with healing as the medical is revealed as violent in the razor blades masquerading as band-aids in L.O.V.E. as a list of vicarious edges. The lugubrious is turned edible as the bloodied arms of the artist turn out to be cotton candy bandages of sorts. However, this is no more mouth-watering than the chocolates molded from fatal wounds on bodies in a Russian morgue.

Working with, as he says, entropy based on daily reality, Shanabrook’s art is suffused with surrealism while holding its own distinct vision at the core. Like the surrealists, Shanabrook starts with the premise that everyday life always already carries sensations of fluid melting experiences because ultimately we cannot pin down meaning or value and cannot locate or control these attributes. It is how we intervene and transform them, no matter how temporarily, that makes a difference.

Shanabrook manifests the uncontrollable process of decay viscerally in the jumbled mélange of images in Memory Confetti and in his recent melted pieces.
The cadavre exquis quality of collage is so much more than chance activity, and for Shanabrook it is abundantly alchemical. Breton’s approach to chance through the cadavre exquis in particular, intimates that access to the unconscious in the creative process can be as much about the return of the repressed as about eros.1 When Shanabrook melts chocolate or plastic he plucks out of these common materials of consumption their nefarious alter ego. With the right mix of patience and speed Shanabrook performs the melting process, and likewise, the resulting forms do not freeze into an identity with simply one meaning. Furthermore, the poetics he employs to name his artworks maintains the fluidity of his visual meanings that invokes the double-sided nature of meaning that fully surpasses these binaries.

In an era of so much talk of fluidity of networks, Shanabrook takes a different approach by contrasting gushing moistness with stiff parchedness as vehicles to explore dispersion and cohesion of identity and our associations with beauty and revulsion. The Morgue Chocolates and Bandaged reveal a fanciful desire turned rancid. The edible materials of chocolate and flesh-colored cotton candy respectively, when no longer viscous or enticingly moist turn into a deadened craving. The artist’s performance The measurable loss of water during a bird’s flight in a dry field in Holland that had once been a lush swathe of land captures the forlorn sensation of such dessication. We like our fluidity in just the right proportions. However, Sleeping with Chocolate and Broken Spleen turn grotesque because their dripping excesses of chocolate are uncontained and excremental, especially when the chocolate is pooled in a sleek cavity of the strange unsettling comfort of the hospital bed in the first, and oozes nearly imperceptibly yet uncontrollably out of the everyday orifice of an electric wall outlet.

These surfeits and remainders can be compared to Georges Bataille’s notion of the ‘accursed share,’ which is characterized as “a world or order governed by immoderation, excess and sacrifice, an economy of excremental proliferations, which expresses itself most ably in ‘unproductive expenditure: luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, perverse sexual activity.’ ”2 Bataille identifies the non-recuperable part of an economy as the accursed share. Excess energy is normal, and it is a human necessity to waste this energy for luxurious, unproductive ends, resulting in pleasure or destruction. In short, the accursed share is this excess destined for waste.3

As part of Shanabrook’s recent Melted Plastic series, action figures of steroid-pumped wrestlers accompanied by lewd porn stars exemplify the gluttonous spectacle of the notion of the accursed share. The artist subjects this popular culture fodder to burning heat, liquefaction and mutilation to prod the potential of gluttonous waste. His more recent works focus on the excessive wasteful energy of the United States’ war in Iraq. These Colors Don’t Run, the cover image of this catalogue, connects most dramatically our addiction to disposable plastic bric-a-brac with the oil business. In a pressed plastic version of the United States flag, the usual red stripes are replaced with rows of small plastic discs of mournful black. Instead of the expected bold stars, the upper left of the composition is invaded by a heaping pile of crushed spindly skeletons. In Waterboarding, two businessmen douse a prostrated third pressed distorted figure with liquid gushing out of massive coca-cola bottles. The surreal turns toward pop art with Last Words, an array of melted plastic toy guns that recall Claes Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum: Ray Guns (1977). Discussing the role of detritus in his project The Street (1960), Oldenburg says, “Dirt has depth and beauty. I love soot and scorching. From all this can come a positive as well as a negative meaning.”4

More expansively, Shanabrook describes his practice as “Chasing the Dragon,” explaining that it has a “connection to opium in Asia; when one smokes heroin on foil, the powder is heated from underneath with a flame so it melts into a brown liquid that turns into smoke, which is inhaled. As it burns it runs across the foil leaving a black trail in its wake—giving the name of the dragon.” His Moth and Lightning Bugs Collection is an archival display of burnt foils and vials, the fetish objects of drug addiction that constantly threaten an Icarus-like demise for the user. Furthermore he states, “I think it symbolizes my route to explore destruction and the beauty and sadness that lies therein; my work has always been about process, destruction, and the beauty and all that comes after.”5

Shanabrook reinvests pop with critical value through abstracted autobiography and human commentary with alchemy. The artist enhances the trait or particular moment in which meaning is destroyed and reconfigured never to be the same again. This does not aestheticize trash, but transforms opposites, holding them in tension. Here detritus from the street is not elevated in value in order to be consumed, instead the commercial object is crushed, mutilated, castrated to be recuperated into a different kind of object with contested value, the art object.

Often, Shanabrook’s art objects are remnants of excessive behavior, sometimes performed by the artist as he takes on the role of the “baroque foreigner.” Julia Kristeva has pointed out that “the foreigner is a Baroque person” because her speech is “deprived of any support in outside reality, since the foreigner is precisely kept out of it.”6 The double, the projection outside of oneself, is a Baroque excess that the subject cannot hold. Shanabrook conducted several performances in Holland involving urban peregrinations including Snowshoes, in which his large snowshoes emitted tufts of white flour with each step, leaving a snowy trail of his journey. His sculpture You See for Me and I’ll Hear for You: Self-portrait with Dried Goat Ears resembles a Roman death mask, thus mingling his identity with the bestial and also this world with the next.

This type of leakage of one’s persona into another is taken to the extreme of breakdown in his most recent work On the Road to Heaven the Highway to Hell. Scant remnants of a suicide bomber cast in chocolate obliterates any possibility of identification altogether. Through the process of making the cast and inviting a young man to walk in the bomber’s shoes in only the most removed representational and metaphorical sense, the artist makes clear how impossible it is to forge any human connection to this act and what futility it leaves in its wake. It is merely an assembly of a few leftover body parts strewn on the ground. Here pondering reflection is evacuated and the gut takes over. Nothing can be made of this. It is pure waste borne of excess energy. Although it is a destruction that as Bataille asserted, is all too normal, it is a truly repugnant manifestation of the death drive.

For Alphonso Lingis, the notion of community is possible only when it includes strangers, the marginalized and the outcast. A community is defined by being open to the stranger, with whom members have nothing in common.7 Shanabrook’s body of art is a community of leftovers and cast-offs, baroque foreigners that will never be settled within everyday life, despite the fact that these objects and characters are a product of precisely this banal milieu. His objects specifically remind us of what we wish to forget about the world and about ourselves. Shanabrook’s leaking, melting, alchemical transformations recall Freud’s notion that we, ourselves, are disintegrated; our unconscious is the “improper facet of our impossible ‘own and proper.’ ” This is what enables us to welcome uncanny strangeness in ourselves and provides a point of connection with others. 8 As Lingis puts it,

Community forms when one exposes oneself to the naked one, the destitute one, the outcast, the dying one. One enters into community not by affirming oneself and one’s forces but by exposing oneself to expenditure at a loss, to sacrifice. Community forms in a movement by which one exposes oneself to the other, to forces and powers outside oneself, to death and to the others who die.9

Rather than eliminate the strange, Shanabrook embraces it. The artist recognizes deep-seated human fears and evokes them viscerally and sensuously. His oeuvre enacts what is referred to in Buddhist practice as “inviting the dragon to tea.” He invites in our most dreaded demons, providing a forum for rich exploration of their paradoxical meanings, and though the dragon will never be tamed, the more we engage it in conversation the more keenly versatile our response to its horrors.

1 Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide (New York: Zone Books, 1997), 63.
2 Elizabeth Grosz, Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001), 153.
4 Bois and Krauss, 173.
5 Email correspondence with the artist, November 23, 2007.
6 Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 21.
7 Grosz, 151.
8 Kristeva, 191-2.
9 Alphonso Lingis, The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 12.