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Steven Shearer, Toolshed study, 2004

Steven Shearer

Are the fruits of Googling art? Are catalogues of merchandise sold on eBay worthy of a museum?

Surely, many have scoffed at some of the art of Steven Shearer, Canada's representative at next year's Venice Biennale, the world-famous contemporary art exhibit. But experts say his unconventional digital works are an intriguing sign of the times.

Mr. Shearer's work includes collages of images taken from the Internet, like "Xmas Trees II," a collection of dozens of photos of Christmas trees, all arranged upside down. "Metal Archive Study" is a scattering of hundreds of photos of Black Sabbath merchandise taken from eBay. In describing his work, Mr. Shearer has said he is "interested in the times I'm living in and in the way the past echoes in them."

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"Artists always use the tools that are of the day - and the Internet is today," said the National Gallery of Canada's senior curator of contemporary art, Josee Drouin-Brisebois, who was part of a committee that chose Mr. Shearer to exhibit in Venice.

"There are moments in artistic creation when we see how artists can actually use the tools that are out there. But (they) also make us think about the tools (by) changing them slightly, (influencing) our appreciation or understanding of them."

Drouin-Brisebois said artists' use of the Internet as an influence is not particularly new, although it's now becoming far more common and overt. Mr. Shearer's use of digital images is not unlike how artists have used photographs in their art.

"Whether they're images from magazines or images from press clippings or whatnot, I think artists are very interested in media culture and the kinds of images that are out there and how they define us or how they try to define us," she said.

"For me what's interesting is how (Mr. Shearer) uses it and just the fact he's compiled these thousands and thousands of images into these archives and seeing how his brain works in terms of the associations that he creates from just these images that are out there."

What's also interesting about Mr. Shearer's work is how he's exploring the new digital archives of the Internet, which are often user-created rather than curated by experts, said Gregory Burke, director of the Power Plant gallery in Toronto.

"It's a very different and distinct contribution I think he's making in the way that he's using the Internet and recognizing the Internet as a kind of new form and in many ways a very public form of archive," Burke said.

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"He builds up his own kind of files sourced from completely disparate sources from around the world, of different kinds of actions people are doing (online)."

University of Toronto lecturer Tracey Bowen has researched and written about art in today's digital world and believes we're still far, far off from seeing artists dabbling more with digital work than using traditional tools.

"It's the same as when photography came along all those years ago there were people saying, 'Oh, well, painting is dead.' Well, in the same way that the Internet has come along, painting is not dead. These kinds of classic arts are still very prominent in what we see," Ms. Bowen said.

"As an artist, I don't make computer work. I've tried. I don't like it, but I do use the Internet to gain ideas.

"Lots of artists are looking at how we gain information, the visual properties of what we consume, and are commenting on that, because it's become part of our every day. It very much affects how we view the world and therefore how we express our experiences to the world."

Similarly, Burke doesn't think the Internet will overtake traditional galleries and museums any time soon as the primary exhibit space for art, even digital art.

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"Many find it limiting just to work in the virtual world and they want to bring whatever they create through technology into a gallery situation in some way," he said.

"That's where it becomes sort of more interesting to create that link between the virtual and the actual space."

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