Peter Shear: Some Thoughts, Open Not Closed

Past and Present: In the early 21st century, what does Western painting do, what is its value? It has a long history as an instrument to enable or support religious literacy, meditation and reverie, commemoration and celebration, nature study, institutional reinforcement and patron recognition, decorating and accessorizing, and the human impulse to visually create. It can be used for political analysis, critique of industry and war and injustice, existential exploration, philosophical thought, cultural mirroring, signifying class and taste, inquiring into gender and race, and sometimes financial investment. Perhaps painting carries the most baggage among plastic arts. Peter Shear’s paintings deliberately yet delicately skitter across and shake free of these expectations via attitude, size, approach, and purpose while filtering and quieting the daily onslaught of electronic noise.

Attitude: Shear’s methods and results prompt this thought: in the late 60s Robert Motherwell looked up “open” in the Random House Dictionary and found eighty-two entries and associations for the word. He named a current series of paintings, which featured open, closed, and irregular rectangular figures, “Open.” lists eighty-eight entries[1]. Browsing it with Shear’s paintings in mind several entries jump out: adjectives (not closed, accessible, free, uncovered); verbs (establish, begin, move, clear); and nouns (open air and water, the outdoors, aperture, opportunity). Other words that might be added to that definition include “honest,” “sincere,” “relaxed,” and “uncensored.”

Shear collaborates with materials and process; his many approaches, undefensive and searching, signal an open attitude without habit, invariability, or established stability to land a painting on a surprising spot at which to definitively stop: arrival, presence, freshness, and truth.

Size: Shear works small, often ten by eight inches, tiny by many standards. In her essay “Modest Painting,” Mira Schor notes that a painting needn’t “aspire to historical importance through physical domination of the viewer or the room in which it is placed via monumentality of size[2].” Thomas Nozkowski’s politically-inspired idea is to make paintings that could hang on friends’ apartment walls[3]; paintings that fit the scale of domestic walls might also fit the scale of everyday time, attention, need, and wallets. But small size is not small ambition. Large paintings can be intimate, and small works, like Shear’s, can have significant effects: grand space, fresh blossom, jackhammer, the trickle of water, squealing brakes.

Approach: Ad Reinhardt confined his last six years of paintings to sixty inches of canvas divided into nine equal squares painted variations of black to quiet yet monumental effect, a process expressing clarified idea and possibility. Shear’s is the opposite; hung together, his work can appear as a one-person solo show. Marks, color, structure, and images lack predetermination: he’s always messing around, rolling the dice, letting materials do things, failing and recovering and failing again, bravely and monumentally. Aware of painting’s history, his approach mediates a variety of techniques and imagery, playful yet serious.

And what is skill? Vernacular painting–plates, bowls, cups, pots, furniture, masks, signs, etc.–is not necessarily a low art. It’s all just putting on paint with certain intentions, getting the job done. Shear does likewise, brushing, smearing, scraping, daubing, spraying, and staining, sometimes with loaded paint and other times sparingly. Skill, whatever it is, is whatever is needed at the moment.

Purpose: Looking beyond the question of Western art, Shear’s paintings share a certain Eastern spirit. In China, as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618–907), a division exists between skilled “academic” painters and poets in the literati tradition, educated citizens who, as amateurs, painted and wrote poetry as a means of self-expression. Literati painters were less concerned with technical skill or realistic depiction but rather with the idea that the painter’s style conveyed inner character[4].

Zenga is the Japanese word describing Zen monks’ painting and calligraphy after 1600. Stephen Addiss writes, “The works were created not ‘for art’s sake’ nor at the bidding of wealthy patrons, but rather to aid meditation and to lead toward enlightenment… the style of the brushwork… is dramatically bold, seemingly impetuous, and bluntly immediate in effect[5].” A spontaneous translation from mind and spirit to paper, Zenga is inner life expressed outwardly, an attempt to make something new, or, as Barnett Newman put it, “An artist paints so that he will have something to look at.”

For Peter Shear, almost nothing is off limits. His paintings[6] find delicacy in randomness and brutality, beauty in the mundane, intelligence in the ordinary, freedom within the limits of paint. Opened, not closed, they give us something to look at, reflect on, question, and wonder and think about.

Chris Ashley
Oakland, California
January 2016

Katelyn Eichwald & Peter Shear
Alter Space, San Francisco
March 5 – April 16, 2016
Opening: March 5, 7-10

[1] “Open | Define Open at”, n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2016. <>.

[2] Schor, Mira. “Modest Painting.” A Decade of Negative Thinking. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2009. 135-60. Print.

[3] Kerr, Dylan. “Meet the Artist: The Art of Failing Upwards: Thomas Nozkowski on How to Succeed in Abstraction | Artspace.” Artspace. Artspace, 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 31 Jan. 2016. <>.

[4] Sturman, Peter C. “The Artful Recluse: Painting, Poetry, and Politics in 17th-Century China.” Asia Society. Asia Society, n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2016. <>.

[5] Addiss, Stephen. The Art of Zen. New York: Harry Abrams, 1989. 6. Print.

[6] “Peter Shear.” Peter Shear. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2016. <>.