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Perhaps it’s on account of his early work as a Fashion & Commercial photographer that there seems so much of the salesman throughout the paintings of Charles Sheeler. Their sense of presentation unparalleled, with Sheeler’s distinct clarity evoking, in the best possible way, the brochure and the textbook rather than the canvas.
His is an eye of reverence, one that shows familiar images with an entrancing level of detail that has actually been there all along. With a storied career, Sheeler’s approaches to his work changed drastically through the decades of his painting. The first piece here, ‘Suspended Power’ indicative of his populist Precisionist (a term he coined) phase, the second, ‘The Artist Looks at Nature’ signalling toward the more abstract gaze that became dominant for Sheeler before a stroke in 1959 sadly forced him to give up both photography & painting.
‘Suspended Power’ – 1939
Comissioned by Fortune Magazine to create six paintings that, ‘reflect life through forms … [that] trace the firm pattern of the human mind’, Sheeler picked symbols of great infrastructure. Choosing amongst them: a railroad, a dam, a waterwheel, a steam engine, an aeroplane, and, in ‘Suspended Power’, a hydroelectric turbine.
A turbine that hangs both dormant and dominant within the central space of the image. One worth noting that, regardless of its adroit artistic realisation, is a wonder to its own design. One we are seeing a rare topside perspective of. Its complex hinges and steel circles hidden up above from the view of the worker who is decapitated in a sense by the resting blades that makes him look so tiny.
Sheeler’s ability here to conceive near photographic realisation through his paint is tremendous. From the edged shadows of the brick walls above the exiting corridor, to the two workers stooped together in probably incidental reverence, everything is freighted with reality. Especially the turbine, which feels almost surrealist in its aggressive imposition on the picture inspite of it in fact being amid its natural habitat. Viewing this painting I feel an almost benign aggression by Sheeler, a latent tension that hangs the machine as a noose above the men that it towers.
The men who, after all, have no real power in the picture. They are presumably for maintenance and button pushing, incapable of the unimaginable power that the beast of ‘Suspended Power’ was built for. An omnipotence Sheeler suggests by cutting ‘Suspended Power’ off at the base, as if the machine itself could burrow right off into the ground and away from everything, off out the canvas even.
‘The Artist Looks at Nature’ – 1943
An Inception of a picture. The artist, presumably Sheeler, sits on a high precipice, seemingly untroubled by the heights as he works on an image of a stove that holds no relevance to the jumbled eccentricity of the landscape hinged before him. The message seems clear, and indeed directly at odds with the hundreds of paintings akin to ‘Suspended Power’ that he created early on. Don’t trust the artist. Their impressions are just as fallible as yours, and, in witnessing their act of creation, you can see the real truth. All the artist is doing is ‘looking’ at nature, he holds no responsibility to reproduce it.
Regardless of this existential quandary, the bright landscape of ‘The Artist Looking at Nature’ rolls wonderfully down to the righthand side. With the dam-like structure Sheeler sits on blooming a gentle vegetation that arises in a skilful wash. There is a peace here then in spite of all the contradictions. A gentleness that is as absurd as it is comic. Sheeler perhaps wished to hint to all the possibilites open to both the artist and the audience when engaging with a piece. The physical all around us and the imaginative within.
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