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Something New from Repetition

Martin Holman responds to Kleiner Shames' 'Something New from Repetition', Jupiter Gallery, Newlyn 22-27.8.22

The artist known as Kleiner Shames does not do autobiography. Rather than travel inward for his material, his artwork deals with facts rather than feelings. Shape, colour and space boldly dominate his compositions, varied by shifting dimensions and types of surface. Shames looks towards the world that surrounds him, its structures and vistas, at how people interact with it and the traces they leave. He does not feel confined to conventional places for placing or making his work. Inside or out, public or private, settings might determine how Shames wants the world to engage with him.

And ever-present in the fusion that typifies his vision are skateboarding and graffiti, the subcultures which provided Shames with the training ground for his visual awareness. In-keeping with the kinetic spirit of that background, this installation at Jupiter Gallery moves the visitor’s attention between wall and floor, canvas and board, vertical and horizontal in its combination of painting, print, collage and four sizable freestanding objects. Travelling between the different dimensions, media and idioms are four graphic forms that tie the show together by appearing and reappearing on the flat and in the round.

The most dominant form is embodied in the gallery by a tall triangle in a turquoise shade of blue. Sitting on a straight-backed right-angle, it conforms to an isosceles silhouette except that the third side acquires a kink and curve on its way to the apex. Becalmed on the gallery floor and rising above the height of any visitor, its geometry has been fleshed out into a three-dimensional wedge.


'Jimbo x Wavy B', photograph by Andy Lawrence


Adjacent giclée printed photographs, however, document the angular figure in other settings. In one, 'Bluey', its given name, belies its body weight to given the impression of surfing the current off Mousehole. A video loop projected on another wall goes further to personify the shape in upright and reclining poses like a fashion model against a plane grey backdrop before assuming the ramp position. The photographs and video are the work of Andy Lawrence, and Patch Plummer helped build the four sculptures. Shames is no stranger to collaboration and to make this exhibition involved these fellow freelance artists after being nominated by photographer Chris Levine for a Kickstart award from John Studzinski’s Genesis Foundation.

A theme emerges with the second shape, a chunky square bracket in uniform red. This is 'Dom' and it sits in the gallery, upright this time like a large dog begging for viewers to walk round and perhaps let it rest its paws on their shoulders. In another of Lawrence’s action shots it is seen crouched in bench-like mode as a skateboard passes under its belly while its rider vaults over its back. The third shape in this group of objects is 'Wavy B', all-over black this time and a variant of Bluey but altogether less elegant. Divided between a belly-like bulge propped in its upright position against a straight back slightly off-set on a separate rhomboid block of black that acts as a base. The fourth and last, a backwards leaning cousin of the blue and black wedges, is white and named 'Blanche'.


 Installation view, Jupiter Gallery, August 2022

The photographs propose an active life in the open, beyond the supposedly passive, elevated setting of art and of the languages with which art copes with incongruous structures. To underscore the contrast, the objects do not enter the art environment in pristine condition. Or, more accurately, scrapes and skid marks are part of their aesthetic. Their surfaces are scuffed by the hard rubber wheels of skateboards and the dirt of street tar and aggregate picked up in that external existence. As such these sculptures create a context for viewing the paintings and collages on the walls; inside the gallery they insert themselves a little edgily into the way art is looked at.

Dom, Bluey, Blanche and Wavy B are the four shapes that correspond with the interlocking forms that syncopate flat coloured facets across the picture plane of Shames’s paintings. Having asserted a kind of autonomy on the gallery floor and in the documentary photographs, they slip into the paintings as anonymous elements. At first hard to read, they shed their volume and are reduced to flat outlines to fill the roles assigned them in, for example, the painting called 'Four in a pile'.

The pile of the title is illusory: the surface of the image is demonstrably flat. But that illusion suggests a viewpoint looking down on contours overlapping each other in an interpenetration of curves, gradients and angles. Where one edge is laid across, translucent like decked sheets of coloured plastic, new colour-forms are made. The detail introduces the idea that the stack might exist in space just deep enough to accommodate the coloured layers. Internal tonal ridges also echo the returns and kinks of the dominant areas to suggest simple spatial relationships by shadowing their lines.

While the photographs imply function and reality, the paintings represent no place that exists outside the artist’s imagination. Here other properties are at work: how colour and form are inseparable, for instance, seemingly conceived at the same moment. Repeated so often, the shapes become a kind of basic language. In the largest painting, 'Four close up', the repeated forms establish a new choreography of line, colour, shape and space. The structures feel more monumental: architecture comes to mind, the kind of future city of massive, sleek lined constructions visualised by a theoretical architect. No community could occupy these buildings. But they pack a thrill all the same, the way that expressionist film sets (Fritz Lang’s 'Metropolis' or Ridley Scott’s 'Blade Runner') impress.


Big Bluey, wood

The eye scans the optical dynamism of these seamless surfaces to follow the play between shape and colour. Shames does not make preliminary drawings: his technique is more spontaneous than that. He relies on a kind of cognitive muscle memory to deliver interconnecting frames that bring colour and movement with them. He manipulates his readymade language on a narrow chromatic scale, in keeping with the reductive approach he now applies to all his work. Painting appears tightly controlled around four dominant colours – red, white and turquoise or light blue are almost standard, and he likes black as colour rather than as a graphic device. At other times, idiosyncratic combinations come out of yellow, orange and brown, or contrasting hues on the blue-red spectrum that bring out purple, mauve and lilac.

The paint itself shows no sign of being worked. Instead, bands and blocks feel detached from the hand, even mechanical, as if screen-printed. Shames works professionally in two idioms that require that impersonal touch. As a screen printer, he reproduces his own and other people’s designs by in a methodical way to separate colours and reproduce effects. As a signwriter, he is called upon to impersonate print on vehicles and shopfronts. An old trade, it is highly visual and iconic in its features; his four primary shapes derive from favourite fluted serifs and effects. Shames took up the technique after his initiation into graffiti while growing up in Oxford, and pursued both in Bristol and London.

Those experiences established certain traits that he has carried forward into what might awkwardly be called his 'fine art' work. One is the taut and continuous arrangement of diversified elements; another is the homogenous flow of pigment first discovered with spray paint; and the third is an appreciation of scale. In the last of these, Shames cut his design teeth on containing wide and tall expanses of wall within the false symmetry of compositions built around bold, blocky interconnecting forms. That evolved into tackling the sides of houses. The distribution of a few colours across these shapes not only gave spatial ambiguity to a level plane, it also set up the perceptible visual energy that is establishing itself as a personal trademark. A painting like 'Shadow leaner' allows the wedge shapes to dance tight, interconnecting moves within set confines; images do not spill out of the canvas but stay within physical boundaries. In this case, the composition resolves into a kind of cubistic fragmentation; a white circle seems to hold the interplay of geometry and colour, surface and illusion in place like a thumb tack.


Combinate, enamel on panel

Shames paints with enamels, thinning the medium to a consistency that almost slides off chisel-headed brushes like a skin. It is possible to imagine the hand of this painter gliding across a paint surface in search of the same smooth move he might attempt with a boardslide in skateboarding. Painting becomes a little performative, even if the audience is not around to acknowledge the skill. Enamel as outdoor paint is durable and lasting, and good against scuffing. The material keeps faith with the artist’s inside/outside aesthetic and is equally relevant to painting on metal as it is on wood or canvas – or the hull of the ferry boat that regularly crosses between Falmouth and St Mawes.

Because, in 2019, he was commissioned to apply a fresh look to the May Queen to mark the 80th birthday of the craft (1939) as well as the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings (1944). With those commemorative dates bracketing the most intense period of the Second World War, Shames came up with a pattern of stripes, broken lines, curves and kinks in homage to the abstract camouflage applied to vessels of the world wars known as dazzle ships. Except that Shames’s eye-catching work had the wittily opposite effect of making the boat unmissable at sea.


The May Queen (2019)

The original concept for dazzle patterns came from artists recruited for the British war effort. Shames is aware of the best-known contributor to the project, Edward Wadsworth, a painter aligned with Vorticism in the years around World War 1. The attraction of Wadsworth’s style to Shames is obvious. Pictorially, Vorticism used clear linear, hard-edged forms and unmodulated colour that was frequently independent of any representational value. The style was objective and unsentimental, properties apparent in Shames’s work, and reflected the energy manifested in factories, popular music and dance. Fortunately, Shames displays no sign of Vorticism’s bombast; in life and art, he is too easy-going by nature for that to be a possibility.

Indeed, Shames’s art is something of an anomaly. His career has not emerged through immersion in contemporary practice but from his on-the-job attitude to the demands of street art, which evolves organically through constant self-reference and technical development. The process has been unforced and natural, learned on a practical basis. The anomaly, however, arises from the affinity in his visual language with the abstract tendencies in a historic phase of Modernism. Visible in his gallery work and in murals around towns between London and West Cornwall is a kind of synthetic cubism reminiscent of the 1920s that highlights the sophistication of his intuitive sense of what works for him. Art historians might be stopped in their tracks, for instance, to recognise shades of Amedée Ozenfant and Le Corbusier in Shames’s 2019 open-air mural in Penzance’s Bread Street; but those shades seem to be there.


Bread Street mural, 2019

The transition from street to gallery is not new: the figure of Jean-Michel Basquiat is adequate explanation. Is Shames offering a type of ‘skateboarder art’ for the hip collector? He is, and there is no problem in that. But he offers more that fits into the historicist strain present among today’s younger artists that are captivated by the possibilities in hybridising the past and the present as a image of the future. Brought up with the ubiquitous florid clichés of drips and feathered spray trails recurrent in wildstyle graffiti paintwork, Shames has detached himself from dependence on its most obvious tropes and displays of superficial facility.

As he has gravitated away from overt figurative references towards a more calculated, coherent and even rational framework, his shapes have retained the essence of blocky and interwoven letter-based formats. Like any contemporary artist, he has been subject to all manner of influences, from spray art to advertising to design. He is probably as voracious a consumer of imagery as he is a prolific producer of it. Faithful to the honour code in street art about not copying another artist’s work, he has submerged himself in a community of images – and he expresses in galleries, on walls and in print the personal amalgam he has created.

In that mix is an expression of the cultures he enjoys and, perhaps, of the lifestyle with which its adherents identify. The abstract essentials of colour, line and space are part of that, projecting a kind of ‘cool’ and energy in its vocabularies that is also found in their dress and music. For the rest us, we will see echoes in them of genres known to us individually. These do not diminish Shames but expand the ambience he has instinctively come to inhabit. One similarity, for instance, is with the Californian Hard-Edge pioneers of the 1950s. The flat, rhythmic and chromatically pulsating non-objective canvases of Karl Benjamin, Frederick Hammersley, John McLaughlin and Lorser Feitelson are barely known outside the US. But the spirit they projected has become global; they set up their studios in the Los Angeles area and helped define the region’s distinct cultural environment. More familiar manifestations of that environment to British audiences will be parallel West Coast developments at the same time such as the jazz album covers of William Claxton, the strolling sax solos of Sonny Rollins, sleek furniture by Charles and Ray Eames and a way of living encapsulated in the architectural photography of cantilevered steel and glass masterpieces by Julius Shulman. From the visual artists, however, came paintings that were elegant and reductive, like cool jazz in its reaction to the frenzy of bebop. Traces of the hand were eliminated from integrated compositions in acrylic or oil; analogies with music are inescapable, with asymmetrical shapes and colours laid down like riffs in a jam session to follow a vibe rather than an emotion.

When Hammersley spoke about his approach, his words could have been drafted by Shames. ‘At first I would paint a shape that I would “see” there… The next shape would come from the feeling of the first plus the canvas… It just feels right.’ And somehow the relationship fits supremely well. US Hard-Edge painting spread to New York once British critic Lawrence Alloway used the term in the ’60s to describe American geometric abstract painting featuring an economy of form, fullness of colour and neatness of surface within an all-over arrangement of forms.

But Shames remains his own man with a place in the community that has grown up around skateboarding since the Millennium, and in another (with which it may intersect) in street art that cultivates mutual respect among its practitioners. Both are as nationwide as any found in the art world and all have their hubs in cities and towns. Where better, though, for this reanimation of the West Coast spirit than in Penwith, where British surfing took root on its coasts and the haze of the counter-cultural idyll still lingers. For something new does come from repetition.


© Martin Holman, September 2022. Martin Holman is a writer based in Penzance. He is a regular contributor to Art Monthly and the Burlington Magazine.