Madison, Connecticut artist Shelby Head harnesses her rich technical skill to uplift everyday materials into new possibilities.
From the soft hues of LED lights to the carefully placed assemblages of everyday objects, Shelby Head tells stories through sculpture. Her latest exhibition, Beyond Indifference, shown recently at Fernando Luis Alvarez Gallery in Stamford, Connecticut, “is a collection of mixed-media works assembled from decorative and domestic objects commonly associated with the ‘feminine’.” Born out of post-election anxiety, Head’s work makes use of feminine materials to tackle notions of misogyny and the roles of gender, by using the iconography of a Power Figure as inspiration to evoke healing, protection, and even punishment against the psychic and social harm of a patriarchal society.
Born in Bronxville, New York in the late ’50s, Head has dedicated her life to sculpture, a field that she says did not always make a lot of space for women. “As a young woman, I was told in school that I couldn’t take shop class, that I had to take Home Ec,” she says. “And it was an incredible disservice to me. I do not cook, and honestly, I don’t have much interest in domestic things.” She went on to receive her M.F.A. from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and her M.A. in sculpture at Adams State University in Colorado. “When I went to college, I noticed that my lack of ability to study technical skills in grade school meant that I was greatly behind my male classmates in school,” she says.
Post college, Head was hungry to learn intensive technical skills. She began to work in art foundries in the desert landscape of Santa Fe, becoming a mold maker and wax technician. Later, she assisted sculptor Tom Otterness in New York City, building models for stop motion animation. “I am deeply moved by how materials work, what they feel like, how they can come together,” she says. “I worked as a technician so that I could not only make things that are aesthetically beautiful, but were functionally sound and well made.” Even today, as she works through a process of trial and error to create new works, Head pulls out her hot glue gun and starts “putting things together to see what makes sense.”
Head’s work carries depth and secrets. A previous body of work, In Measured Line (2015), is a culmination of her precision as an artist, uniting the totality of her skill to create numerous beautifully constructed light boxes that layer wood, paper, and LED lights. The work focuses on exploring the new frontier of her aging body. “I know how to be young, and now I am growing old,” she says. “I don’t know how to be old yet, and to me it is fascinating. I am learning how I work.”
Throughout her individual sculptures in In Measured Line, Head covers mistakes and imperfections within the work by layering paper and light. The Fernando Luis Alvarez Gallery notes that in the show “[s]he explores the ways in which we account for–either embrace or destroy–our imperfections, and mimics how we navigate our complexities, selectively revealing our inner workings to others.”
Like all of her work, In Measured Line demonstrates her meticulous and minimalist approach to sculpture that pulses with vulnerability and poignant narrative. She notes that she likes a minimalist approach because it ensures “that all elements of my sculptures have to be true. They can’t be hidden behind a lot of movement.” Unexpected objects such as garden hoses, hair, herbs, stockings, human nails, and an impressive collection of LED lights form the heart of her work. Such objects and materials speak in unexpected equations and powerful ideological nuances that unfold a world of human experience.