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Geometric Mechanotherapy Cell for Harmonic Alignment of Movements and Relations, 2007-2008 by Steven Shearer.Courtesy of National Gallery of Canada, Galerie Eva Presenhuber, and David Zwirner Gallery

I wasn’t really in the mood, to be honest. With what was happening in this province – deadly flooding and mudslides – going to look at art felt incongruous, at the very least. Weird. Wrong? People were still missing, thousands of animals were dead or dying, infrastructure had crumbled and the supply chain was in trouble.

The Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver felt like a million miles away from it all, although the catastrophe was just down the road. Entering the glassed-in lobby, it was impossible to ignore the gallery’s location: right on the Burrard Inlet. On the water.

On Saturday, the Polygon opens Steven Shearer, the first solo exhibition for the internationally renowned artist on home turf in years. Shearer is from Metro Vancouver and still lives and works here. In Canada, he had a major survey at the Power Plant in Toronto that opened in late 2007. In Vancouver, there was a Contemporary Art Gallery show that opened in late 2004, and before that, in 2000, a show at the Or Gallery, an artist-run centre. It was curated by Reid Shier, now director of the Polygon.

More recently, during this spring’s Capture Photography Festival, a series of billboards by Shearer featuring images of people sleeping were almost immediately covered over after complaints.

So the Polygon show is a rare opportunity to be immersed in Shearer’s work here at home.

Sleep II, 2015.Courtesy of Galerie Eva Presenhuber, and David Zwirner Gallery

For more than two decades, Shearer has collected some 78,000 images from the Internet and organized them in groups: metalheads, mullets, the 1970s teen heartthrob Leif Garrett. While his body of work is diverse – sculpture, collage, drawing, painting – this vast digital archive is the consistent starting point.

“Photography has informed his thinking and practice, right from the get-go,” Shier says. This is one of the central themes of the show.

From the lobby, with its view of the ocean – sparkling on Wednesday morning – I moved up the stairs to the exhibition, and my attention was diverted. Black bug-like creatures on a grid of pale yellow loomed over me, one of several Shearer works installed here. The title, when I checked for it, seemed apt: Hellspawn, 1999.

Upstairs, the show’s main gallery is dominated by two works. The first is Sideshow Rigmarole, 2020, a sprawling series of 33 found images in various hues mounted on rag paper – men, boys, dogs, would-be rock ‘n’ roll stars posing for what we imagine to be 1960s album covers. Shier calls them photo-laminates.

The other dominant work in the space is Geometric Mechanotherapy Cell for Harmonic Alignment of Movements and Relations, 2007-08, a monumental motorized sculpture in which Shearer has reproduced a play structure he found in a photograph. He has added a soundtrack that gives the work anthropomorphic qualities: hissing, humming and grunting, almost as if it’s getting up the energy to do something. Shier used the term “assertive,” and that was how it felt to me. Not assertive in the first way you might think of the term, but assertive as if this thing was trying to work up the courage to assert itself.

Bat Post-it Statue, 2012, is a rare work in which Shearer himself took the photos. It’s a triptych, and the central image – the Post-it part – is a drawing Shearer made and then photographed.

Many of these works are thick with references. Xmas Trees, 2005, a grid of found photos of Christmas trees, the images all upside-down, brings to mind Vancouver artist Rodney Graham’s inverted trees. The painting Young Symbolist, 2013, subtly shows off Shearer’s knowledge of art history, his virtuosity as a painter, and his interest in mixing styles – contemporary and historical – as well as his playfulness.

Potter, 2021.Courtesy The George Economou Collection, Athens, Greece

The Polygon is a non-collecting institution that focuses on photography, and I’m not sure I have ever seen a painting installed in the space. Perhaps that’s why it was the paintings in this show that really stood out for me: from Shearer’s tiny Clifford, 2014 – in which 1980s metalhead meets Rembrandt – to the symbolism-heavy The Collector’s Visit, 2019, to the most recent work in the show, Potter, 2021.

Potter feels like a true pandemic painting: a long-haired, shirtless man works with clay with great intensity, surrounded by completed pots. But wait – are they vases or test tubes? A couple of them may be holding intestines – or maybe it’s just the design on the outer layer. Everything feels ambivalently inside-out, including the potter himself, whose skeleton seems almost visible with a red fire reflected in his chest. He wears soft pants, perhaps pyjama bottoms. The finished works on the shelves behind him are hard. The work he is creating is in its in-between state. (The painting is on loan from the collection of Greek shipping tycoon George Economou.)

In the Polygon’s small back gallery, there are a few more works, including a copper model for the giant sculpture; several bound books of Shearer’s collected images are displayed under Plexiglas.

This gallery features a large wall of windows, opening up to the water. As I walked in, it occurred to me that, for a few minutes, I had been sidetracked from the terrible news of the day amid Shearer’s work.

Looking at art is never a bad idea.

On the way out, I stopped on the landing for another moment to commune with Hellspawn, then descended back into the real world.