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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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