Despite knowing just about everyone worth knowing in Hollywood, Tyler Shields doesn’t “give a shit” about celebrity. “Fame doesn’t exist for me,”he says. “The real people? The ones that are really, really famous? They don’t give a shit either.”
Shields — the photographer, artist and provocateur whose exhibition opens at Lab Art Texas this month — may appear like a mere mortal, but there’s one glaring difference. His friends and his muses grace the glittering screens of theaters and televisions around the globe. His pals? Take Lindsay Lohan, for one. He’ll wax poetic about how nice the wild-child actress really is. Naturally, he has made photographic art of her as well.
The enfant terrible of the L.A. art scene decided to make photography his career in 2003, during a photo shoot with actor Ben Foster — one of his first still-photo subjects. This was not virgin territory for Shields; he directed music videos and made art films in the years prior, but that shoot with Foster changed it all: “I was blown away,” says Shields of capturing images of Foster jumping from one building to another, landing in a pile of dust and rock after plunging an astonishing distance. “I couldn’t stop after that.”
Since those days, Shields has amassed an astonishing body of work — much of which depicts young, infamously carefree celebrities — that flares with a confluence of aesthetic and sociological issues. Shields’ work is dreamy to behold and encompasses a range of highly charged images laced with sexuality, beauty and naughtiness.
His aesthetic and his visual commentary on pop culture make sense: In person, he is all at once alluring, intense and endearingly persuasive. He is also an engaging conversationalist — the kind of person who could, quite literally, convince you to do anything.
When asked about what he will bring to his exhibition at Lab Art Texas, Shields is coolly ambiguous: “Just a mixture of stuff,” he says. “Some of it not released yet.” Judging by his portfolio of newest work, it will be a boundary-pushing spectacle that demands we figure out how looking at the work makes us feel.
One work, Pointe, 2015, shows a pair of feet balanced on the tips of the toes. The right is softly clothed in a pink ballet slipper; the ankle nicely wrapped in ribbon. The left foot, however, is bare, bruised and bandaged — ravaged by years of the wear, tear and grueling practice required to pull off the ravishing movement insinuated by the foot en pointe. The work forces the observation of an odd kind of savagery, one nicely tucked inside a costume. Thus, the dance that moves us with undeniable delicacy is underpinned by a damaged physiognomy that could be seen as a brand of violence.
Another of Shields’ works, COKE, 2015, is intriguing. For those who have been to wild parties where a certain white powder is greedily inhaled with all the ceremony of rutting hogs, the assumption regarding this photograph is clear. Depicted is a wee-bit-rumpled blonde with the straw of an apple-red Coca-Cola cup up one nostril. From the other nostril, blood appears to drip.
Ask, and Shields will shed light: “It’s not blood. It’s syrup,” he says. “Obviosuly, [the image] is symbolic of a certain lifestyle. But anything, anything, can be an addiction.”
On the subject of Dallas, once his city of residence, Shields is enthusiastic: “I was young, and it was great,” he recalls. “I liked the Eisenbergs Skatepark, the steak and the people. You know, when you’re that age, it doesn’t take a lot to make you happy.”
Apparently, steak remained an infatuation for Shields. In an image from his headline-making series “The Dirty Side of Glamour,” actress Mischa Barton, famous for her role in the teen-drama The O.C., eyes a large piece of raw beef hanging over her head. Her tongue is out, seductively suggesting that she is about to lick the chunk of meat. Say no more. When the photograph Mischa Barton Steak, 2011, first appeared in a 2011 exhibition, Shields explains that his email inbox exploded and he received what he calls his favorite death threat: “This group of vegans said ‘We’re gonna hunt you down and club you like a baby seal!’” He slowly enunciates the last bit, making clear the utter contradiction of a group vying to save animals but dialing in on a stylishly hip, handsome photographer as fair game.
With Shields, the madcap stories are plentiful. His life almost came to a calamitous finish when a flight he was on nearly crashed. When the end seemed inevitable, the couple sitting next to him began madly making out. Is this couple a metaphor for life?
Shields laughs at the idea. “I don’t think they were even a couple,” he says. “I’m not sure they were even together. But the point is that you don’t have to wait for a near-death experience to start living.”
Tyler Shields at Lab Art Texas, 315 Cole St., 972.863.9982 (November 14 – December 26)