I first encountered River Shell’s work as part of the Deep Ellum Windows project, which was organized by UTA professor Stephen Lapthisophon during a time when most of the area’s storefronts were abandoned and falling into disrepair. For one of the shows, My, My Misfire, students had a limited amount of time to put the exhibition together and could only use only objects they found in the abandoned space as materials for their sculptures. Shell’s piece was a deliberately laid pile of dirt. When I went to see the exhibition, Shell, wearing a Smashing Pumpkins shirt, shared the concept behind the show. I immediately loved the way their work challenged the commodification of art, the museum industrial complex, the market itself, and who gets to be historicized when using such a minimally elegant gesture.
In Something Beautiful at Olivier François Galerie, Shell’s aesthetic sensibility has evolved into 54 objects spanning painting, textiles, photography, ceramics, and writing. This time, Shell’s constraints in fabricating their work were not arbitrarily assigned to meet the demands of a scholarly exercise, but were instead caused by the lockdowns during the first global pandemic of our lifetime.
During the “bunker boy” days, as Shell refers to them, the artist had little-to-no access to materials and also lacked food security. They made work with whatever was around them at the time, as a form of survival. “Can I just make something beautiful?” was the question they asked themselves with each work.
They told me a bit about their process: “a lot of people think I’m trying to be clever, [but during lockdown] all I wanted to do was to try and make beautiful things…and what I think is beautiful is not always what someone else thinks is beautiful.” A canvas, mummified in duct tape with the tiniest smudge of paint in its top corner is at once minimal, calming, an expression of confinement, and completely punk rock.
Shell taught themselves how to knit during quarantine. Of the practice, the artist notes, “knitting is like scrolling,” a repetitive motion and a way to mark time; it’s a focused distraction that, instead of fleeting virtual connection, yields a tangible object. During a time when many of us were separated from physical contact, the soft sculptures emanated for the artist feelings of comfort, innocence, and warmth.
Shell’s collected writings, self-published in The Great American Chapbook, start with a rejection letter received by Roxane Gay. The chapbook is housed in a humble binder atop a pillar of cardboard boxes. The cardboard plinth it sits on could be read as a rejection of pretense, a rejection of the white cube, and a rejection of the institutionalization pedestals represent. Perhaps, the choice is a statement of solidarity with anyone who’s struggled to make it, materially or otherwise.
Another piece, a ceramic “eyebrow,” is displayed atop a pedestal made of glass and guitar amps. These objects function as physical metaphors: the clarity of the pane becomes emotional transparency, held up by the timeless refuge of music.
Taken in total, Shell’s solo exhibition is poetry expressed through aesthetics; when confronted with lack, the artist chooses abundance. Shell’s truth of survival is beautiful to behold.
River Shell: Something Beautiful is on view at Olivier François Galerie in Dallas through October 30, 2021.