James Shefik Is An Army of None

August 14th, 2010

This article originally appeared on August 13, 2010 in The Island. Michele Ellson, editor. 

“Bagged Head #3,” Charcoal pencil on mid-tone paper (2005)

James Shefik calls himself a pessimist. Deeply critical of the sociopolitical environment which facilitated the war in Iraq, his work dwells on the darker side of human nature, including violence, hate, and rampant consumerism. “I Am Not An Army” includes both mixed-media sculpture and drawings, and nearly all the pieces contain references to cartoons or other animation. Those of us who as adolescents were indoctrinated by pre-politically correct cartoons can relate when Shefik says, “The world we live in seems so cartoonish. Maybe it always has been. I don’t know.”

Despite the near-photorealism of the charcoal drawing “Bagged Head #3” it’s difficult to make out the subject, because the mind recoils and refuses to accept it. Shefik says the carrot wallpaper usually gives it away. Bugs Bunny, shrouded and bound, looking more like an inmate at Abu Ghraib than the rascally rabbit that breezes through his charmed life. What’s up with that, Doc? “Bugs was just the coolest wise guy, and they got him too.” None of us is safe, then.

“Worship” is an image of a warship bearing that word in a pun which succinctly decries killing in the name of religion. From a distance it appears to be comprised of Ben-Day dots, like a Lichtenstein. Get closer and you see that it is actually made up of hundreds of matches, some burned black. Look closer still. Each “match” is hand-shaped and painted birch wood.

“Worship,” Hand-shaped birch, spackle, paint (2010)

Shefik claims that the decision to fabricate these was purely utilitarian: Struck matches are too fragile for the work to survive. But the near-obsessive care and attention to detail even in the crates he built to pack his work suggest that he probably would have done it anyway.

“#1,” Foam, butcher paper, string, pencils (2004)

Pieces like “#1” (in a series of three bomb sculptures) show a chink in the armor of Shefik’s pessimism. It appears to be a spherical bomb of the sort popular in cartoons (and the Revolutionary War) wrapped in paper and twine, with a long fuse. It bears Cesar Chavez stamps and an Oakland postmark (where Shefik resides), and more than a dozen sharpened pencils protrude from the center. Even taken at face value “#1” is potentially lethal. But as a metaphor playing on “the pen is mightier than the sword,” or Public Enemy’s “When I get mad / I put it down on a pad,” its power is magnified. It’s a weapon of mass instruction.

This work needs to be seen in person to be fully appreciated. You need to see those details, and walk around his sculptures and view them from all sides. Trace the trajectory of the bullets in his 3D Pop Art sculpture “Blam!” (2008). Also, remarkably, this is Shefik’s first gallery show, so you’ll be able to say you knew him when.

That’s all, folks.

“I Am Not An Army” is open from August 13 through September 12 at Autobody Fine Art, with a free public opening reception from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on August 13 and a free public closing reception from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on September 10. Gallery hours are from noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Autobody is at 1517 Park Street, Alameda, CA 94501. Their phone is (510) 865-2608.

Michael Singman-Aste
Postdiluvian Photo

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