Daniel Shea is an artist based in New York City working in the mediums of photography, installation, and sculpture. His work explores mythology, fiction and history set against a backdrop of post-industrial ruins and detritus. He published his first monograph, Blisner, Ill., in conjunction with a long-term residency at Columbia College Chicago and is scheduled to release the follow-up book through fourteen-nineteen books in 2014. He has exhibited recently at The DePaul Art Museum, The Museo de Arte Acarigua-Araure, Venezuela, MDW Art Fair, Andrew Rafacz Gallery, the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, Asia Society in Beijing, and LVL3 Gallery, among others. He does commissioned portraits and stories for international magazines and works as an adjunct professor of photography at The Maryland Institute College of Art. He received his MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago and is represented by Andrew Rafacz Gallery in Chicago.
Reality does not exist by itself. It’s an
intellectual construction; and photography is
a tool to negotiate our idea of reality.
— Joan Fontcuberta
Daniel Shea’s lengthy investment in photographing the landscape of industrial production is premised on the conviction that coal provides a point of entry into the realities of contemporary life. Since his earliest projects in 2007, Shea has made photographs that conceive of extraction, productivity, and obsolescence as three forces inextricably linked to the logic of capitalism. His images seek to disassemble the lived consequences of dispassionate economic theories in the bodies and the landscape of the American Midwest.
In the latter phases of this project, Shea’s photographs have become more abstract, gestural, and self-reflexive, as his engagement with sociopolitical conventions has increasingly encompassed the problematic norms of photographic representation. Blisner, IL, 2014, follows Blisner, Ill, 2012, and the new book begins with a series of reproductions of spreads from the earlier work. The alternating form of the acronym for the state of Illinois distinguishes one book from the other. The recurrence of the name Blisner, meanwhile, reinscribes a fictional town into a real American state and signals an oscillating relationship between reality and fiction.
Canonical traditions in documentary photography have laid great stress on the specificity of people and place, which has frequently required detailed caption information, so that each union of text and image appears as a kind of transparent fact. That which the picture frames is thus stable and known and identifiable in precisely the terms in which it has been rendered. To confect a fantasy town from real places replete with their own complex histories is, in this sense, a contravention of long-standing documentary norms.
On the one hand, this gesture forcibly interjects artifice back into the ostensible transparency of the image; on the other hand, this gesture alerts us to arbitrary inventions that have characterized industrial urbanization in the resource-rich Midwest. Blisner, IL, may be less real than Coalwood, WV, but the latter place is of negligible substance once its deep veins have finally been exhausted. The use of allegory thus turns on the conviction that the flippancy of capital flows is as much a mirage as the location of Blisner.
In this sense, Blisner, IL stages an encounter between two opposing methods of representation — one of which is neoliberal, consumptive, and fugitive; the other of which is artistic, self-reflexive, and elusive. This
is a clash not of civilizations but of symbols. Thus the repetitive pattern of windows and facades, the wry subversion of phallic statuary, the telescopic fragmentation of an extensive landscape, the automatism of habitual human gestures, the degradation of efflorescence — each point us toward the hollow center of a postwar utopia that has devolved into an empty specter. We are left with the contortions of a disordered surface: distended reflections, chipped fragments, empty structures, and a rhythmic sense of placelessness. In the cadence of each spread, each peaked roof, each suspension cable
and smokestack chimney, we find a sign of something at once pervasive, specific, and profoundly anonymous.
The irony in all this patterned abstraction centers around its intensely mimetic precision. Shea’s photographs emerge from a culture deeply riven by a process of atomization, the result of which is the increasing normalcy of a solipsistic worldview. The photograph’s inherent discontinuity, which is its distinguishing characteristic, is here redoubled and reflected in a landscape of irregular fragmentation. The deconstruction of documentary form, which energizes the experimentation of this book, has resulted in a visual language that mirrors the disassembly of public resources, and the receding power of the public imaginary.
To speak of mimesis may appear, to some, like an attempt to remap the borders of straight photography — an effort to gerrymander abstract experimentation back into the fold of documentary conventions. However, the divisions that such genres perpetuate tend to impose a uniformity of means on inherently disparate forms of practice. Photography is both and just as much, if not far more, than it is either or. Shea’s photographs are simultaneously subjective and representative, just as they are uneven and structurally coherent: they are fragments of uniform internal consistency that bear little, if any, resemblance to our ordinary ways of seeing.
The troubling question the work raises is whether one can picture the breadth and depth of a capitalist system that is inherently symbolic, multiform, and abstract. As Shea’s photographs conflate disparate instances
of postindustrial dissolution, they fix people and objects at an equal distance and mimic the dispassionate logic of the system they critique. In their fragmentation they evoke a sense of powerlessness whose seductions must ultimately be reversed.
Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa is a photographer, writer, and editor of thegreatleapsideways.com, and completed his residency at Light Work in May 2015.
Daniel Shea lives in New York, NY, and completed his residency at Light Work in February 2014.