This past Friday, the fall gallery season launched with a full rooster of openings. After spending four years in an industrial complex with a pocket of other galleries on Hubbard Street, and participating in openings as part of the West Town gallery network, Western Exhibitions has relocated to the West Loop Gallery District hotbed and its well-established hive of galleries.
They inaugurated their new digs with Chicago resident Stan Shellabarger’s first solo exhibition at the gallery. Having previously shown with his husband, Dutes Miller, at the gallery, Shellabarger and Miller most recently represented Western Exhibitions at the summer’s sprawling Art Chicago satellite show, NEXT. There they showed their Butter Books [seen below], which smelled and felt like, well, butter. These collaborative pieces consisted of all the wax paper butter wrappings Miller had used in daily cooking over the course of several years, and were exquisitely assembled in traditional Japanese style, with a stab-sewn binding and bone clasp. The duo also completed several performance pieces over the course of the fair, including knitting together, and literally sewing themselves together from pant cuff to collar.
Stan Shellabarger. Butter Book. Image courtesy Western Exhibitions and the artist.
For Shellabarger’s solo show, he also displayed a series of books, but rather then the homespun humor of the Butter Books, the Breath Book on display mined the quotidian acts of the body. This was also revealed as a record of mourning, when, in a taped audio conversation, (1) Shellabarger commented on how his inspiration for the piece sprung from the death of a friend. After contemplating what it meant to take your last breath, Shellabarger commenced the performance, in which he made a tick mark on several pages of paper for every exhalation he made over an eight-hour period.
Stripped of the ritualistic qualities of his circular, twelve hour long walks made in celebration of the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and represented at the gallery by a small grouping of documentary photographs, Shellabarger’s primary presentation of his Walking Books series illustrates how an obsessive compulsive ethos can transform an ordinary stroll into performance art. In these works, Shellabarger physically strained himself to the limits of endurance, but rather then the aggressive performative works of Acconci, or the dangerous ones of Abramavic, Walking Books underscore the physicality of Shellabarger as performer, and record the transitory traces a human body leaves in time and space.
The Walking Books took the form of unfurled accordion bound books and long scrolls, and their installation bespoke a walking path itself, as they wound around the gallery walls. The crisp memory of the papers surface was beautifully embossed with the wood grain, metal grating or rocky gravel texture of the ground that Shellabarger had placed the page on, thanks to his hours of treading over it. The dirt from the soles of his shoes made serendipitous rubbings of said surface as well, enhancing the three dimensional volume of the embossment.
Stan Shellabarger. Walking Books, performance view. 2008. Image courtesy of Western Exhibitions and the artist.
Although seemingly repetitious, the pieces escape monotony thanks to their handsomeness. Without knowledge of the performances that created them, the residue of Shellabarger’s belabored, concentrated efforts clung to each piece. Shellabarger was on hand at the opening, merrily unfolding his fan-like bound books, and, upon request, walking people through them.
--Thea Liberty Nichols
(1) Several excellent audio interviews with the artist conducted by Erik Fabian are archived on the site www.erikandtheanimals.com if you’re interested in hearing more about the role Shellabarger’s life plays in his work, and when, if ever, he considers a piece finished.
(Top image: Stan Shellabarger. Walking Books. 2008)