Connor Shields’ work is an inquiry into nature of maleness through the use of dichotomous materials such as brick, steel, knitted wool and fabrics. These materials act as signifiers of traditional binary associations with gender and working class industries. Originating from Middlesbrough and graduating from Leeds in 2018, Shields draws on his Northern heritage and fuses it with timely concerns of male identity. He does so in a way that avoids common tropes of gender political art; favoring ambiguity over prescription. Defying assumptions of strength and vulnerability and possessing a sense of sensitivity and lyricism, his work invites meditative contemplation.
In a short space of time Shields has created a body of work which resonates deeply in our current socio-political climate with an acuity that requires unpacking. After View are extremely lucky to have spoken with Shields about some of the themes his work explores and are very excited to have caught such a thoughtful artist at the beginning of a much deserved ascension into the art world.
My use of industrial materials references working men, and ideas of conformance we inadvertently learn in our childhood. For instance, when I think about the bricks and steel I think of people who I went to school with who chose to become a bricklayer, possibly because they thought this is what is expected of them. This can be viewed in comparison to mining villages, where boys would follow in their father’s footsteps and work down the pits. My work plays with these gendered stereotypes that we have, particularly those that we learn in our childhood.
I don’t think that the work always directly references the decline of such industries though, but perhaps more so the effect that the decline of these industries has on the people. The hardships of working class, post-industrial backgrounds; unemployment and loss of jobs, lack of funding and opportunities, benefit cuts etc. A piece of work that does address this decline though is ‘Resilience’. I was thinking about the recent collapse of Teesside’s steel industry. The sculpture is a steel I-beam which is weighing down on a pile of knitting, yet the knitting still holds its own and is not crushed and consumed completely. The work was inspired by the people that have come from these backgrounds, and have faced these hardships through the loss of industry.
Similarly to why I use the industrial objects, the softer materials are also used to question the viewers perceptions of the material. The knitting is something that is perceived to be a domestic female hobby. It is linked with nurturing, cushioning, mothering roles. But there is flexibility in the knitting. The soft is comforting the ‘masculine’. There is an unexpected harmony between opposing materials. The soft which is withstanding the heavier, harder materials. I think of the women who knitted while their partners were away at sea, but I also think about the fishermen, sailors, shepherds who would also knit too. My grandad was in the Navy and I draw some inspiration from him, especially in my more recent works. I compare sailor’s knots to knitting, in how knitting is essentially an acumination of knots within the material.
I think that my work was well received and there were a lot of interesting conversations that came from being around to talk to the public. I had some great discussions with some men who maybe did not fully understand the work at first, but came from industrial backgrounds too and could relate to the themes of the work. A highlight of the experience was an email I received from a lady who had visited the show who had responded to the work with a piece of poetry. That was really moving.
It is imperative for gender identity is taught in schools. I understand these ideas are new, particularly in the school curriculum, but to teach children that they don’t need to be constrained by structured ideas of gender can only be beneficial. There are many ways of starting the conversation in an informal way, and I think that art is a way to address issues in a less direct, but equally engaging way.
It has been a great experience working with the Sculpture Park and getting my work out to the public, especially being an artist so early in my career. The park is such a unique exhibition space, with the contrast of ‘heritage’ and contemporary work existing together within the landscape. The boathouse is a typically unconventional gallery space, and has many other variables that must be considered, such as the ever-changing lighting. It was a relevant space for my work to exist in, thinking about fishermen and their place within the history of knitting.
I was able to use a piece of Anthony Caro’s steel during my residency at YSP. He created abstract assemblages, and similarly we both use ‘found’ objects and materials. Caro’s work, however, focused on form and he used the metal for its material quality and its weight. I also use steel for its material quality, but my intentions are focused more on the cultural significance of the material, and the associations that I have with it. It is a metal that is significant to my hometown. It was great to be able to share my own ideas, alongside those of the esteemed artists at the park.
Regarding the industrial influence within my practice, I was recently part of a show at Platform A Gallery in Middlesbrough titled ‘Major Conversations: The Industrial Narrative’. The show included other artists from the North East and North West, from the same post-industrial backgrounds and the influence that their upbringing has had on their work, whether subconscious or deliberate. The work as a collective created a conversation about social and political concerns following the decline of the heavy industry. It was a great conversation to be a part of, and the show is traveling to Wigan next year.
Will Hughes is also a sculptor that I am interested in right now, addressing ideas around queer identity and queer culture. We both have a love for the materials we use, and we build upon the history of these materials, reinterpreting perceptions.
Yes, the nature of my work is exploratory both in theme and the production of the work. I don’t tend to often approach a sculpture with an outcome in mind, as I almost always end up with a different outcome. I usually make and gather these objects and materials that are cultural signifiers, and have connotations aligned with my ideas, exploring how they can work together as sculpture. I will often take things apart and place them different ways until they finally find a place where they work together as sculpture. I think this exploration has always been my process, and was potentially the way I stumbled into making sculpture. I felt that I was able to communicate my ideas better in a three-dimensional form, more so than I ever could working within two dimensions.
I think that my work is very commonly read as being about the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’, which is true, and maybe an entry level to the work. But there are other themes and ideas of class, subtle hints at my upbringing in a post-industrial town, and personal anecdotes about family. I think that these elements are just as important as those of gender. Maybe these themes aren’t all as topical as the conversation around gender right now, but they are just as important in my work, to me at least.
I’ve just recently finished a commission for Woven Festival and I am now currently working towards a show in Middlesbrough that will be happening in September. As well as that I am planning to move back to Leeds in the near future. There is so much happening with sculpture right now in Yorkshire and it would be great to be back, surrounded by several great sculptural institutes. And next year the show I previously mentioned at Platform A travels to The Turnpike Gallery in Leigh.
“It is imperative for gender identity is taught in schools. I understand these ideas are new, particularly in the school curriculum, but to teach children that they don’t need to be constrained by structured ideas of gender can only be beneficial. There are many ways of starting the conversation in an informal way, and I think that art is a way to address issues in a less direct, but equally engaging way.”