Whitehot Magazine

“I am a mocking bird in a painter’s space”: Peter Shelton discusses his love of making improbable sculptures

Peter Shelton at Blue Mountain Fine Art, Baker City, Oregon. Photo by James Mulryan

By Lita Barrie, June 2023

For over fifty years Peter Shelton has explored contradictions which come alive in improbable forms: stomachs that turn inside out, bloated pouches, distended limbs and clusters of  testicles. Shelton incorporates abstract, figurative, anatomical and architectural motifs in unfathomable sculptures that are never simply one thing because they play on contradictions of the inside and outside, the micro- and macro-scale.  

The Italian art collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, wrote “His work gives the sensation of seeing something almost alive, a material in which blood has just stopped flowing. Despite this, they are not anatomical studies of the human body; there is just the sensation that they might be. This ambivalence between carnal reality and living abstraction is what fascinates me about his work”

Shelton received a 2023 Blaisdell Distinguished Alumni Award from Pomona College in April. I sat down with Shelton at his studio, filled with massive equipment and sculptures in various stages of completion which dwarf the viewer. He spoke about his prolific career, and how to this day he continues to explore a process that originated from his childhood fascination with anatomy and physiology. 

Peter Shelton Studio, Los Angeles

Lita Barrie: Congratulations on receiving the 2023 Blaisdell Distinguished Alumni Award from Pomona College in April. Of course, you have received other awards through the years -  such a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Tiffany grant. What does this award mean to you?

Peter Shelton: I feel incredulous. When I first arrived at Pomona, I felt a little out of place surrounded by so many prep school kids. I went to public high school in Arizona, so I had an okay childhood education. My parents certainly emphasized school, but these kids had perfect SATs and I felt quite under-appointed.

LB: You started as a pre-med major at Pomona College. How has your early interest in the body informed your anthropomorphic sculptures?

PS: It is a combination of things starting in my youth. My mother’s father was a general practioner and surgeon in a small town. I became fanatical about anatomy and physiology in fifth grade. I’ve always worked my butt off and have never taken anything for granted. My father was shot in the head in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. This resulted in paralysis to his right side and aphasia. He spent five years in military hospitals learning to walk and talk again. I grew up with an acute consciousness of his disability and the question of what a normal human body is. I was also a product of the ‘60s, which opened a whole new exploration of the body and mind. There was a breakdown in puritanical restrictions and hierarchies in our culture.

LB: You had influential teachers at Pomona like Mowry Baden.

PS: Yes, Mowry came out of Pomona himself, then Stanford, and lived in the Bay Area for a while. He was around, excuse the expression, the “tits and ass” of funk art up there at the time. I really liked the way he thought about art. You could literally climb into some of his work. It resonated with my obsession with building environments as a kid and the 60s emphasis on creating a whole environment that would surround you and stimulate both the mind and body. Traditionally separated disciplines of architecture, sculpture, theater, and painting merged and blended at this time in California especially. Mowry was one of many artists pushing sculpture off the pedestal and onto the floor. I similarly loved the work of George Sugarman and David Smith in an earlier time but the interest in interactive environments was in the air in general with artists like Robert Morris, Robert Rauschenberg, Vito Acconci, Barry LeVa, Robert Smithson, Bruce Nauman and later, George Trakas, Alice Aycock and others. I was a rabid maker of all sorts of things as a kid, a sort of Tom Sawyer in my neighborhood. The other kids would go home for dinner, but I would keep working until midnight. I think it was a way to survive the stress of living with my disabled father to escape into a play world. He was a great guy, but his disabled and awkward condition was very palpable to me as a little person. I believe it was at least subliminally if not somatically painful…still is really. My two favorite artists in high school were Ben Shahn and Piet Mondrian, whichis quite a polarity, right? Shahn was a social realist coming out of the 1930s WP (Works Progress Administration) moment; art and illustration in service of the social good. My father was an American history major in college. He was in love with the neoclassical ideals of the last half of the 18th century and later became a Unitarian as were many of the fathers of our American revolution, and a journalist after college. Mondrian was a purist with no direct relation to the realities of the world except perhaps in the most existential way. When I was young, I was impressed with the Jungian idea that art was a primal and instinctual adaptive activity where one could have pure and big dreams that took us to a place without the detritus and distractions of our daily life. I lean towards Mondrian because he arrived at primal dreams. My sculpture aspires to such big dreams. 

Peter Shelton, 2004 - 2011, mixed media, 69 x 51 x 31 in."powerhousefrenchtablenecklaces," April 5 - 28, 2012, Sperone Westwater Gallery, New York, NY. Photo by Peter Shelton.

LB: You deal a lot with improbabilities, surprises and things you would not expect. Things look like something inside the body we do not expect to see externalized, outside the body - like stomachs, for example.Things we expect to be small are big. Why? 

PS: I definitely play with micro- and macro-scale; the microscopic structure within or things that look anatomical but have an astronomical or architectural or landscape scale. My work is usually hollow with perforations and openings. I love to meditate on the relationship between our inside and outside. It is a dialogue between the subjective in and the objective out… between the transparent and fluid spatial and the obdurate and opaque thing of us. And then to make the architectural soft and anatomical, and the opposite. Sometimes I consider the work to be like tight fitting architecture. When I was a student, drawing from the figure was frowned upon. It was too personal or sentimental… “retardiere” as Michael Brewster liked to say. This was at the height of Don Judd’s influence and minimalism in general. It was a dead end for artists my age in a way. Oddly, your work could be figurative if you were in a kind of container or architecture with the viewer being the figure. Depicting the figure, no. I snuck up on the figure through my background in anatomy and fusing it with my industrial fabricating background and my time in theater.Without referring to something outside of the work in front of you, I began to ask while standing in front of this thing I have made, how does it make me feel? It has a skin, a dermis, musculature, and a strange anatomy; so, what is that? I don’t ever make a complete figure with hands, feet, and head because I am not interested in the figure in that way, as a representation. They are like parallel bodies and fragments. They feel like bodies and look familiar as bodies, but they are not depictions of the body. They are alive in themselves and they elicit the life in us. I want to have a somatic response in my work. 

LB: Nothing is simply one thing; everything is more than one thing. 

PS: One of the artists I admire especially when I started off, is Bruce Nauman. He works very broadly, not programmatically. He just does what he wants to do. He is sometimes very physical or very heady but mostly both. I had a sense that artists tend to get stuck when they make something that people like and then just keep doing the same thing. Bruce’s work can be very minimal and impenetrably silent or noisy and graphic…nearly ribald. What holds it together is tone and his ethos, or his sense of truth often expressed through frustration, irritating repetition, and a lack of resolution that can tip over into the sometimes hilariously absurd. It is not aesthetic style that is the through line. I took note that he staked a broad territory to work in. I think a good artist does this early on to avoid becoming a caricature of themselves. You have to go out to the edges of what you want to do and place some stakes out there then spend the rest of life trying to figure out why you went out there in the first place and trying to fill in the blanks.

LB: So, you aren’t just doing repetitions of the same thing? 

PS: If I have any sense that I am repeating myself I turn to something else. I almost never complete any work in one go. I work on a lot of things at once otherwise there is a tendency to put everything including the kitchen sink into one work when you focus too much on one work at a time. Some of the work I am doing now, I’ve been working on for ten or fifteen years. 

LB: You have had over fifty solo exhibitions in galleries and museums and 150 group exhibitions in your nearly 50-year career. So, you have had a lot of opportunities. There is also an obsessive quality to your work and a love of the materiality of sculpture and handmaking. Do you think materials are charged and change when they are handled like that?

PS: Yes, of course, they do. Materially, sculpture is inherently dead. Sculptors, at least this one, have a Pygmalion motivation of wanting sculpture to come alive so then you could make love to it. Sculpture is a thing you bump into. It takes a lot to convince us that it is not dead and is in fact alive. Today, technicians, using sophisticated scanning and imaging tools, can create extraordinary objects and figures that are very seductive. But for me, sculpture is not only a technical process, it is a projection of our interior being and psyche which includes the part of us that is collective. It is a process of bumping into your own needs and desires. It is not about some objective correctness but a process of negotiating our expectations with what is materially forming in front of us and accepting the contradictions not as a failure of our vision or skill but as a revelation of our true humanity. 

Peter Shelton, 2003, mixed media, 60 x 60 x 30 in. "Peter Shelton little BIG," September 14 - October 25, 2014, José Drudis-Biada Gallery, Mount Saint Mary's College, Los Angeles CA. Photo by Peter Shelton

LB: So, what did you discover about art in Los Angeles when you came to Pomona in 1969? 

PS: For a kid from a small college town in Arizona I was a bit provincial at first. But what I immediately related to was the idea of an artist making work that asked our bodies to verify and even extend the meaning of art. That physicality might be more optical as in Doug Wheeler, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, or James Turrell although the eyes surely impact our bodies. Michael Brewster, also a teacher of mine, formed palpable sound to define aural and physical spaces, waves, and nodes. Baden and Nauman used hybrids of objects and performative structures to sculpt our senses and psyche. I think artists in Los Angeles at that time had less of a cultural overlay of museums, galleries, and art market that might give them context and cues for the direction of their work. Lacking a clear geographic center, they were often quite isolated from each other. L.A. was really a cultural wasteland in the early 70s. I think artists were forced to work with the resources of their own bodies and workspaces to provide context, form, and meaning for their work.

LB: Los Angeles art is known for being more experiential and experimental with new and found materials. Looking ahead, how do you envision your future work?

PS: I think artists who have thought of their work from the beginning as an experimental, explorative enterprise rather than a product tend to get better as they get older. They look less over their shoulders, and it is way too late to worry about fitting in anyway. Early on, I wanted to establish the breadth of my work. I was really concerned that I would be captured by one form, material, and/or a clear style so I would approach the variety in my work as if I was curating a show with many different artists. Now I am honing in and creating more work in series.

If I think I am starting to repeat myself, I move on. I like to think about the differentiation of my work as a kind of ecology not unlike that of a garden or the human body. Some works are like discreet plants or organs and some works are interstitial, systemic, even verging on existential. My large installation work tends to test the relationship between part and whole and smaller individual works define more intimate internal spaces and dialog. This approach helps me think about how to fill and develop spaces between the stakes I laid out for my territory years ago. It often defines what is next. 

LB: The art world has become an art universe which is inseparable from the fashion and financial world now. Celebs dominate the Met Gala and Lois Vuitton collaborates with big name artists.

PS: I guess all this started to hit a fevered pitch in the 1980s but I think it started earlier in the 1970s when there was a major shift from an emphasis on what the artist made, to selling the personality of the artist himself. A persona driven art; it shifted to the age of Warhol. That combined with the artist being trained in the university resulting in artists thinking of themselves as clean-handed white-collar workers and having distanced themselves from their artisanal roots, it has for many become a social profession and business where entrepreneurial strategy replaces the primal survival process of art that I described earlier. 

Peter Shelton, twosideeye, 2020 - 22, cast bronze, 30 x 20 x 5 inches. Photo by James Mulryan

LB: The meaning resides in the making?

PS: More than the making. It is the process. It is not idle work or superficial finish either. It is a focused and transformative experience where the craft in the artist’s hands is, as I used to explain to students, consciousness of appropriate means. Donald Kuspit wrote an insightful piece years ago describing a cultural sea change by comparing an Andy Warhol Marilyn with a Willem de Kooning Woman painting. In it, he describes our cultural expectation of who the artist is, what he knows, and the radically different process of each of these artists. In so doing, we experience the stark contrast of results and meaning of their work in their respective cultural moments. He described the de Kooning as engaged in a hard-to-understand and obscure process which was inherently mysterious, and took years of experience to achieve, and only an expert could execute. Most people would look at a deKooning and say, “how and why did he paint that and what is it?” The process seemed hot and messy and unfathomable, even threatening. Warhol, on the other hand, turned it around so art was transparent, accessible, available, and ultimately, easy. You just take a photograph of someone you know or is famous or something from the newspaper, screen print it and either you or Warhol sign it. Damn, that was easy! It is not threatening, but nice and cool. I think Kuspit and I would side with the de Kooning. But culture has taken us to a place where Warhol is supreme. 

LB: In pretentious art speak, an art critic is not supposed to use the word ‘love’ because it is not considered academic enough. But serious literary, film and music criticism is full of references to love because it is a grand theme that pervades literature, film and music. I am working on a book of my best published essays with the title “What’s Love Got To Do With Art? Everything” You use the word ‘love’ a lot when you talk about art: like making love to a sculpture that has come alive in a reference to Pygmalion, constant references to artists you love, the reasons you love them, the materials you love and crafting consciousness you love. 

PS: Why else would you make art except love? I know that it has been popular to consider and even train artists to be cultural workers and critics where they use art to discuss history, economics, politics, and language. Often, the point is more about the discussion around the art than the art itself. It makes me ask whether someone has ever had a genuine experience of wonder, awe, and yes, love looking at art. I have so many times. I have this funny practice when I go into a museum, if I see something wonderful, I go to the didactic label to see how long the artist lived and the age when they made this work. I think to myself if I have ever made anything so great at that age or if I will live long enough to make something so special. I am an artist because of this love and not because of some extraneous discussion or something I have read. WM

Lita Barrie

Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in Hyperallergic, Riot Material, Apricota Journal, Painter’s Table, ArtnowLA, HuffPost, Painter’s Table, Artweek.L.A, art ltd and Art Agenda. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art Issues, Artweek, Visions andVernacular. She was born in New Zealand where she wrote a weekly newspaper art column for the New Zealand National Business Review and contributed to The Listener, Art New Zealand, AGMANZ, ANTIC, Sites and Landfall. She also conducted live interviews with artists for Radio New Zealand’s Access Radio. Barrie has written numerous essays for art gallery and museum catalogs including: Barbara Kruger (National Art Gallery New Zealand) and Roland Reiss ( Cal State University Fullerton). Barrie taught aesthetic philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, Art Center and Otis School of Art and Design. In New Zealand, Barrie was awarded three Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council grants and a Harkness grant for art criticism. Her feminist interventions are discussed in The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and an archive of her writing is held in The New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa.

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