Artist Spotlight: Joseph Shetler
How a Mennonite Upbringing, Life in the Nation’s Capital, and the Grid Shaped this ‘New Minimalist’
By: Anthony Palliparambil, Jr.
Joseph Shetler is an artist's artist. He chooses his words carefully, as if each thought is considered completely before they leave his lips. He exudes a certain air of "cool," his clothes are unassuming but stylish, his studio at 54 O Street is neighbored by some of DC's top creative talent, and his workspace is pristine in the way only a minimalist could be pristine. And his work? Deeply rooted in his process, his drawings succeed in their apparent simplicity and their conceptual complexity.
Raised in Goshen, Indiana in a Mennonite household – an upbringing that he consistently returns to when discussing his work, Shetler's post-minimalist aesthetic was first informed by summer's spent working in construction. After attending two separate Mennonite colleges, he took a six-year hiatus in which he taught public grade school and worked as a museum assistant at the Phillips Collection, all while creating large-scale drawings in his studio apartment in DC. Soon after receiving an MFA from Arizona State, Shetler returned to Washington, DC. In December 2016, he moved into a space at the renowned O Street Studios and has exhibited extensively throughout the Washington, DC Metro area, most recently with a solo exhibition at Pyramid Atlantic in Hyattsville, MD, and Hillyer Art Space in Dupont Circle.
Though religious iconography is frequently referenced within the arts, Shetler uses minimalistic drawings in attempt to reconcile the simplicity and servitude of his Mennonite heritage with his desire to create. He notes how small the creative community is within the Mennonite population, and that pragmatic creativity is favored over the decorative. "There's a pretty big ceramics community," he suggests – a pot, by nature, serves a practical function – "but when it comes to painting and drawing, it's not as visible."
The seemingly small group of visual artists within the Mennonite community meant that many people at his home church did not have the language to understand his work. They would ask if he made abstract art, to which he would respond "Not exactly, but sure." But then, he asserts, "the conversation stopped because they didn't know how to talk about abstract art. That's lost on them, but it's not really because they grew up looking at [Mennonite] quilts just like me, and all quilt patterns are just abstraction."
Indeed, the references to quilt making are more than evident in his drawings. Repetitive mark making recalls the consistency of the stitches, and the ever-present grid is certainly a more direct allusion to quilts. "I started to appreciate the grid as a subject matter rather than a tool," he says. "So I kept the simple minimal aesthetic and adapted the grid as the subject or part of my drawings. Then I kept pattern as a piece that links it all together. Most of the things I make now are variations on the grid and seeing what types of patterns emerge."
Shetler is currently working on four bodies of work. The first, a series of drawings on isometric grid paper references textile patterns and, mounted on Tyvek, indeed serve as large format drawn quilts themselves. With these works, he develops a set of rules to follow while drawing, and allows patterns to develop organically, forfeiting control and allowing chance to play a significant role within the series.
Another collection of drawings is likewise based on the grid, but is comprised of carefully planned scribbles. What seems chaotic at first is better understood by hints within the drawings themselves. Shetler has left red geometric shapes exposed, indicating to the viewer how the work was created, and furthermore, how it should be read. A similar series of drawings on black Tyvek explore the role of materiality. A material typically used in construction, these drawings are a study in subtlety and how graphite interacts with this unique ground.
Finally, Shetler is working on a series of deeply meditative and moving works in graphite. He mounts sheets of paper to wood panels before making a number of carefully planned incisions to create various textures. He then rubs layer upon layer of graphite powder onto the paper. At first, the works seem like simple planes of black. However, upon closer inspection, the delicate scores provide a spectacular glimpse into just how complex seemingly minimal works can really be. In some cases, Shetler incorporates the use of gold leaf to these works, perhaps a glimpse into how he attempts to navigate his Mennonite upbringing -- he points out that in the Mennonite culture, superfluous ornamentation is actively avoided. And so, with this series, aptly named “Reconciliation,” Shetler attempts to redeem the worldly qualities of gold.
Shetler’s work is currently on view at his alma mater, Goshen College. Throughout February, two of his works were also on view at the Abrons Art Center (New York, NY) as part of a powerful exhibition, "The New Minimalists." His drawings were joined by the works of a wildly talented group of emerging contemporaries including Lauren Seiden who uses slabs of marble as both a sculptural material and drawing surface, and Shahpour Pouyan who explores the impact of nuclear bombs through a set of ceramic sculptures. The exhibition highlights exactly why Shetler’s work is not only relevant in todays art market, but more importantly, why minimalist and post-minimalist work is absolutely necessary in today’s trying times.
Joseph Shetler, A Snapshot:
The last show you saw was: The Ai Wei Wei at the Hirshhorn
Your artworld pet peeve is: Snobs
The last book you read was: I’m currently reading Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton
Your favorite living artist: James Turrell
If you could own any work of art, what would it be? Roden Crater by James Turrell
An artist that you think is underappreciated: Sheila Hicks. I feel like her work is amazing.
One item in your studio that you couldn’t live without: A pencil.
An exhibition that changed how you understood and appreciated art: Robert Ryman at the Phillips Collection
What is your greatest creative challenge? Selling. It needs to be creative in a way. Being able to sell yourself is challenging!