Artist Sharon Shapiro has a unique history with the Welcome Gallery, where her exhibition “Above Ground” opens this week. Now operated by New City Arts Initiative, the space served as her art studio from 1996—when she first moved to Charlottesville from Atlanta—until 2001. Fittingly, her exhibition is themed on nostalgia—or the disruption of it—in an examination the American dream.
“Nostalgia is such a seductive trap,” Shapiro says. “There’s something compelling about it but it’s also really dangerous. There’s a dark side to always yearning for what was, but something comforting about it, too,” she says. “Were things ever really as good as we remember?”
Shapiro, who now works out of her home studio in Louisa, grew up in the small railroad town of Bluefield, West Virginia. “My father had a clothing store my whole childhood and I would sit in his store and draw the mannequins and clothes,” she says. While studying fashion illustration at VCU, she fell in love with painting and ultimately obtained a bachelor’s of fine art from Atlanta College of Art.
Most of her paintings are figurative and arise from found photos, the history of which “changes within the context of my work,” Shapiro says. The pieces in this exhibition began with a search she did on eBay for vintage photographs of swimming pools and backyards in 1970s America. “It’s odd in the first place that people are selling their family photos,” she says. “There’s something about it that’s quirky to begin with.” From this beginning she layered other scenes to create composites and juxtaposed color with black and white to play with the texture of our emotional lives and memories. This layered and distorted quality erodes the would-be sentiment and reshapes it into something edgier. Whether it is a figure out of proportion with her landscape, like the truncated woman in “Swan Lake,” or the blurred and duplicated figures in “Devils” and “Holiday,” Shapiro challenges our simplistic view of the past.
“I’m fascinated by the idea of the American dream,” she says. “The idea of the suburbs, everything all kind of alike…There’s something off-putting about that too. It’s not real. We’re trying to make things look perfect. Things never are. Especially human relationships.” This interest in the tension between outer appearance and interior drama reminds her of something her grandmother used to say: “Don’t believe anything you hear and half of what you see.” To this end, she investigates the meaning we ascribe to objects, specifically the above-ground pool as “a class signifier.”
In “How the West Was Won” a young girl jumping into a pool is suspended in mid-air. Her face is in color but her body is black and white, the toe of her Mary Jane shoe dripping onto a lounge chair. “Things might be unraveling,” Shapiro says. “I like that aspect in my work.” In “Cure for Pain” there is both innocence and a self-consciousness about its precariousness as two girls in pink bathing suits and swim caps look over the edge of a kiddie pool. There is something not entirely wholesome about the pool, the metal bars of which are visible beneath its canvas. And a sense of foreboding expresses itself in the exaggerated, claw-like shadows of the girls’ hands.
Interestingly, while Shapiro is preoccupied with water in these paintings, she says, “I’ve always had a fear of water. Since I was little, I’ve been simultaneously fascinated and scared.” It is this vulnerability of youth and the threat to innocence that ripples throughout the exhibition as Shapiro qualifies our romanticized view of the past.