Everything is in flux
Over five decades or so, artist Paul Shapiro — a former guitarist and founder of the ’60s rock band The Hallucinations — has shifted from Abstract Expressionism through landscape painting and portraiture and back to abstraction in his work. Shapiro became interested in art when he visited the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1958 and was inspired by the student work he saw there. A native of Massachusetts, Shapiro switched educational tracks — he was studying biology — and headed to New York to study art. He soon returned to the Museum School in Boston and embarked on a career painting and teaching. It was after seeing an exhibit of expressionist work in Paris in 1970 that Shapiro, who up to that time had been making only abstract work, began doing more representational paintings. He experimented with imaginary landscapes that a friend said looked like depictions of New Mexico, and in 1977, he took his first trip to the Land of Enchantment, settling in Santa Fe permanently in the early 1980s.
“It’s kind of like getting a lifetime achievement award,” Shapiro said of the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. “They even took one of my paintings and made it into the poster for this year’s awards, and that’s great, because it’s not one of my landscapes but one of my more abstract works.”
A retrospective of his works from 1970 to 1990, appropriately titled The Landscape Years, was shown at Cline Fine Art in 1992. Shapiro’s landscapes and portraits are Fauvist-like works that emphasize a strong use of color, with subjects painted in a way that echoes the primitivism seen in the work of Paul Gauguin. One can detect an affinity with other painters, as well, such as Van Gogh, Munch, and, more recently, Francis Bacon. Expressionism never really seemed to leave Shapiro’s paintings, even when he was doing more figurative work. Shapiro met with success painting New Mexico’s scenery but returned to abstract forms inspired by calligraphy and sometimes incorporating collage.
Shapiro never seems comfortable doing one thing over and over again, in the manner of many artists who, having met with a modicum of success, settle into a routine. His work has many moods and touches on many styles without fully embracing them, adding up to a body of work that cannot be easily classified.
The artist’s career has been marked by a series of dramatic shifts, including a significant return to abstraction. “That happened in 1990,” he said. “The boundary around recognizable forms I found very limiting, and I had to free myself from that matrix.” His 2006 show Quantumscapes, at Zane Bennett Contemporary Art, showcased a series of fluid, nebula-like images that resemble interstellar rivers of stars and dust. “That was the result of another radical shift in my work that happened about six and a half years ago,” Shapiro said. “The quantum paintings look like energy forms about to shift into matter. But that’s really just a metaphor.”
Shapiro’s open-ended, experimental style encompasses different mediums and techniques. Yet even the artist’s more nonobjective work seems suggestive at times of portraiture or landscape, as though the essence of his former work still speaks through his paintings, despite his dramatic break with representationalism. Shapiro is a painter still willing to take chances, always striving for new means of expression.
— Michael Abatemarco
Paul Shapiro: White Void, 1996, oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches