Something artful gets lost in technical excellence of Sheppard's paintings


March 09, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

The exhibit of Joseph Sheppard's work now on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery shows he can do a lot of things.

He can paint almost anything and make it look real at first glance, whether it's a person, a lobster, a grape, a flower. He's equally at home with individual figures, still lifes and crowded scenes with lots of action. He can organize a complex picture, such as "On the Ganges," so the eye travels where it's supposed to. He can deal with light, shadow and texture -- he can paint a bedcovering that has the proper weight, and make the folds and wrinkles of a sheet or a tablecloth look just right.

And he's not only a painter. The show also contains sculpture in bronze and in marble, revealing that Sheppard has technical skill in both media, and drawings that show him to be a well-trained draftsman.

Despite his skills, however -- or perhaps partly because of them -- the works fail to reach another dimension. Those very technical skills are too much of what the works are all about. Craft should be put in the service of art; it shouldn't get in the way of it.

These works are so carefully contrived that they end up being lifeless even when they contain action. "The Beach," with all that's going on in it, looks more like a tableau than a glimpsed moment. Like fiction and unlike life, art must be believable to be believed, and Sheppard's simply isn't believable.

Moreover, art must have something to do with its own time to achieve validity, and Sheppard's doesn't. It's not necessarily the works' subject matter that does it in. It is still possible to create valid still lifes, or figure studies, or landscapes, but they must have weight, substance, something to communicate. That's where Sheppard's work comes up empty. As a result, it simply looks hopelessly old-fashioned.

Nor is his work always absolutely flawless technically. The splashing water in "The Beach," for instance, doesn't look like splashing water -- it looks like paint. The little dots on the flowers in "Shells & Flowers" seem to be meant as drops of water, but they don't look quite right -- they look more like little pearls than water.

Sheppard is certainly not the only person doing this sort of work, and one must acknowledge that it has a considerable following.

The show continues through March 29 at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, 1006 Morton St. Call 539-1080.

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