Awards & Articles

Picturing the Invisible

By Jon Carver


The incredible thing about Shapiroʼs recent paintings is that they are without exception incredible. If there are false starts or failures within his process they never find their ways to the wall. Yet for all their apparent perfection there is also nothing formulaic or boring about this work. To see one is never to have seen them all. The one thing they have in common is a consistent insistence upon a new form of beauty, time and time again.


Zero Point #76. 2005. 24 x 24 inches. Acrylic on Masonite.


Einstein assures us that at the speed of light time is negligible. For the whirring electron temporality doesnʼt really exist. The other fact we forget is that light, besides being timeless, is also invisible. The vaster part of the spectrum is never seen; the infrared and the ultra-violet pass through your bones all day long. What you do see is called color. When you delight in light what youʼre enjoying is an invisible energy interacting with certain vibrational frequencies of matter. Black and white in Shapiroʼs Quantumscapes correspond then to a kind of invisibility made visible, to light and matter, to weightlessness (lightness) and time as a function of gravity, to the electro and the magnetic, to what Deleuze and Guattari call the white wall and the black hole. In their analogy, the shaman, the artist balances between these dualisms. Leonardo found his mystery in chiaroscuro. Shapiro finds that balance, that zero-point, that realm of explosive possibility in imaging the realities proposed by the promptings of science and the intuition of art. Great art, and the great art of living proceeds through synthesis, or the collapse of previously established dualities. In Taoism this is the middle way. In spiritual systems it is atonement. In Jungian Psychology it is Synchronicity. In Shapiroʼs interpretations of quantum mechanics and other systems of theoretical physics, it is Simultaneity.

So let fall the tower of art babble before the abstract paintings of Paul Shapiro. His vast Quantumscape series neatly resolves categorical issues of abstraction. Like Richter he creates gestural abstractions that paradoxically appear to deny the hand. And, as Richter claims, Shapiro finds his source in nature. Shapiro has arguably (finally) advanced the now-historic cause of abstract painting in a way that hasnʼt been seen before. Rather than style he has chosen, like contemporary physicists, (and Aristotle) to turn and face the void. In a sense he might be the only abstract painter since de Kooning or Joan Mitchell to live up to this existential challenge without, like Richter or Motherwell, taking cover in the decorative. Phillip Guston did it, but it drove him back to figuration, back into the same territory where Richterʼs and Polkeʼs best work happens. One is tempted to imagine Shapiroʼs work as a Malevich-White Square moment, for all the vigor it portends. By returning abstract painting to the small scale of the easel picture Shapiro not only demonstrates his incredible prowess as a pure painter but also distances himself from the stylists of the “if you canʼt do it well, do it big” school. Shapiro collapses the landscape into the quantumscape. He focuses the gesture of all over abstraction into easel paintings that most remarkably recall the interstellar pictorial space of Pollock, unique complexities intact, but with a new consciousness and greater lucidity. The “existential void” of post-religious philosophy is not nearly as fearfully indiscernible as first pictured. In fact, artistically it supports all magnitude of investigation. Shapiroʼs prolific output is testament.

The universe is your hallucination and looking at it, being in it, is an infinite interactive process. Anyone who has ever done life drawings knows this. Life supports infinite investigation, supplies infinite interpretations, and endlessly discloses an incredible complexity along with simple secrets. Every time you look up from your drawing, your writing, to look again at the details, the figure, the objects, the world before you, you see something new. Seeing is the act of discovering the previously unseen. The unavoidable basis of science and art is observation and the best observers begin, middle and end with the premise that the greater part of the foundation of human knowing is built on an unobservable infinity, the visible and invisible mystery. Thatʼs life.

So now that you understand what these paintings are doing let me make good on the promise to tell you what they mean, or what they will come to mean, since meaning in art is always a potential, rather than an established fact. The meaning of this work is that the unperceivable is a cause for infinite joy rather than doom and gloom. They mean quite simply and intensely that there are ways to face the void without fear. This acceptance, and Shapiro has proved it, holds nothing but profound ramifications for the dawning next phase of human consciousness be it philosophical, scientific, and/or artistic. Shapiroʼs output indicates once again that art is capable of leading the way out of multiple intellectual culs de sac for those who are willing to accompany it.

Oddly enough as a critic deeply involved with issues of painting and art I have never really had the urge to acquire, or live with works that I find outstanding. The highest compliment I can pay to Paul Shapiro, whose work I obviously believe in, is that in this case I think I might have to make an exception to that rule.

As a building doesnʼt understand but stands atop a foundation, so no academic knowledge, no human system, can grasp the total mystery of the bedrock infinitude of possibility and change upon which human life rests. To deepen the acceptance of this truth in yourself and body is the wisdom of recognizing the infinite inside and out. When you stop knowing you begin to know. When you no longer look seeing returns. When you stop striving you achieve. When you live on Earth, you live in a beautiful mystery beyond the wildest imaginings of your highest meta- physicians. This is the heart of creative action and freedom. It is in wonder and intuition that we find our way into the future. Paul Shapiro is hard at work making that future his own, and luckily for us, ours as well.

THERE IS NO BEGINNING AND THERE IS NO END. THE MAGICIANʼS ABILITY TO BE IN MULTIPLE PLACES AT the same time is another way to acknowledge the sageʼs deep realization that the incredibly complex multiplicity of universes available to be experienced is also, in sum total, the seamless oneness of the cosmos. Every moment awaits in the one before. Your feet stay on the ground as part of the sum total of cosmic forces. On the atomic level our world of light and matter in time and space is simply a multiplicity of variations in vibration amidst a whole lot of what we still perceive as – nothing- but which might better be understood as the unseeable, the zero point limit of human perception, or more optimistically, the soon to be previously unseen. The place the future awaits to come from non-being into being, what we call the vacuum, the anti-matter, is most of what your body, your everything, is. Yet could that curtain be lifted? Let your eyes adjust and look at the recent paintings of Paul Shapiro. It has been said that it is not important what a painting means, but rather what a painting does. Iʼll get to what Shapiroʼs paintings mean, because it is important actually, but most important indeed, is what they do. Basically, Shapiroʼs paintings ask the question- what is the fundamental nature of reality? Art and philosophy, which arose together in human consciousness, have always asked this question, among many others. It has obsessed mystics and haunts myth. In the modern era science has been charged with this pursuit. In one sense it is the only questionwhat is the fundamental nature of reality? And it is Shapiroʼs brilliance to grasp this, and then to bring his considerable artistic skill to the project of framing the question, and embarking headlong upon a protean search for answers.

In days long gone we would have accepted solutions to the problem through the instructive mythologies of religion, and brought these beliefs into being through ritual. Today we cling to the Enlightenment idea that these are mysteries that science will unlock, but a simple perusal of popular texts on developments in higher physics indicates that at the moment there seem to be some serious impasses to provability on a subatomic level, and so we are faced with a proliferation of increasingly bizarre (and at this point unprovable) theories. This is where art comes in. Throughout history art has periodically acted in a sacred and prophetic role. Call this the Oracle function of art, the ability to predict tomorrow before it gets here, and this is certainly related to the phenomenon of being ahead of oneʼs time. Consider that in Einsteinian terms. Slow as it is, does Art travel faster than the speed of light?

Anyway, with Science finally hitting the wall of mysticism, there is once again an opportunity for Art to perform this prophecy/catalyst function. Art is unencumbered by needs for proof, and equipped with that most valuable of human tools, intuition. Shapiroʼs brilliance shines once more in his ability to hone in. He makes intuition the most important color in his palette.

Welcome to the eleven dimensional reality of superstring theory in which a multiplicity of actual and potential universes enfold and unfold within each other across all variety of temporal environs. That Shapiro has found this Kublai-Yau complexity using the paint-recorded movement of the human hand seems obvious only after the fact. An electron can be in more than two places at once. This quantum reality represents the building blocks of choice and chance, and on an artistic level for Shapiro the quantum world equals limitless possibility. While his “secret technique” collapses the gesture into a rhetorical denial that appears oddly digital or photographic, these works are pure paint on paper and panel, simultaneously deeply felt and expressive. Collage elements make the work both hard and soft edged; make it shift strata. In the same way that Physics is proving that the old wall between science and mysticism is more nothing than something, the paintings of Paul Shapiro cast the old empty existential void as a rich infinitely explicable mystery in which there just might live a new hope for humanism.

Shapiroʼs chasing light, as painters always have. Like an electron or magician in two or more places at once Shapiro can be equally elegant and deeply expressive at the same time. The work jumps back and forth between spontaneous beauty and visionary insight depending upon what you want to see when.

Start with a painting like Zero Point # 83. On a purely formal level it is more than enough to make a critic like the late Clement Greenberg go gaga. The crisp whites and remarkable range of blacks are simply stunning, and the rich all over complexity of the composition supports seemingly infinite contemplation. One has the sense that a commitment to live with a piece like this would provide an endlessly replete relationship, a timeless source of solace and excitement in response to the mood of the viewer. Like so many of Shapiroʼs pieces (Cosmogenesis # 42 is another excellent example) one wonders if it is an interstellar picture of the cosmos or an interior soulscape. That these are ultimately one and the same, that the universe is inside us as well as without, is the unavoidable message of Shapiroʼs work. When we look deeply within we find the expansive cosmos flowing through us. In an age when humankind threatens to separate itself from nature in perilous ways never before envisioned grasping this message is urgent. Yet where one might expect to find strident panic in a painter of lesser skill, Shapiro keeps his cool. His painterly voice is exquisitely aware, disarmingly assured and derives from an overwhelming belief in the power of unadulterated art to express deep truths.

Governor's Art Award 2010 New Mexico