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Shaping History

Painter Ward Shelley plays with the history of Judaism in ‘The People of the Book,’ a series of giant, whimsical flowcharts that tell a story

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Ward Shelley, People of the Book v.1, 2012, oil and toner on mylar, 28.5 x 57 inches. (Courtesy the artist and Pierogi Gallery)

Call them data visualizations, rhetorical drawings, or, as he does, graphic narratives, Ward Shelley’s paintings are mesmerizing, mind-boggling, and infinitely debatable. His obsessively researched timelines chronicling cultural phenomena—Frank Zappa, teenagers, the very concept of the avant-garde—inhabit the art-chart spectrum somewhere between the playful mappings of Saul Steinberg and the paranoid diagrams of Marc Lombardi, though the paintings, executed in a Seussian palette with oil on toner on mylar, have a more biomorphic quality, as though history could be rendered as tree roots, or part of a giant squid.

“When you start arranging facts in a systemic way, they have a shape, like plotting data points on a graph,” says the artist. “The curve becomes a story.”

When those stories, particularly his History of Science Fiction, have gone viral, they provoked hundreds of emendations from viewers deeply invested in the topic. Now Shelley has taken on a subject that could be just as polemical, depending on the context. The People of the Book was inspired, the artist says, by Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, obsessively researched online, and vetted by a rabbi. Starting in Ur and Canaan, the painting traverses through Samaritans, Gnostics, Kazars, crypto-Jews, Karaites, the Bobov, and Jabotinsky, arriving in the present with the ba’al t’shuva renewal, Israel’s Meretz party, and the Kabbalah Center. Hanging on the wall of Pierogi Gallery’s stand at the Armory Fair in New York through this weekend, surrounded by a profusion of trompe-l’oeil people and stuffed animals by other artists, the orange-hued picture has yet to spark too much debate, though it did find a buyer. But the two other versions of the work, in Shelley’s current show through March 18 at the gallery’s Williamsburg headquarters, are still available. Depending on the setting, this could be quite the conversation piece.

Click on the detail below to see the entire image.

detail of Ward Shelley's 'People of the Book'

Ward Shelley, People of the Book (Prototype), 2011, oil and toner on mylar, 22 x 55 inches. (Image courtesy the artist and Pierogi Gallery.)

Click on the detail below to see the entire image.

detail of Ward Shelley's 'People of the Book'

Ward Shelley, People of the Book v.1, 2012, oil and toner on mylar, 28.5 x 57 inches. (Image courtesy the artist and Pierogi Gallery.)
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I adore many of Ward Shelley’s schematic paintings. His ongoing investigation of the dialectical relationship between life and narrative is something special. When I learned of this particular work, however, I was especially delighted. I’m a happy transplant to the SF Bay Area from Queens, but missing Shelley’s current outing at Pierogi — and the opportunity to spend time with this piece — is very, very disappointing. Thanks for covering it.

Quite wonderful. A visual cue reveals its weakness, however. The far right of the painting records different threads or strains of Judaism moving in boring parallel for the last few decades and going forward, in contrast to the confusion, upheaval, and mixed influence of everything that has gone before. that is the way we always see our own time, of course. But it pays to reflect that in a few short years our own era will be painted with all the detours and dead ends we accurately perceive now in earlier times. Even poor attempts which later prove inaccurate to imagine what those crosscurrents might be is a profitable exercise.

Linda Shapira says:

I think this is brilliant! Is there any way to buy these in poster form?

avulpineheart says:

i second linda’s request for information regarding prints or posters. these are sublime.

Robin Cembalest says:

Ward Shelley says he is considering a poster version of “People of the Book.” Interested parties can write to him at wardmshelley@gmail.com and he will be in touch as details emerge.

fascinating. i could spend hours studying this painting, much longer than any other i’ve seen, including my own! an excellent way of pointing out how complicated our history is.

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Shaping History

Painter Ward Shelley plays with the history of Judaism in ‘The People of the Book,’ a series of giant, whimsical flowcharts that tell a story

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