Universal Fragments: On the Work of Trevor Shearer

Trevor Shearer (1958-2013) was a British artist who tragically took his own life in January 2013. Although his approach to making art was known to his students and colleagues at Byam Shaw School of Art and at Central Saint Martins, where he taught, Shearer was intensely reticent about exhibiting, and rarely did so.

This text was written to accompany an exhibition organised by Charlotte Schepke at Large Glass, London, which set examples of Shearer’s output in conversation with six other contemporary artists. The essay is the first to explore Trevor Shearer’s work, and owes a great debt to conversations and correspondences I had with the artist Alison Turnbull, who was a very close friend of Shearer’s for many years, and who knows his work better than anyone.

Universal Fragments
With scientists’ wire frame mock-ups in mind, Trevor Shearer made Universal Fragments (1998) by casting a bathroom sink using strips of graph paper.1 Graph paper is most often used as a tool of abstraction: of plotting, diagramming and quantification. Here, however, the grids have been torn and bent in the process of being held to the surface of a plain piece of plumbing. Like the tattered remains of that perfect but useless map conceived by Jorge Luis Borges, which had coincided with the territory it described point for point, Shearer’s ragged-edged parts appear as fragile remnants of a representational system exposed to the inclemencies of the elements.2 ‘In spite of my initial reference to computers,’ Shearer wrote of this work, ‘I hadn’t realized that, paradoxically, these fragments would appear archaic, like the remnants of some less advanced technology or maturing big picture.’3 Mounted on the wall, these paper cast-offs are reconfigured, afforded a new sculptural presence and organised into a spiraling formation. The slips and shards of the graph paper fan out and fold back, lining up and overlaying. It is not clear whether they are following a complex orbit around an invisible centre, or whether they have merely been driven into contingent movements by a sudden gust of wind. And so, in a move characteristic of Shearer’s work more broadly, Universal Fragments brings together a series of opposed formal and conceptual terms: archaic and futuristic, fragment and whole, structure and contingency, flat surface and three-dimensions.

The fragments that constitute Mental Exercises (2001-2) refer to a different kind of whole. Consisting of plaster casts of fingers, palms, toecaps and bootheels, which protrude from the wall at precise points, the work engages the viewer’s desire to make sense of the dispersed body parts by imagining an absent figure beyond them. Technically demanding to make, the casts are struck at unusually oblique angles, with unfamiliar sections of hand or boot projecting out an inch or so from the wall. Mental Exercises proposes the body as an object of thought rather than of erotic attachment. Shearer’s toecap is closer to Kahnweiler’s necktie in Picasso’s celebrated cubist portrait from 1910, than to Duchamp’s sexualized casts: it constitutes a brief clue to the disposition of an otherwise invisible body that can take form only in the mind. Indeed, for Shearer, looking always involves a work of intellection, although a part of the thinking that is interwoven with vision is its imaginative and desiring aspect: its fascinations, anticipations and projections. The casts of bodily extremities in Mental Exercises tempt but ultimately frustrate our attempts at what Gestalt theory calls ‘reification’, that constructive aspect of perception that wants to fill in gaps to generate perceptual wholes: finally, these fragments do not quite tally.


It must be said that the sky’s blue has veered successively towards periwinkle, towards violet … and each time the whiteness of the moon has received an impulse to emerge more firmly… What remains uncertain… is whether this gain in evidence and (we might as well say it) splendor is due to the slow retreat of the sky, which, as it moves away, sinks deeper and deeper into darkness, or whether, on the contrary, it is the moon that is coming forward, collecting the previously scattered light and depriving the sky of it, concentrating it all in the round mouth of its funnel. Italo Calvino, Mr Palomar, 19834

As a sign, the Moon has suffered from over-use: its address to mystery, changeability, femininity, wonder and the like, is as familiar as Stéphane Mallarmé’s worn coin, launched into the night sky. It is difficult to bring it down to earth, but to do so might be the only way to launch it again. In a rebus-like gesture, Trevor Shearer’s Partial Eclipse (of ‘The Riddle of the Universe’) (1999) succeeds by way of a deadpan but enigmatic marriage of the cosmic and the comic. A semi-spherical paper cast swells outwards from the face of an astronomy book opened at its central pages.5 The book and cast are hung vertically on the wall; the cast is as tall as the book and its strange grey objecthood obscures the photographs beneath. Shearer’s work sets in train a series of semiotic games, played out against that interstellar backdrop. Objects from different universes collide: open book and hollow cast; the fantastical orders of magnification required to picture a spiral nebula and the one-to-one literalness of the moulded form.

The lumpen semi-sphere is not all recalcitrance, however: its resemblance to a full moon, with its texture of craters and sea floors, is dumb, obvious, funny.6 The illustrated pages would transport us into space, but the rude object holds us up. In this Partial Eclipse feels of the same spirit as Pense-Bête, the work with which Marcel Broodthaers announced his move from poetry to visual art in 1964 (its title means both aide-mémoire and ‘silly thought’ in French). Broodthaers wedged the fifty remaining copies of his last book of poetry into a ball of plaster, setting up a comic tension between the legibility of the book and the obduracy of the sculptural object. To read would be to destroy the sculpture; to keep the sculpture means foregoing access to the poetry. The tension for Shearer, however, is less between text and object than between object and image: Partial Eclipse signals the reciprocal and contrapuntal relationship between the thick heft of things and imagination’s mobile capacities.

A side note concerning the subtitle: ‘The Riddle of the Universe’ is how the German Die Welträtsel is usually translated. With rather portentous connotations, this conceptual enigma fascinated the likes of Ernst Haeckel, Friedrich Nietzsche and (via the latter) Richard Strauss. Indeed, in Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra (1896) the lack of resolution between the keys of B and C, aimed at representing Man and Nature respectively, has been interpreted as figuring such a fundamental enigma.7 Strauss’ tone poem was famously used by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a film of considerable importance to Shearer, whose unassuming, even deflationary rhetoric nevertheless counters the kind of bombast exemplified by Strauss’ music (Shearer’s preference in that regard was for the Second Viennese School).

There is something archaic about the cast, a kind of double achieved by way of a dumb imprint. But doubling can also link up to a futuristic imagination: in cloning and replication, for example. In Plant Casts (1998), Shearer employs several modes of doubling to strange, ricocheting effect. The work is composed of two parts, each of which is a resin cast comprised of two sections made from everyday flora, joined at the stalk. As casts they double the real leaves and flowers from which they derive; each is also a two-part hybrid creation; and, most obviously, there are two of them. Although there is a relation to Vija Celmins’ painted bronze casts of rocks (To Fix the Image in Memory, 1977-82), and to Giuseppe Penone’s model of sculptural work as replication of natural processes (Essere Fiume [To Be River], 1981), these doubles do not compete with the reality of their originals. Shearer’s impossible, spliced hybrids are at once delicate and unsettling. The translucency of the thin resin maintains a relationship with the way that sunlight passes through leaves, but the texture, sheen and almost sickly, otherworldly beige and olive green hues position the Plant Casts as decidedly ‘after nature’.

One of a cluster of Shearer’s works involving doubling, Two Discs (1998) is at once a farewell to vinyl and also suggestive of planetary rings and orbits, lending it a futuristic aspect.8 Two low-fi cardboard discs, each about twelve inches in diameter, are mounted perpendicular to the wall so that they project outwards, one a few inches above and to the side of the other. Each is rendered black with graphite but scored with a set of concentric white rings, made using a turntable, which radiate outwards from the centre, as on an LP record. The doubling of the discs might recall the mechanical shuffle of the jukebox as well as cosmic orbits. The lower disc is less densely packed with lines, and some of the circles orbit a different central point so that they run out of kilter with the rest. An aside to Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs (1935), which themselves were presented on moving turntables, the gyrations of Two Discs are syncopated. Two parts create relations: of harmony and discordance, regularity and divergence, above and below. Here, Shearer uses characteristically simple means to conjure a kind of ‘thinking in circles’, which sets remembered music against the silent trials of sculpture.


Now, various components of the automatic orchestra were made of bexium, a new metal, chemically endowed by Bex with a prodigious thermal sensitivity… [A]s a result of continuous alterations, the fragments of bexium, acting violently on certain springs, set in motion, and then stopped, one of the claviers, or a group of valves on a horn, and they in turn, at a given moment, were caused to vibrate in the ordinary way by grooved discs.
Raymond Roussel: Impressions of Africa, 1910

Shot in 2009 and re-edited in 2011, the 10-minute looped video Elements, presented on a small monitor, or projected at a similar size onto the wall, shows a close-up of the surface of an electric hotplate on which some water droplets leap, bounce and then vanish.10 The event takes about 35 seconds to elapse. In a suggestive unpublished statement, Shearer described his work in the following way:

The ten-minute video comprises an edited sequence of ever-shortening versions of the event, which then gradually lengthen, like a mirror image in time, and enable the loop to begin again… The sustained, graphic image of the surface of the hotplate reinforces its sculptural dimension in relation to a screen. The elliptically indented surface also suggests, because of its close framing, other stranger associations – lunar crater, amphitheatre, alchemist’s crucible. The structure of repeatedly shortening the filmed event over time is intended to mirror the decay of the droplet itself – perhaps the recorded image is about to disappear as well? When the sequence gradually lengthens the anticipation of the droplet’s returning position is a bit like a child’s memory-game where one attempts to recall objects on a tray that has been removed. These aspects contradict the quasi-scientific language of the filmed event and add another dimension. Watching something exist then cease to exist, and the turbulent changes in between, is engaging, heightened, perhaps, by the event’s transience and scale. The desire to want to see it played out again seems only natural – Elements represents, therefore, a kind of machine that plays with the fulfillment of that desire.11

The luminous brevity of the event, transpiring within this shallow, searing hollow, is captivating. The alchemist’s crucible becomes a dramatic stage on which the spectacle of an elemental gymnastics of extraordinary complexity unfolds. Shearer’s video recalls Étienne-Jules Marey’s photographic experiments presenting the entropic disordering of plumes of smoke as they unfurl around simple obstacles. Here, however, the isolation of a single scene of contingent dynamism offers the raw material for a more complex and reflexive formal structure, which frames, mirrors and augments the original event. The progressive diminution and subsequent re-lengthening of the shot provides a striking formal complement to the diminution of the droplet itself. The intense formal clarity of the video responds qualitatively to the luminous perfection of the droplet, and provides a counterpoint to its chaotic Brownian movements. The quotidian banality of the event – just some water evaporating on an electric hob – is transfigured into a perfect, jewel-like piece of formal construction.

Another aside: in making work, Shearer was fascinated by the possibilities afforded by the adoption of systems of arbitrary constraint. He particularly admired Raymond Roussel’s experimental ‘writing machine’, as well as the formulation of technical constraints, often mathematically derived, by OuLiPo writers.12 Shearer’s library included copies of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947), as well as eight books by Georges Perec, and twelve by Italo Calvino. Indeed, the development of systems that could provide forms of ‘random order’ to structure the arrival of aleatory phenomena was of particular importance to a series of Shearer’s last works: Dust Music (2012), Forest Film (2012), and 2 Pianos Track Numerous Insects (2012/13). The latter was left unfinished at the time of Shearer’s death.

In 2010, Trevor Shearer completed Bosch TV, a work consisting of a futuristic casing of laser-cut anodized aluminium housing the looped digital animation of a detail from a painting by Hieronymous Bosch.13 The Bosch painting in question is the left-hand panel of his triptych The Hermit Saints (c.1493), which depicts Saint Anthony of Egypt. The creature that Shearer extracted is a strange, spoon-billed hybrid sporting knee-length black boots and jauntily engaged in catching a lizard. Shearer presents this little monster, now a white figure on a black ground, endlessly walking in a circle around the screen, repeatedly scooping up its prey and shooting the viewer a quick glance before continuing along on its looped perambulations.

Joseph Koerner has described Bosch as having articulated his fantastical inventions with remarkable precision:

[Bosch’s] objects seem somehow carefully observed, even when they cannot be, since there is no real-world prototype for them… By engaging with how a thing is put together, Bosch can rebuild it as he wishes, constructing especially those places of improbable but somehow visibly plausible attachment whereof his hybrids consist… Bosch makes exact fantasies.14

Shearer shared in Bosch’s fascination with how things were put together, and with the minutiae of technical problem solving; the sheer volume of drawings, drafts, maquettes and calculations that preceded the final execution of this work attest to this enthusiasm. Here, painting is transmuted into animation, which is then hybridized with sculpture. Bosch TV arrives as a capsule in which discrete layers of historical time have been superimposed.

Much earlier, in 1998, Shearer described his works as ‘fictions that I hope connect with the idea of a mutable and slightly vertiginous reality.’15 The Borgesian resonance is apt here, as this animated creature could happily find its place in the author’s The Book of Imaginary Beings (1957).16 The protagonist’s endless and pointless circulation might suggest a bleak outlook, a pessimistic statement of the impossibility of breaking out of repetitive, creaturely patterns of existence. However, not only is Shearer’s creature evidently not unaware of its viewer, but the very fact of this extraordinary work of re-imagining is eloquent of an inventive power that works against the kind of circularity it stages.

Trevor Shearer: Partial Eclipse (Of ‘The Riddle of the Universe’), (1999). Book, paper cast, 22.2 x 29.2 x 11.2 cm. Photo Trevor Shearer.
Trevor Shearer: Partial Eclipse (Of ‘The Riddle of the Universe’), (1999). Book, paper cast, 22.2 x 29.2 x 11.2 cm. Photo Trevor Shearer.

It would be too grand and declarative to say that there was a ‘return to painting’ in Trevor Shearer’s work over the last years of his life. Although painting gained a renewed prominence in his output after about 2004, it was a constant reference point since he studied painting at art school in the 1980s. The immediate, emergent responsiveness of painting – as opposed to the necessity of calculating all the specifics of a work before it was fabricated – became of particular importance to him.17 Indeed, as a side note, while I have largely been situating Shearer’s practice in relation to moments from the history of avant-garde art and literature, it is important to keep in mind that his work also emerged out of more immediate, intuitive responses to the physical environment of East London, where he lived and worked.18

An important moment in painting’s return to prominence within Shearer’s output seems to have been a series of works that he made on sheets of acetate in 2004, perhaps with Jasper Johns in mind.19 Shearer’s working title for these experiments was The Clearing, which he described in this way:
The Clearing is a provisional title that links with:
i) clearing the decks – the making way for new things.
ii) an opening in a forest – an expansion spatially.
iii) the idea of transparency, materially and conceptually, in relation to looking through and beyond.20

In a note from 2005, Shearer described his work as concerned with ‘the possibilities that arrive through improvisation. Not knowing is a part. Lightness is a part’.21 Here he was referring to a lightness that enabled the ‘freeing up of information – and ideas’, but in considering two of his most fully realized recent works in painting, Yellow Painting (2011) and Silver Birch (2012), it is the effects of the curiously unplaceable light and hue that are arguably the most striking elements.22

The means of making light strange are very openly declared in Silver Birch. A vertical stand supports a lamp that shines a circular beam of ultra violet light onto the centre of a canvas painted silver. Down the middle of the picture runs a meticulously rendered section of a silver birch trunk. Shearer takes this wintry emblem of archaic myth and pagan lore and lends it the quality of a futuristic enigma, the canvas reflecting back a light that is at once cool and hot, illuminating and obscuring. Yellow Painting derives from the meticulous translation of a sustained perceptual engagement with a crumpled sheet of A4 paper the colour of a Post-it note. The depicted creases construct a tectonic landscape of articulated planes, with something of the ridged hardness of a rock face made over into an alien yellow. In his celebrated long poem, ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, which sets off from an encounter with the eponymous painting by Parmigianino, John Ashbery describes ‘A perverse light whose / Imperative of subtlety dooms in advance its / Conceit to light up’.23 That is what Shearer’s painting seems to aim at: light made strange as it reflects from the most banal, throwaway object subjected to an unusually prolonged effort of attention. The paper sheet will be scrunched up and discarded, and Yellow Painting’s anchorage to the world of visible and tangible things will be loosened. What is left are the variations of an other-worldly yellow, like that of Caspar David Friedrich’s Large Enclosure (c.1832), which continues to emit the strangeness and opacity of a world from which the veneer of familiar human consolations has fallen away.24

1 Trevor Shearer, ‘Notes on Work’, 5 January 1998 (unpublished).
2 Jorge Luis Borges, ‘On Exactitude in Science’ (1946), Collected Fictions. Translated by Andrew Hurley. London: Penguin, 1999, 325.
3 Trevor Shearer, ‘Notes on Work’, 5 January 1998 (unpublished).
4 Italo Calvino, Mr Palomar. Translated by William Weaver, London: Random House, 1985, 31-2.
5 The book is W.M. Smart’s The Riddle of the Universe. London: Longmans, 1968.
6 A related work is Shearer’s Moon (1998), which is comprised of a disc of stretched white vinyl, which buckles and warps as if viewed through water.
7 See Norman Del Mar, Richard Strauss. A Critical Commentary On His Life and Works, Volume 1. London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986, 132ff. In 1927, Strauss told his friend Romain Rolland that he was aiming to express ‘the hero’s inability to satisfy himself, either with religion or science or humour, when confronted with the enigma of nature.’ Quoted by Michael Kennedy, Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 112.
8 Shearer made numerous works involving the act of doubling. These include an earlier series of painted mirrored duplications of postcards (Merimbula, Needles and Wooler, all ca.1992-93), and two later works more closely related to Plant Casts and Two Discs: Losing My Grip (2001) and Calocoat (2002). Shearer was also evidently fascinated by artworks involving mirror images, writing a short commentary upon Michel Foucault’s famous discussion of Velázquez’s Las Meninas (unpublished note, 2008), and expressing particular admiration for John Ashbery’s long poem, ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, which he included when asked by artist Kathryn Faulkner to name his twenty most significant books. See Kathryn Faulkner, Bibliography 2 (Artists Writers Photographers). London, 2009, unpaginated.
9 Raymond Roussel, Impressions of Africa. Translated by Rayner Heppenstall. Richmond: Alma Classics, 2011, 30.
10 At his death, Shearer also left some unedited digital footage of an electric bar fire. Related to Elements, this footage was also shot in a defamiliarizing close-up, the stationary camera recording the increasingly chromatic intensity of the bars as they heat up.
11 Letter to the author, 30 October 2011. This aspect of anticipation and desire in the viewing of the moving image was approached from another angle in an unrealized proposal for a short film entitled Cinema from 2003: ‘I am interested in the feeling of anticipation that cinemas generate before a performance and the atmosphere that is created. The idea for the film is to evoke this in as simple a way as I can… The very short films (3-5 minutes) will focus on the curtains, lighting, incidental music and the variety of fade-outs that lead up to the revealing of the screen… Each film will consist of one centrally fixed shot, with no camera movement… Despite these restraints, but perhaps because of them, I think the cumulative effect of these repetitions will be interesting and show something of the seduction of the cinema environment in a focused way.’
12 In the same statement quoted above, Shearer wrote, ‘At the time of making [Elements] I was rather obsessed with the strange and experimental literary machines employed by the French writer Raymond Roussel.’ Letter to the author, 30 October 2011.
13 The working title of this piece had been ‘History’ (conversation with Alison Turnbull, 27 July 2013).
14 Joseph Leo Koerner, ‘Bosch’s Equipment’, in Lorraine Daston (ed.), Things That Talk – Object Lessons from Art and Science. New York: Zone Books, 2004, 54-5.
15 Trevor Shearer, ‘Notes on Work, 5 January 1998’ (unpublished).
16 Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings. London: Penguin, 2006.
17 In an email to Alison Turnbull in November 2004, Shearer wrote, ‘Sometimes when there have been scrappy things (bits of acetate tests) in situ the full, ‘finished’ thing seems too complete – too much. Adapting to that I find difficult… [B]ut that’s the good thing about painting – things emerge, you don’t have to live quite so anxiously in the world of ‘projections’?’
18 Shearer’s working notes and photographs attest to his responsiveness to this urban environment, with particular places and details around Hackney, Mile End and Morning Lane, for example, prompting ideas for new and ongoing projects.
19 Shearer owned a copy of the 1996 volume, Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews (ed. Kirk Varnedoe, New York: The Museum of Modern Art). In a list entitled ‘Things to think about’ dated July 21 2004, Shearer wrote ‘Johns’ ‘Watchman’ detail (3 rectangles?) – images on acetate, copies of images (painted) on acetate.’ This note relates to a three-part work on acetate from 2005 entitled Ice/Medusa/Iraq, in which Shearer over-painted printed images of Caspar David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice (1823-24), Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), and a photograph from the most recent Iraq War.
20 This unpublished note is titled ‘The Clearing’ and dated 2004/5.
21 Trevor Shearer, unpublished note, 2005.
22 This was evidently something that tended to strike Shearer in the work of others too. Having just seen Giotto’s fresco cycle in Padua for the first time, for example, he remarked on how the paintings ‘exude light in an unpredictable way.’ Email to Alison Turnbull, 4 November 2003. Indeed, Shearer displayed his interest in recording his sustained perceptual engagements with
the natural world in a series of texts, written towards an ultimately unrealised project entitled ‘Silent Pool’, in late autumn 2001. One
text, ‘Silent Pool: Friday 2.11.01 3.35pm – 4.50pm’, ends in this way: ‘The fallen leaves that lay against the few clumps of reeds are also gaining in brightness. Their colour is becoming richer too as a slight, almost imperceptible, amber glow is coming from the sky behind. Strangely this glow is much more noticeable when looking at the gravel path than at the sky. The debris of partially rotting leaves that are trampled into the path on the right now seem to be glowing, even the dark gravel path itself is changing. The far end of the pool is now a dark green black. It has become very cold.’
23 John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Manchester: Carcanet New Press, 1975, 70. See note 8.
24 According to Alison Turnbull, Shearer’s 1998 visit to the eau de nil room of Friedrichs in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden, where this painting is housed, provided him with one of his most inspiring and sustaining encounters with art. Email to the author, 22 August 2013.