Dee Shapiro’s paintings have evolved over decades of a rigorous thematic and formal search—how colors and shapes can express the intricate relationship between pattern, geometry, and nature through a two- dimensional form? With what appears to be a strong impetus to constantly re-invent her painterly vocabulary, Dee Shapiro’s work keeps us on our toes with each of her series of work, which she sees overall as evoking an alternate reality with absurd connection. From her early Fibonacci progression color coded on graph paper, to her later representational Bathers series–Shapiro’s paintings assert themselves with a life of their own, without a need for any explanation.
Tell me a bit about yourself, where you grew up, your art background.
I grew up in Brooklyn during the Depression years in a poor working-class family who over time moved up to middle class. I learned a few skills from my mother who taught how to knit and crochet. It involved counting and I was amazed at how patterns developed as an outcome of counting. It just occurred to me that my early practice was an unconscious relation to my mother’s teaching. My grandmother worked in the garment center as early as the sweatshop era. There were always patterned fabrics around for sewing.
I drew and read as a child, and in school I was singled out as the art maker. Only at Queens College I began to study art formally. I had a study stint in Mexico and Cuba and observing patterns in those places was surely an influence. After two years of teaching art to emotionally disturbed children, marriage and two children, a hiatus in Kentucky for two years while my husband served during the Vietnam time, I returned to Long Island where I continued to teach for another few years until I was able to quit and paint full time.
You say, “in the beginning was pattern.” What do you think drew you to pattern? And how do you see your connection to the Pattern and Decoration movement
Yes, I was always drawn to pattern and could see it everywhere I looked. I mentioned the experience learning to knit. I began obsessively drawing simple lines in graphite on a complete large roll of paper that looked like herringbone tweed (It was shown with other graphite pattern pieces at AIR Gallery). It was pattern with nod to minimalism. Overt patterning was missing from that work. That might be why I didn’t make the cut in the group of artists in Pattern and Decoration Movement which was starting up. I joined the Heresies Collective, a group of artists that included Miriam Shapiro, focusing on women’s work as it related to craft.
The Collective published a magazine each month that included a different focus such as “On Women and Violence.” Different people contribute to each issue. I worked on the “Women’s Traditional Arts – The Politics of Aesthetics” Issue. The artists working with pattern were trying to dispel the pejorative of ‘’decorative” as something pedestrian or culturally lower class. By then I was welcomed into the P&D movement and the pieces I contributed had to do with my grandmother and her penny quilt piece and a photo essay of my grandmother baking a challah.
My earlier pattern work was based on a number progression, the Fibonacci progression that I came across through reading and saw that it was a system that appeared in nature and almost everywhere. I liked the meditative repetitions and the mathematics, especially since pattern was inherent in all of it. My work at that time had to do with the process that emulated cake decorations as I used the pastry tops to apply paint. The result looked something like beading or weaving, all part of what the P&D movement was interested in. There were several men in the movement as well.
I am looking at Thinking Arithmetic from 1983. What would you like to share about the idea and process behind this watercolor?
I used graph paper as a grid for work like that. It was all based on a system of colored lines of ink or watercolor on the horizontal and vertical and their repetition. I did a lot of plotting to get all the variations and overlaps so that it could be read for all the geometric shapes that evolved. The graph paper has ten squares to the inch. Each square has a color pattern that is repeated throughout the piece. The circles use larger elements for the patterns. Those elements are repeated with subtle changes of color. The triangles link the circles to the next geometric shape. It is so complicated that I can hardly remember doing it. There were a number of pieces like this, one was a takeoff on the Serpentine floors in the Churches in Italy. After these pieces on paper, I began the series of paintings that used a similar system. The activity of work on those paintings is like a craft worker’s.
Around that time, you made a silkscreen series drawing on Saudi Arabian carpets, Hejaz, which John Yau referred to in his essay on your work. What is the genesis of this series?
Looking at carpets in general. I loved Oriental rugs, but the patterns were more romantic or floral and the Arabian carpets had more geometry. The patterns I used were not specifically taken from those carpets. I improvised and created my own patterns. It turned out that they were sold to someone from Saudi Arabia.
You mention that “missing the early fascination and engagement with pattern” led you to your more recent body of work, which resonates with biological and organic forms. Can you tell me more about this evolution and can we also take a closer look at two works: an earlier work, Spicy, (2012) and a more recent work, Game Fun (2020). What would you like to share about these two paintings and how do you see the relationship between them?
So I left a ten year period of small cityscapes that were about the geometry and shapes of places. I remember being in my country studio and just making large marks with a pen. I needed to use my whole arm. Shapes began to evolve from that mark making that looked very organic. I went with that and produced drawings that further emphasized male and female sexual parts incorporated in the piece. Spicy, a play of body parts, primitive elements with some garlic to spice it up, and spools that refer to sewing. I call those drawings my Sexy period. The circle becomes more prominent as I move to another interest.
Game Fun is part of a new way of composing work. I spill or pour ink on the surface and let it run its course. Then I use the spaces that happen with spilling in different directions to deal with the composition. It created more challenges to using pattern.
I am not an artist that has one main body of work. I work through a series until I feel I have exhausted it, or my interest in it, then I find something else I begin to play with. More geometric patterning is present in that work because it was related to the idea I wanted to play with. That piece is just geometry and pattern with a nod to what games we play in life and in paint. Both pieces were done with a sense of humor. They both have the geometry and pattern.
Your drawing from 2010 for instance, seems like a prelude for a new body of work.
After several years of doing every close and intricate work I needed to move my whole arm. I started to draw with long strokes. This piece had biomorphic references I only recognized when it was finish. It was the beginning of a new series of work that incorporated long drawn lines in ink in the Sexy series.
In another body of recent work, it also seems that you are making images that appropriate female figures by ‘famous’ artists—within your world of surface and pattern. What brought you there and how do you think it interrelates with your sensibilities? Can we look for example at your recent mixed media work, My Two bathers (2021), in this context?
I was using mixed media in the drawings on the mat boards and other small panel works. The figures happened as I decided to make a large piece. I was in my country studio where the wall can take larger pieces than I have in my angled walled studio at home. When I finished that piece, I saw that it was a torso, though I never had that in mind. With all that dripping, things seemed to sprout out of the drawing by themselves. Well, this piece was a figure and I got to thinking about what’s next.
I began to look again at male artists who painted nudes particularly the iconic ones. People would recognize it even if I repainted, rescaled, and collaged them. The first one after the Torso was a Matisse. I started it in Yaddo and was about to give up when I got some encouragement from a fellow artist. I have been working on the largest piece with two women wrapped around each other. A Courbet. The one here is Renoir. I used faces in black and white from magazines to give some attention to the characters and their emotions. It is about pattern and appropriation. I call each painting, “MY BATHERS” to take them away from the male artist. I suppose I was thinking about how many nudes there are from the male gaze.
What would you like to share about your studio work these days?
I have an attic studio in my home. It was made into a studio for me when I needed to have a separate space for my work. I live in the suburbs with little connection with other artists. It has been a place of much production. I am currently moving back and forth from country studio with straight walls to home, with an emphasis on completing my last figure for a while. I will rest and read for most of the summer while something else germinates. I expect to be showing ten nudes sometime in the fall or spring at the David Richard Gallery in Harlem.
All photos courtesy of the artist
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: email@example.com