Allegra LaViola Gallery is pleased to present Shawn Bitters: Yes, Yes, Yes, Now, Now, Now, an exhibition of sculpture in the gallery’s Project Space.
The “language of nature” is ancient, mysterious and universal, and Bitters invites us to decode his rendering in a series of paper sculptures. All of the 26 stone forms have a corresponding letter of the alphabet, which Bitters uses to create a language all his own. In his short story, Signs & Symbols, one of Vladimir Nabokov’s characters is certain that the natural world is communicating with him through the ordering of clouds, the web of trees and in every other aspect of his surroundings. The idea that nature communicates with us, and has a native tongue, is one that is eternal as the rocks. Both scientists and shamen read the world around them to better reach conclusions about the universe and our place in it.
Worlds collide in Bitters’ tumbling paper sculptural forms, leaving us on unsteady footing as we navigate the surrounding space. Ranging from very large to incredibly small, the rock formations seem to have emerged from the wall or grown from the floor, taking form and substance organically. Bitters hand makes each paper panel, layering pigment with pulp to achieve the mottled stains and color fields that transform each element of the rock fall into a world of its own. Some glow with subdued force, while others embrace a more vibrant palette.
Embedded within this idea of the legibility of natural world is our inherent inability to actually capture what nature might be trying to say to us. Bitters does not attempt to give us the easy way out or assume that now that we have the code we are able to formulate the correct answer. Even with the key, the forms have their secrets and might be resistant to interpretation. Certainly, the actual natural world has resisted our attempts to define or predict. Despite our seemingly advanced scientific knowledge, we are taken by surprise almost constantly. Bitters embraces this power and unrelaibility, allowing us to feel overwhelmed or off balance. In doing so, he realizes that our own relation to the natural world is, and must always be, entirely uncertain.
Shawn Bitters received his BFA in printmaking from BYU, Utah and his MFA from RISD, Rhode Island. He has exhibited at Swarm Gallery, Oakland; IPCNY, New York; Naked City Gallery, Kansas and had residencies in Yamakawa, Japan and Hirsholm Island, Denmark. Currently, he lives and works in Lawrence, KS, where he is Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Kansas. This is his first solo exhibition in New York City.
In the mid-nineteenth century eight families met Mormon missionaries in northern Europe. These families, each pulled by the desire to live in a holy utopia, left their ancestral lands. Landing in New York, New Orleans and San Francisco they packed up wagons and walked to the Utah Territory. Sheltered in old customs and engaged with a new environment they slowly settled into the Rocky Mountains. Over a century later, I inhabit their collective skin and look at the present through the filter of the world they helped create in the desert mountains.
Barry Lopez in his book Arctic Dreams states his belief that one‘s native environment physically shapes one‘s mind. Since I have left the desert mountains that originally shaped my thoughts, I have been working to define my connection to my past and present landscapes with a multiplicity of media. I use geology and the body to discuss the present nature of the past. These physical elements become storytellers, presenting narratives and metaphors for my relationship to space and place.
Printmaking, papermaking and photography have been key in realizing my work. In choosing processes, I aim for a melding of media, content and concept. Through printmaking and papermaking, I create paper sculpture and installations that present constructed personal landscapes. Photography is an elegant choice for documenting my body’s direct engagement with a given landscape. It brings spontaneity and a performative aspect to my creative process.
Recent work is preoccupied with how we use stories and language to form a connection to land. We use stories to shape unknown environments into understandable landscapes. Landscapes are mental constructions: they are an assemblage of elements and relationships that are understandable and familiar. When encountering a new environment there is always an element of fear of the unknown. However, once a newcomer connects a story to the location, be it a personal experience, a historical anecdote, or a scientific theory, the location becomes understandable. This new understanding, in the mind of the newcomer, transforms the environment into a landscape. This process is a part of the migration experience. Stories of better places draw people in search of them or cause them to pine for landscapes left behind.
In the short story Signs & Symbols by Vladimir Nabokov, there is a striking example of assigning a language to nature. In this story, a character believes that nature is communicating directly to him through the arrangement of clouds, a network of branches: in everything he sees. Mankind has a long history of reading nature, whether through soothsayers, prophets, or scientists. It is a short step from understanding how a certain environment works to thinking that the environment is communicating with us. By assigning nature a voice and a language, we are lending it human characteristics or, in other words, personifying nature. I am fascinated with the transition between understanding nature and personifying nature. The urge to lend our own thoughts and characteristics to the physical phenomena that shape our environments is irresistible because the result is to render them understandable.