I have covered my fair share of art, from Art Basel to the Armory and I have to say, so many artists are just plain b-o-r-i-n-g. Sorry, I didn't know art was so serious or that my talking to you was going to upset your equilibrium. Some fashion people can be the same way so I guess I understand. Sort of.
So when I heard about Shea Hembrey I was cautious. I guess I can ruin a good day filled with sunshine talking to an artist who I will probably irritate with silly questions. But then I checked out his Ted Talk. Holy Smokes! Not only are we both Southern and silly, but his imagination blew my mind. Shea's biennial is just awesome.
When he opened at the Bryce Wolkowitz gallery here in New York, I was truly excited to meet him. His inaugural exhibit, dark matters, "attempts to visualize his 20 year exploration of dark matter and dark energy (scientifically hypothesized to compromise over 90% of the cosmos)." Don't worry, that's all the official art talk you will be subjected to in this piece. I don't think I have ever had a more amusing, joyous and rather spiritual tour of someone's artwork. You see, Hembrey was born into a family of farmers, factory workers, hunters and cock fighters (and a healer, which we will hear more about shortly) way out in Arkansas and although he has an MFA from Cornell he is a true Southern gent with amazing stories and so salt of the Earth you can almost taste it.
We asked Bryce what attracted him to show Shea's work and he too has been lured in with Hembrey's kindness, "I was initially drawn to Shea's biennial project and struck by his varied artistic talents. I'm particularly moved by his thoughtful approach toward art making. Clearly Shea is interested in history, past and present, and it translates profoundly in his multi media works."
So instead of taking you through the exhibit through my eyes I am offering up the most interesting moments from my time with Mr. Hembrey on our own cosmic journey though his art:
- While we both gazed at one of his paintings, he busted out laughing and sighed, "I love what I do!"- Instant bromance!
- When admiring his painting of string called align , Hembrey explains that string figurations are a globally known form of teaching kids from the Native Americans to the Pacific Islanders the constellations so they could figure out how to get home at night. Who knew?
- Look carefully at corvus (the crow) and see that the scotch tape is actually painted on (a notable writer even tried to peel it off it looks so realistic!). Shea included his finger print on the tape mirroring what always ends up happening to all of us when using the sticky stuff.
- Shea was explaining what went into creating brick (celestial) but he paused like a good old story teller and said, "You know the best part though? The smell!" And with that he lifted off the lucite protection and urged me to give the brick a good whiff. The cork did smell smoky and earthy. "It just makes me want some barbecue!" he chuckled.
- "Lead is so heavy but it looks like a blanket," he was explaining as we were looking at flow. "Have you ever picked up lead? Here let's try it!" and with that he lifts off another case and moves his metal banana leaf (more on that next) and lets me pick up the 'blankets' of lead. He was right, they were heavier than a bad biscuit. Shea told me he has worked with lead since a kid when his family would make fishing weights out of the material.
- Shea got a big kick out of some Guatemalan women who came in and were quietly admiring his work until they saw the aforementioned banana leaves and shrieked, "Tamales!"
- Fascinating historical fact we learned from Shea: "I love drawing on lead. Romans used to curse each other with sheets of it. My slave would come slide the sheet under your door with a curse on it. They had amazing writing and drawings on them and they survive to this day since lead is so stable."
- Several of his pieces include match sticks; I asked why. "Well my grandfather was a healer and he used matches often. Once he burnt a wart off my finger and then rubbed the ash deep into it and it never did come back. When he worked at a factory people would line up next to his truck to be healed. He died before he could teach us any of his secrets.
- radius is a mammoth sculpture resembling a black hole made out of hay. Each piece of wheat has been individually glued onto the piece and Shea included his grandmother's sewing needle in the piece as a riff on 'needle in a haystack'. As he told me before we left, "I sure am glad I put that in there! I had something stuck in my nail the other day and I fished out that needle to get it out."
Thank you Shea for being so real, so funny and so damn talented.