Tyler Shields, a photographer who’s been described as “the Warhol of his generation” by Sotheby’s, came to Cincinnati this month to open his new exhibition “Fairytale” at Hyde Park’s Miller Gallery. The comparison to Warhol may raise eyebrows in skepticism. There’s no doubt that it’s hard to pinpoint a more influential contemporary artist than Warhol. It might be just as challenging to find so prickly a public personality. Shield’s individual influence might be up to time to decide, but he’s certainly shown himself to be a far more approachable personality than Warhol. More specifically, he is fortunately not Warhol. Channel 12’s interview reveals a comfortably open artist. His relationship to Cincinnati might be of particular interest to visitors as he shows a clear affection for the city, where he occasionally shoots and has many friends and collectors. “Red Book,” his image that looks the most like something out of common ideas of fairy tales, was shot this time last year in Indian Hill.
“Red Book” is also one of the more modest images in the exhibition, perhaps purposely so in order to contrast dark, Los Angeles fairy tales. Much of the other work, in contrast, seems interested in the artifice and decadence of certain pockets of culture. He’s often described as a “provocateur,” and indeed his some of his images are deeply sensual, others hinting at some dark realities of human decadence. A simplified reading of the exhibition might be that so called “fairy tales” aren’t exactly as they seem. Those with access to beauty, wealth and drugs aren’t always having the most fun. Shields work uses direct reference to brands like Chanel and Louis Vuitton to hint that those forms of decadence – those forms of artifice – don’t necessarily lead to an authentic personality. While I was looking at the images they struck me as reminiscent of the films “The Neon Demon” by Nicholas Winding Refn and David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” – two films that center around innocent women who move to Hollywood and are gradually destroyed by its dark, opulent underbelly. Shields’ work, like those two, reaches an impressive level of technical excellence that pairs well with an occasional dark, mysterious allure. I also cite their work, because I think they fall within a tradition of art that explores those underbellies of entertainment, photography, and artistic cultures. As visitors will see, Shields is deeply interested in the traditions and pasts of the worlds he explores.
His work, also like Refn’s and Lynch’s, displays some troubling flirtations with the decadence he seems to want to critique. One image, for instance, features a $20,000 Louis Vuitton trunk that he dragged into the desert to burn. On the title card he writes, “creation and destruction often walk a fine line.” I understand the sentiment, but I shuddered a little bit, wondering if exploration of that message and that price tag really had to be mutually exclusive. I also wondered if he was attempting to critique the artificial value placed on something like this trunk which led me to wonder if he might be undermining the value of that critique by purchasing and then destroying such a high dollar item. Of course, the same might be written about Refn, Lynch, and many other high profile filmmakers and photographers. Nevertheless, the privilege that accompanies this perspective might make it hard for certain viewers to take seriously the occasional overtly political images like one of a cop car on fire, or a klansman being lynched.
Even more central to all of those artists work is their relationship with women. These are, no doubt, some of the most seductive images. I’m sure they are inevitably some of his most popular images as well. Shields subjects are almost exclusively traditionally beautiful women, whether they’re actresses, models or both. They are always either decadently dressed and made up, or stripped bare. They are often smoking, doing drugs and partaking in various methods of self-destruction. One image shows a lover pulling down a woman’s panties while she holds a cigarette in his or her mouth. One is a close up of a woman snorting glitter through a straw, while another mouth has a tab of Chanel acid on the tongue. The argument seems to clearly be critiquing the artifice and methods of living to be found in these dark underbellies he explores. The idea of name brand drugs is certainly amusing, as well as darkly believable to imagine people deeply concerned with social status to be purchasing. To me, the line that the “provocateur” here straddles is whether or not he goes overboard in creating images that strip these women of individuality and contributing to a culture that is already consistently sexualizing them. The sexual politics of his work is murky, though perhaps that’s the point.
In contrast, there are some images that ascribe some power to his women. A few examples of these are, I think, also general examples of when his work is at its most exciting. The exhibition press release notes “Shields pushes his subjects and viewers out of their comfort zone. Death-wavers are regularly signed on set.” It’s not hard to imagine. A beautiful black and white image shows a woman in a majestic dress feeding a lion. The lion sits perfectly upright, appearing to be under loyal control of the woman. The subject exudes a sort of regal power. Another much different image shows a man in a car, while a leather clad woman stands ahead shooting a flamethrower. In front of another lovely, green background of Cincinnati trees, it’s not hard to imagine the woman turning around, wielding her power and spraying the car with fire. It’s an exciting, dramatic image. These are, in my mind, two of best pieces of the exhibition.
Finally, another image shows a woman running toward the viewer and being chased by a low flying plane – straight out of “North by Northwest,” minus Cary Grant. This is one of many images that compellingly explores history and envisions what older cultures look like in his mind. Like the preceding two, it’s an exciting, visually striking image. I imagine that the three of them took quite some time, luck and risk to capture. The plane is perfectly centered, the flame thrower explodes across the print, and the lion is seconds away from enjoying a treat. His work is consistently impressive in terms of technical production, but I single out these because as a high profile photographer these seem to use all of that high profile. They seem to take the most risk. Many of his images feel like something that could be found in advertisements or magazines, but these hold an extra layer of intrigue as viewers might imagine what exactly the tension on set must have felt like. These might also appeal to viewers that are looking for a kind of provocation that won’t make them blush. Those that are looking for that stylish, sexual edge should have plenty to explore.