Jack Shadbolt: The Politics of Emptiness

By Scott Watson

Reprinted from Jack Shadbolt: Drawings (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1994), pp. 1-12.

Jack Shadbolt is one of Canada’s most distinguished artists. His long and illustrious career began in the 1930s and continues to flourish in the 1990s. During that time, he has spoken out as an authoritative voice for an art that reflects the human condition and confronts the modern dilemma. He has insisted that painting is a high calling, serving both the self-understanding of the artist and the development of society’s awareness of itself. To that end, he has been indefatigable in his fight to establish a space for the visual arts in the life of our culture, not just for himself but for younger generations of artists. He has also maintained that there is an authentic and original Canadian vision in art that has been instrumental in calling national attention to British Columbia as a vital regional expression.

This book celebrates Shadbolt’s drawings, the backbone and inner life of his practice, methods and beliefs. The drawings display his unmistakable, confident hand and way of making characteristic, sure, unwavering marks. Even when he sets himself on automatic pilot in search of chance discoveries, there is no nervous vibration in the line, no faltering tremor, no world-weary ennui. Instead, Shadbolt’s typical lines are the result of firm and steady pressure, revealing a preference for the flowing language of curves over the sharp cries of points and spikes. His early interest in Cézanne and northern Renaissance art grounded his own drawing in strong outlines, and his drawings show how much he relies on line to define form and space.

The drawings in this book have been selected and arranged by Shadbolt himself to emphasize a narrative about his exploration of form. He has followed a rough chronological order, interspersed with leaps ahead or backward in order to indicate how this sense of form draws on a reservoir of metaphorical correspondences: a world where pupae suspended from a branch become a bird’s-eye view of boats at a wharf, or a forest slash becomes the skeleton of a fallen beast. He has placed the drawings in dialogue with each other, in a conversation that moves from topic to topic. The book has a rhythm, building to dense, thick drawings that approach blackness and then relaxing into passages of line drawings full of light and air. Throughout, the “reader” is invited to notice the interconnectedness of things and how form coalesces and disperses, comes into being and dies within a fluctuating field of energy.

Despite the consistency in approach to line and form that a survey of his drawing reveals, Shadbolt has been dogged by the view that his concerns cover too much stylistic territory. In the past his focus seemed to shift abruptly so that, to some critics, he has appeared at different stages of his career to be different artists. At least that is his reputation. The multiplicity and wide range of Shadbolt’s art are paradoxically the basis of its steady if alternating current. When all is said and done, the continuities and consistencies to be found in his art considerably outweigh everything in his output that might seem distracted.

However, behind this issue of stylistic continuity, relying as it does on certain values, is a snarl of expectations whose agenda has to do with the commodification of the artist and the art object. Patterns of development, growth and resolution that are the easiest to describe are those most readily marketable. Consequently, artists are encouraged to produce works that refer to a set of concerns particular to each of them in order that clients, once oriented to a given artist’s work, can be reassured that the terms that established a reputation will be upheld and reinforced. Shadbolt has stubbornly resisted this market pressure and has, in fact, made it follow his determinedly alinear path. He has convinced his audience that if his path does not conform to the model of the blue-chip painter, then that model must itself be revised.

Shadbolt’s history as an artist is tied to British Columbia. Something of the place’s repressed, violent colonial history erupts forth in his work. His lifelong search for form and his concern about its inherent instability are both a reflection of his involvement with the guiding existential metaphor of modernism and an allegory about the deep interrelationship between place and identity.

For some, Shadbolt will always be a social realist, albeit one with a sardonic, surrealist edge. His street scenes of Victoria and Vancouver, his documents of Canada preparing for war and of postwar London’s bombed buildings, his studies of industrial structures, all testify to his acute powers of observation. These are powerful records of a society in the throes of decrepitude and eclipse. For others, Shadbolt is the triumphant abstractionist, who is able to voice the uneasy mix of modernist optimism and anxiety in paintings that bore into that place where nature and the inner personal world meet. The truth is that he is both these artists and often simultaneously.

In his own terms he has been divided by what he calls lyrical, classical concerns and the need to strike romantic cords of passion and ferocity. Thankfully these conflicts have been mediated by humour and immense self-discipline. Among the dichotomies of his volatile and conflicted creativity has been a pull between mimesis and abstraction. This is echoed throughout a practice of painting that is drawn again and again to particular, expressive and eccentric form while at the while at the same time it embarks on a quest for what is universal and atavistic in form. It is tensions like these that have propelled his immensely prolific and varied output.

In this introduction I want to tie Shadbolt’s art to history and the forces at work when we speak of place and identity. In approaching his work this way, I hope to give the term “regionalist” a more rounded and useful meaning than its sometimes negative connotation of parochialism. Global events such as the Great Depression, the Second World War, postwar optimism and anxiety, the threat of ecological catastrophe, are indelibly present in Shadbolt’s work. But that work always features the local effect of world drama and highlights the terms under which identity comes into being on the local stage. I believe they re-enact the traumatic and violent relationship to the natural world that has characterized British Columbia’s resource-based economy from colonial times to the present. The historical struggle of First Nations people against the obliterating forces of colonialist culture and law is also intrinsic to any attempt to achieve a distinctly regional landscape painting. This sense of an uneasy relationship between cultures—mainly European and native—becomes even more acute in Shadbolt’s abstractions, which are not merely based on nature but an attempt to define it.

Shadbolt became an artist at the beginning of Canadian modernism. Although born in England in 1909, he grew up in Victoria, British Columbia. As a young artist, his first inspiration was Fred Housser’s A Canadian Art Movement: the Story of the Group of Seven, published in 1926. This book was his introduction to Canada’s national school of landscape painting and to the exciting idea that the source and inspiration for great painting could be found in his own experience of place. He and his young mentor, Max Maynard, set out to do for the forests and hills of southern Vancouver Island what the Group had done for central Canada and the Pre-Cambrian shield.

This first contact with Canadian art brought with it doubts as well as enthused new convictions. While promising liberation from the colonial mentality of Victoria, it insinuated another. The nationalism that fuelled the Group of Seven and their supporters was framed within an insistent allegiance to the British Empire. In the early years of this century, Canadian nationalism meant shedding colonial status to assume vanguard status within, not without, the context of the imperial world. Shadbolt would reject the vision of the national landscape school in less than a decade.

After all, the mythology promoted by the Group of Seven was an attempt to implant the characteristics of northern Ontario into the national consciousness as the emblem of the nation’s bond with the land. British Columbia, especially on its southern coast, is dramatically different in climate and topography from Ontario’s Pre-Cambrian shield. There was, thought the young Jack Shadbolt and Max Maynard, a missing piece of the picture, a piece they hoped to provide. A few years after their first contact with the ideals of the Group of Seven, they saw an exhibition of Emily Carr’s paintings in Victoria and sought out her studio. They were thrilled to find in their city an artist of such stature who had already forged modernist landscape painting based on British Columbian reality. But their discovery of this great painter in their midst meant that their ambition to create great art with a wholly new subject might now have to take on a different strategy.

Although their meetings with Carr were important and her example has been a formidable one for Shadbolt, the idea that he was a student of hers is an exaggeration. One looks in vain for more than a cursory pastiche of Carr’s work in Shadbolt’s early œuvre. The example of her isolation was a negative one and, in fact, spurred Shadbolt to insist throughout his career that the artist must place himself or herself before the public and be an actor in the public realm. What binds Shadbolt and Carr is the conviction that modernist expression based on nature was the key artistic identity in British Columbia. For Shadbolt, Carr, if not to be emulated as a painter or a person, was still a guide to what it might meant to have an original vision of place, and he regarded her as a superior artist to her Group of Seven colleagues.

In the 1930s Shadbolt both taught and studied art. Not a great deal of work survives from this period, since he purged his studio twice before 1936, actions we might lament as I do not concur with the young Shadbolt’s low opinion of his early work. During this time, he experimented with surrealism and cubism, but the model to which he kept returning was the classical modernism of Cézanne and Paul Nash, and the regional idiom of Charles Burchfield and John Marin. He also became interested in First Nations carvings in the collection of the Provincial Museum in Victoria which he interpreted as an art of psychological depth. Like Carr, he saw in native art a great tradition of art based on formal abstract principles, whose ancient roots and connection to community validated the modern experiment. They were not the only artists to admire the art of the West Coast, but they were considerably closer to it and the people who produced it than, say, Barnett Newman, who used the example of Kwakwaka’wakw art to legitimize his practice of abstraction in New York.

During the Great Depression, Shadbolt became convinced that his vocation was to render the social space of a culture that was transforming from colonial to independent status. At this stage of his career, he was especially impressed with the murals of Diego Rivera and Thomas Hart Benton. He envisioned art returning to architecture and public spaces through the medium of murals. Years later, when he had turned to abstraction, he still believed in the possibility of the mural as a truly public art. Yet the city he depicts is aging and its citizens furtive. His urban pictures of the 1930s portray the ruins of deteriorating buildings beset by the vitality of nature, which is eroding them. Sometimes he explored whimsical sexual imagery, but at other times nature was represented by violent and untrammeled growth. The works of this period foreshadow what would come later when his paintings openly declared their concern for shattered form and invading tendrils.

He enlisted in 1942, hoping to put his talent as a social realist to use as an official war artist, but was disappointed at not being given a war artist commission after he had been such an effective advocate of the program’s revival. The war did, however, send him to Ottawa, where he met Doris Meisel, as they were looking at a Cézanne painting in the National Gallery. His marriage to Doris, who as a curator and writer has played a role in the artistic life of British Columbia commensurate with that of her husband, prefaced Shadbolt’s coming into his own as an artist by months. This was probably not a coincidence; rather, this new companionship with another modernist visionary must have provided the impetus to define his voice within the currents of his time.

Shadbolt produced powerful images during the war and its aftermath, especially of the prisoner of war camp at Petawawa, Ontario. His series of drawings and watercolours of bombed buildings in London, the devastated city that was the capital of what had once been the Empire, took his concern for the inner structure of things to a new level of expression. He tried to paint allegories about the horrors of war, peopling rickety Vancouver boarding houses with the survivors of Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen. He made picture of dogs roaming the city rubble and howling with bestial anguish. Back home, he also made studies of driftwood and forest slash at Buccaneer Bay in British Columbia, a considerably more bucolic place than postwar London. Combining these studies with drawings of animal skeletons, he developed a vocabulary of abstraction. This new language was based on the continuing study of structure in wrecked buildings, the debris of nature and skeletons. But it was alloyed with the artist’s urgent need to find an expression for the horror of his time, to get under the surface of things and society. The ruin of cities and the bones of animals were forged together, giving birth to Shadbolt’s own unique methods of abstraction.

He had, in the early 1940s, in public lectures on Emily Carr, claimed that while she was the first truly original Canadian artist, her isolation and even her sexual fears had turned her art almost completely toward landscape and ruins, and he asked if it was not possible to incorporate the figure within the regional idiom she had opened up. He himself would take up that task. By conflating bones with forest slash, bombed ruins and landscape structures, he melded figure and landscape into an animated, nature-based abstraction.

In late 1947, flush with his sense of having found a renewed voice and the success of exhibitions in Vancouver and Toronto, he and Doris went to New York for a year so he could paint and consolidate his discoveries in the new artistic capital of the Western world. His guide for this period of transformation was above all Picasso, whose Guernica illuminated the path to what Shadbolt called “symbolic abstraction.” Shadbolt became convinced that myth and ritual were the necessary foundations for an art of the time. Only through forms that partook in a dialogue with so-called primitive art could he express the anxiety of his age and glimpse some hope for the future. The works he produced in the late 1940s and early 1950s brought this world to the domestic interior and solidified his reputation as a leading Canadian modernist. Although they are abstractions based on vegetable and insect life, they are also battle scenes which refer to such diverse sources as medieval armour and heraldry, Melanesian painted sculpture, and First Nations carving and design. Their implied violence provided a glimpse into the social undertow of postwar restructuring. By the late 1950s, this initial violence was tempered during two year-long painting campaigns in southern France and a growing involvement in the formation of a new, enlightened middle-class, who promised to bring to the city of Vancouver a taste for modern design and architecture.

His work of the 1960s broke new ground as he pursued automatic and calligraphic techniques. Pop art, minimalism and hard-edged abstraction interested him, but they did not in the end persuade him away from the painterly abstraction with symbolic overtones that he had defined in the late 1940s. Shadbolt’s positive impression of Marshall McLuhan’s utopian communications theories influenced and strengthened his own antilinear thinking. Flux and transformation became primary subjects. The great variation and explosive energy of his 1960s output was probably what most served to create Shadbolt’s reputation as a recklessly protean figure.

It is arguable that Shadbolt’s greatest period began in the 1970s and extends to the present. It was then that he stopped resisting his eclecticism and exterior models for painting fell away. He began mining his own past for new paintings. He renewed his conviction that the art forms of the world’s first peoples offered the source and inspiration for a relevant modern art. The development of Shadbolt’s painterly persona has continued to be wild. He regularly recycles himself, revisiting sometimes decades-old directions. And, especially since the 1950s, no sooner has he schooled his audience in one idiom than he starts out on another. He works in large achronological circles, mapping out a shifting terrain—some might call it a war zone—between the axes of his temperament and the means of expression he has mastered.

In his work of the 1970s, Shadbolt renewed his interest in the figure. In his Fetish series, he inaugurated a ritualized, totemic and fractured representation of the figure as messenger from the place where the psyche and “nature” meet. Lush, terrifying, erotic and grandiose, these works stood out in the artistic image-drought of the period. In 1975, a trip to India provided a new and fertile source of references for the figure in art. Many of the drawings of the late 1970s and early 1980s are the result of his study of Indian miniatures.

A particular world view emerges from Shadbolt’s work. He has frequently stated his view that underneath the social and sociable exteriors we present to the world lies a world of violent irrationality. His interest in the face as a mask can be seen in his 1940s street scenes and caricatures of army buddies, as well as in his postwar work with Melanesian, Northwest Coast and Navajo masks. His bestiary of imaginary creatures inhabits the night forest and garden. He is interested in the interior of form—where it is most unstable—and in the underworld of roots, bulbs and bones.

There are respites from this rich, enchanted but tragic world of organic birth and decay in his work. The serenity of his owls makes space in his nocturnal bacchanals for meditation and contemplation. He is drawn to classical form and outline, but the pull toward the forces of the night and destruction is “the way in,” to borrow the title of one of his most magnificent triptych drawings of the forest.

Shadbolt’s investigation into form enacts a view of nature, culture and the self that the artist has had to deal with, whether they are his views or not. Form in Shadbolt’s painting is emblematically phallic: the dog, the pruned tree, the uprooted stump, the disconnected limb or wing and the butterfly cocoon are all representations of this emblem under the duress of castration. Shadbolt’s thinking about form, his drive to make it compact, pent up, holding energy under pressure, is an allegory of orgasm. In his paintings, form is under threat; the field of energy in which he places form will not allow stability but subjects form to external corrosion. Form is then a fragile ephemeral apparition, defined by the meeting of building internal pressures with external force. At any moment, form can implode or explode. There are Shadbolt drawings of seeds, plants and butterflies which celebrate transformation as a mystery. There are others, of a face being ripped from a skull by tightening constraints, of phallic monsters locked in cages, that give a more terrifying account of experience in a world of ceaseless flux.

Anxiety about virility and the macho posturing that is meant to conceal this fear ran like a river through postwar abstract painting, especially the abstract expressionism of the New York School. Never a brawler, womanizer or heavy drinker, Shadbolt may have lacked these stereotypical stigmata of masculine genius. Nevertheless, like the New York painters, his phallicism contains the struggle for identity to come into being, a struggle that takes place against a field of literal and metaphorical emptiness. The painter confronts this literal emptiness every time he begins a canvas and starts the act of creation, an act that can only begin but never conclude lest the project of painting itself come to an end.

The hopes and despair of the modern imagination are often crystallized in the metaphors of emptiness we build in architecture and use to define modernism’s world. Twentieth-century fascists and communists promised that their vast empty plazas, boulevards and mass-housing projects would “empty out” the aristocratic and bourgeois idea of self. In the West, bourgeois culture saw itself and its masses as legions of, as T.S. Eliot put it, “hollow men.” In this century we have discovered that our universe is an infinite expanse of mostly dark and empty space and that the things of the world—like our evacuated selves in between the subatomic particles—are mostly nothing.

To the blank canvas, the artist who wishes to discover nature must bring another metaphor of emptiness. Emptiness is the dominant image of the territory occupied by the nation of Canada. Shadbolt’s dialogue with emptiness and anxiety is provoked by the encounter with nature as emptiness that is critical for defining his art as one that pictures the crisis of our regional identity, our own “nature.”

According to notable critics like Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood, the history of Canadian painting and writing is threaded with a motif of dread provoked by the expanse of wilderness and its emptiness. It is possible to see Shadbolt’s art conforming to this Canadian paradigm. We can imagine that he is responding to the way his culture imagines nature; not just to the majesty and mystery of the impenetrable coastal forests but to their unyielding “foreignness,” especially in relation to our tamer pastoral traditions of European art. For Shadbolt, who, like most Canadians, was raised by parents who were born somewhere else, this “foreignness” is the source of instability and homelessness—a lack of roots.

For Northrop Frye, the impetus of Canadian art has been to establish roots for the psyche of the nation. The Canadian dilemma of rootlessness and the need to forge an identity and notion of home has, until recently, been constructed with a European model in mind. The European painting tradition pictures pastoral landscapes psychically owned by peoples who had cultivated the land for thousands of years. But uncultivated Canada, its wilderness and emptiness, could be absorbed into the national psyche only if seen through Canadian, not European, eyes. This is Frye’s view, a view that has guided much of the discussion of Canadian landscape painting.

The problem of a lingering colonial mentality has haunted the development of Canadian modernism, a problem that Northrop Frye recognized and lamented when he wrote that Canada is “practically the only country left in the world which is a pure colony, colonial in psychology as well as in mercantile economics.” The economy of British Columbia, driven by its resource-extraction industries, fits uncomfortably well Frye’s definition of a colony as a place “treated less like a society than a place to look for things.” The very name of the province, “British Columbia,” indefinitely postpones emancipation from the colonial mentality. If Frye is correct when he says that “the creative instinct has to do with the assertion of territorial rights,” then creativity in Canada must be saturated with the history and politics of the acquisition of territorial rights. The difficulties that attend the imagining of nature in Canadian art and the restive search for a sense of home and roots have depended on the idea that the land is “empty,” a wilderness. But it never really was. Much of what is now Canada had been inhabited, mapped and named for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. The idea of emptiness is part of the colonialist dream of conquest, serving to erase the trails, names, maps, villages, economies, cultures and peoples that had filled that emptiness.

Nothing could be clearer or more disturbing evidence of our use of this concept of emptiness than Chief Justice Allan McEachern’s 1991 reasons for judgement against the Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en land claim which contains this description of a sizable area of British Columbia: “As I have mentioned, the territory [in question] is, indeed, a vast emptiness.” It is an irony that within the “vast emptiness” of Gitksan territory are ancient village sites and monuments painted by Emily Carr.

Emptiness, vast space, indomitable nature and wilderness as the poetic picture of the enormous territories of Canada are more than artistic abstractions. These fictions have become aggressive legal instruments in the service of erasing First Nations land claims. But there is a secondary consequence that has been acted out in the history of Canadian painting and literature. As she herself noted, the solution to Margaret Atwood’s famous conundrum “the problem is what do you do for a past if you are white, relatively new to the continent and rootless?” has been to assimilate First Nations art into mainstream modernism. Appropriations of this art into the Canadian fabric are designed to locate Canada securely on its territory via the medium of a “shared” artistic heritage, but such fragile constructions of identity are easily challenged. For Atwood and Frye, the colonial mentality that feeds such mythologies is irrevocably scarred and mutilated, caught in a perpetual state of thwarted becoming and permanent alienation from the land.

While Emily Carr’s paintings are certainly “about” her personal rapport with nature, signs of just the opposite can be seen in her works. Her forest is, often as not, industrialized. Her point of view is that of the logger, standing on the cleared land and gazing at as yet uncut timber. Her archive of First Nations monuments and village sites is rarely peopled. She calls one painting of an abandoned village Vanquished, celebrating a modern displacement as if it were inexorable, destined, natural, organic. Despite our use of Carr’s pictures as emblems of “our” British Columbia, perhaps they also testify to a troublesome irreconcilability and the impossibility of the very regional landscape art they seem to propose.

Such an impossibility is close to the foundations of Jack Shadbolt’s work. His early enthusiasm for landscape produced drawings and paintings of quarried hills (they reminded him of the landscapes in Mantegna paintings) or sites ravaged by fire. There are few landscapes in his postwar works and those also focus on ecological catastrophe, yet much of his work is undeniably landscape based. He uses a landscape space in many of his abstractions, but of a special kind. Important projects, like the 1962 Edmonton Airport mural or The Chilkoot Experience (1971), are views inspired by airplane trips.

The garden, an uneasy meeting ground of nature and culture, is his miniaturized landscape where the allegorical battles of a divided self can be waged and contained. Much of the work that refers to gardens or fields is imagined from the point of view of a ground-crawling animal or from below ground level amongst the exposed roots, bulbs and insect pupae. The point of view of the surveyor of the vista or wanderer through the field is all but absent; paths inevitably lead into the dark tangle of forest. The “avoided” point of view is that of the typical European landscape in which ownership over the vista is affirmed. Instead, there is a kind of panic landscape in which one’s bearings cannot be established.

Exceptions to this destabilizing vision are notable in that they occur in pictures of Europe. Like many North American travellers, Shadbolt was fascinated by the relationship of town and country in southern France and Italy when he sojourned there for painting and drawing campaigns in 1957 and 1961. Town and country were still discrete. He could portray a town nestled in the vineyard-covered hills or the economy of a small fishing village. Over many of these European views, he “wrote” calligraphic gestures, signatures that substituted for an ownership that, for the North American, can only be temporary improvisations of a tourist.

The landscapes of Europe offer a view of civilization and the importance of duration and memory in defining place, whereas in British Columbia, landscape is absorbed by the jungle-like tangle of forest and garden. The garden becomes a colonial fortress, peopled with totemic figures made of truncated, painted gnarls of stump and root, guarding the artist’s world against malevolent forces. Like Carr, Shadbolt has used First Nations design to locate his art in this region, but his use of the art of the coast has been fraught with the same pressures that bear down on his world of form. The formal imperatives of Haida or Kwakwaka’wakw design have no translation into the form language that Shadbolt has developed. Their symmetry and highly organized pattern are at a polar opposite to his preference for the shattered and the skewed. Representations of masks and faces turn queasy in his hands, as if they registered some inescapable dread. Shadbolt’s projections onto landscape and native art might be the gauge of an inner turmoil, but this inner turmoil is our “nature,” our struggle to overcome the colonial situation. Behind the push and pull of his surfaces, behind his compacted, trussed and disintegrating forms, is an orchestra of revulsion and attraction that Shadbolt’s art tries to categorize and account for. The restless search for form of this resounding chord is impelled by a need to define nature, to give it a shape it does not seem to have when it is simply a tract of valuable timber or vast emptiness.

The plenitude and fecundity of Shadbolt’s formal language is a dialogue with just the opposite—emptiness. The crushing, dismembering energy of his painterly arena is an effort to conjure nature into being—a nature that has been “emptied out” by colonialism. His imagination of nature confronts, with considerable violence, the colonial disimagination of nature and the economic distillation of nature into “vast emptiness,” nameless rivers and mountains, logs and jobs. In this way, as much as they testify to the viability of painting as a route to knowledge, Shadbolt’s works are admonitory, restive rebukes to the colonial mentality.

The border between nature and colonial culture has shifted since it was painted by Emily Carr. In the late 1960s Shadbolt introduced Carr’s voice into his work with Hornby Suite (1968), a series of charcoal drawings of the forest that paid a direct homage to Carr while at the same time claiming her subject matter for himself. Not just the rain forest and its spectacular density and decay but also the very notion that a quintessential aspect of nature is given voice through the medium of the artist, are subjects and a belief that ground a Carr/Shadbolt tradition. This tradition might even be an “ism.” Carr/Shadboltism holds that the local climate and topography of British Columbia are major factors in the formation of a kind of subjectivity unique to this region. Carr saw nature as redemptive, a refuge where the sensitive type, who had turned her back on society, could be harboured and nourished. It was the place where one found God.

Shadbolt’s nature, on the other hand, is a vortex, a maelstrom opening onto the forces of darkness and chaos. He guarantees the continuity between this “nature” and society by seeing in it a mirror of the modern soul. Through the powerful synthesizing forces of abstract art, all cultures and times can be transformed by Shadbolt into the idiom given by local nature. But in Shadbolt, this program is disrupted and destabilized. It never returns us to the pastoral paradigm but alerts us to the fact that landscape—the genre in which we look for reassurance that we are somewhere familiar—is not yet home but a dangerously fragmented terrain. His insertion of figurative elements into the landscape, or conversely his flooding of figurativeness with landscape elements, has created a unique abstract genre. Some critics find that his works provide scant solace that the two can be harmonized. Instead, he seems to record forms as they splinter each other. This vision is sometimes apocalyptic, as if Shadbolt saw not just a present crisis but its horrible aftermath—though he is not a pessimist. Art itself is a kind of proof that the crisis can be borne, even if its resolution is far from sight.

Shadbolt believes that in the world that lies just beneath the surface of society are both the atavistic forms he hopes can reanimate a society of “hollow men” and the potential to reimagine nature. Both are the necessary tasks that his art proposes.