Life in Venice

June 2, 2011

It's the Olympics of the art world. Artists from 89 countries arrive this month in Venice, each "representative" commanding the contents of his or her country's pavilion. The Biennale lasts for half a year, but most of the serious action-the buying, the reviewing, the world-class head-scratching-takes place just before the official opening. Collectors, curators, and critics convene for their preview June 1 to 3; it's international speed-dating for the cognoscenti.

Normally, the Canadian pavilion, which Italy built for us in 1957 as part of its war reparations, is a humble, squat sort of octagonal teepee. On one side looms the large British pavilion, done up in the intimidating colonial style. On the other, Germany's pavilion (built by Hitler a year before the war) is massive and designed in the Fascist style. Canada sort of mumbles in the middle.

But not this year. This year Canada has sent Vancouver's sleepy-voiced "bastard child of the photoconceptualists," Steven Shearer. A 10-metre wall has been erected in front of our pavilion and, across that edifice, Shearer has emblazoned a hostile, gleefully worded poem in stone lettering. The poem, inspired by heavy-metal song titles, contains language sure to be called profane.

Once visitors get past that, they'll duck through a 1.5-metre-high toolshed door and into the pavilion proper. If the initial impression is aimed to be confrontational (and a direct comment on the aggressive architecture that flanks the Canadian pavilion), then the 71 drawings and dozen paintings inside are surprisingly humanistic.

The paintings are of alienated, melancholic young men. There's a romanticism to these figures and a historical ambiguity to the style Shearer employs. We register their moshpit-ready locks, but do they belong to contemporary bohemia or the actual absinthe-riddled bars of 19th-century Paris? (The "juvenile" strokes and vivid colours recall Munch or Toulouse-Lautrec.) The painting on the facing page is an example of that timeless, romantic humanization of the male waif, the lost boy. It's also the flip side of the vitriolic poem outside the pavilion, whose text grows from the same macho alienation.

Before leaving for Italy, Shearer gave a rare interview at his studio near Main and Seventh. Past the bustling, staffed office and the library full of art history books lies his inner sanctum. On a leather couch, next to his electric guitar (which he plays prodigiously well), Shearer is friendly but uncomfortable with the attention the Biennale has brought. The loner artist whose work is based on loner culture finds himself in strange waters.

"I've never had a career track, a plan," he says, "because I assumed I'd never have a career at all." Success like this-the Biennale puts Shearer in the company of B.C. greats like Emily Carr, Jack Shadbolt, Liz Magor, and Rodney Graham-is a sort of accident: an elite four-person committee selected him from among the country's thousands of working artists. This despite the fact that Shearer is not represented by any Canadian gallery and is better known in public and private collections through Europe and the Middle East. With those foreign deals, he's normally been able to keep himself separate from the consumers of his work. "And I've been happy with that.

"If I were in Italy, say, I'd feel claustrophobic with all the old art there. Here I have the space to work away. I like being left to my own devices. I like that I'm not dominated by any one milieu or academy."

Now, though, there's suddenly a spotlight. He looks past me at a painting. "Then again," he says, "in the end, the work has always been about me. I never made it for someone else."

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