The young man in Steven Shearer’s Brother (2005) seems to have noticed we’re looking: his teeth are gritted and right cheek tensed to draw his mouth into a snarl, but his eyes dart self-consciously to meet our gaze. He is shirtless, with long, dark hair swept back behind his ears. The lithe limbs and torsos of other long-haired men enclose him in a backdrop of flushed, interlocking flesh. A hand behind him crushes a glinting beer can. Painted in soft, sinuous strokes of feverish pastel hue, the work has an evanescent beauty, with luminous shadows of chartreuse and lilac echoed in its purple artist’s frame. Brother is the first of a fraternal trio, with Brother II and Brother Sammoth, who fluoresce in red and green respectively, completed the same year. Capturing the idealism, awkwardness and hero-worship of youth – themes closely informed by his own years as a teenage metal fan in suburban Vancouver – Shearer’s pictures glow with the magical atmosphere and vivid colours of Symbolist, Fauvist and Romantic painting. He approaches his subject matter with virtuoso technique, a fond sense of humour, and a keen eye for where subcultural clichés overlap with the tropes of art history. Brother is equal parts Slayer and Schiele, a moshpit by way of Edvard Munch.
Shearer’s interest in metalhead imagery reflects a nostalgia for his own 1970s adolescence, but also a considered, sociological approach to visual culture. He works from a vast, meticulously-organised archive of magazine clippings and pictures sourced from the Internet; aside from his painted portraits, he has also exhibited scrapbook-like installations of found photographs, and monumental text works that assemble aggressive poetry from the lyrics and song titles of heavy metal albums. ‘I appreciate it as a rare form of operatic expression for a masculine segment of the working class world’, he has said of the genre. ‘Also as a font of mannerist energy, a narrow, relentless repetition of themes around Satanism, blasphemy, nihilism, apocalypse and suicide contained within the backdrop of suburban reality. I have been drawn to the imagery of the scene and its advertent or inadvertent echoes of German Romanticism and expressionist art. I think some contemporary subcultures can offer a kind of phrenological shortcut back to different epochs and their manners of appearance’ (S. Shearer, quoted in B. Feuerhelm, ‘Steven Shearer: Ornament is Not a Crime. It is a Crypt’, American Suburb X, 22 February 2017).
While typical of a recent era when long hair signified rebellion from the clean-cut norms of suburban masculinity, Brother’s androgyny also echoes the timeless, idealised appearance of the heroes in paintings by the Symbolists and the pre-Raphaelites, who drew much of their material from classical myth and Arthurian legend. These same influences, via the epic ‘high fantasy’ of Tolkien and comic book artists like Frank Frazetta, pervade heavy metal fashion and album art, resulting in an intriguing confluence of high and low culture, of classicism and kitsch. ‘I suppose the androgynous nature of my figures is related to my interest in fashion, how we stylise and manner ourselves for others’, says Shearer. ‘It also speaks to my approach to art making, which has never been about physical reality; it’s about fantasy and release. It may be that I naturally gravitate towards androgyny because it reflects the freeing, fluid spirit of creativity that propels me forward’ (S. Shearer quoted in V. Nicholas, ‘Interview with Steven Shearer’, The White Review, July 2011). Like many an alienated, introverted youth, Shearer began to make art as a mode of solitary escape. Today – having represented Canada at the 2011 Venice Biennale, and with his two-decade career the subject of a retrospective at the Brant Foundation in Greenwich, Connecticut in 2017 – he has become a master of mannerism as cultural anthropology. Brother’s protagonist exists in a compelling between-space of cross-pollinating influences, memories and ideas, cut through with a heartfelt vein of teenage yearning. Looking furtively out of the frame, he seems ready to get back to losing himself in the music.