Phoenix Artist Joseph Shetler on Minimalism, James Turrell, and Mennonite Culture

Joseph Shetler standing in front of "Defining Ethos," his MFA Thesis Exhibition in Drawing.
Joseph Shetler standing in front of "Defining Ethos," his MFA Thesis Exhibition in Drawing.
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What happens in the studio, shouldn't always stay in the studio. Studio Visit is a weekly series that profiles artists in their studios. Up today: Recent graduate from ASU's MFA Drawing program, Joseph Shetler.

Joseph Shetler, a 30-year old artist currently based in Phoenix, comes from a fairly diverse background. He was raised locally in a Mennonite family, worked in construction over his summer breaks from school, and held a position as a guard for a private art collection in Washington, D.C. Most recently, he presented his MFA Thesis Exhibition, "Defining Ethos," which ran in early of December 2014 at ASU's Step Gallery. For this current body of work, all of these defining characteristics, the artist's ethos, coalesce and inform the work itself. He walked us through his exhibition while it was still up and we chatted about the work back in his studio at Grant Street Studios.

See also: ASU Announces Visiting Artist/Scholar Lecture Series Lineup at Grant Street Studios in Phoenix

Shetler's drawings often use a log cabin pattern, which is often used in quilting.
Shetler's drawings often use a log cabin pattern, which is often used in quilting.
Peter Bugg

"I just really wanted to pull from everything that I've done and make sure it's all represented," said Shetler. The works themselves are calm, quiet drawings that explore shape, line, and tone. His background is evident. Mennonite culture embraces simplicity -- their homes are not adorned with art or any excess whatsoever. For them, form follows function. The way that Shetler constructs these works on paper does so, as well. If you look closely, the artist's hand is evident. You can see the individual marks and guidelines, exposing that there is no mythology to how they are made.

The shapes Shetler creates even refer to the utilitarian. Each drawing can be compared to a quilt, with each line being a stitch. Many of them feel as if they could be blueprints for a construction project. Practicality and high art intermingle in Shetler's work, but he still finds a way to embrace the sublime while simultaneously staying true to his roots. There's a Rothko-esque feeling that's present in the work, but it's tuned to the artist. The pieces remain modest and humble, largely indebted to the fact that the artist's hand is present. "[I would] go in there, sit there and then fill it in until my eyes hurt," said Shetler. His method for mark-making is transparent -- the viewer can see all of the labor that went into it.

Shetler's structures control the experience of the viewer in a subtle way.
Shetler's structures control the experience of the viewer in a subtle way.
Peter Bugg

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One of the pieces in his thesis show, 1-12, is a tall and narrow constructed space that houses a small drawing. This piece, like others in the show, references both Mennonite culture and minimalism. The viewer enters the seemingly claustrophobic space, but it's actually quite comforting and simply serene. Throughout the run of the exhibition, Shetler switches the drawing exhibited. The viewer would only notice the changes if they actually spent time with the work, as if they were guarding the artwork as Shetler once did.

Shetler also built off of the walls to create extensions that house the drawings. This way, the work itself is the focal point. He is providing the viewer with the kind of experience of simplicity that his Mennonite community embraces. The works in "Defining Ethos" collectively offer us an introduction to Joseph Shetler. He's utilizing everything he knows, from his background and life experience to his artistic tastes.

Some smaller serial works by Shetler that play with line, tone, and shape.
Some smaller serial works by Shetler that play with line, tone, and shape.
Mikey Estes

The finished product of his thesis work is very precise and controlled, but in order to get there Shetler went through a lot of experimentation. In his studio are a lot of smaller works, such as serial prints and material experiments. He even thought about incorporating video at one point. Even though these ideas weren't a part of the final exhibition, venturing outside of the box proved to help Shetler get to where he is now. "If you just step outside every once in a while, it can shift and inform other things," said Shetler. Following the advise of well-known conceptual artist John Baldessari, he worked it out and got possessed with his intensive way of working.  

Detail of Shetler's work that shows just how meticulous his gestures are.
Detail of Shetler's work that shows just how meticulous his gestures are.
Peter Bugg

Tell us about your work in haiku format. scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch

What artist(s) are you really into right now? James Turrell, Agnes Martin, Richard Serra, Robert Ryman, Sol LeWitt, mostly minimalist and post minimalist.

What are you reading? David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

What's the last TV show, film, or video you watched? The last full TV series I have watch was probably The League, and the last movie I watched was Interstellar.

Shetler's studio bookshelf is filled with books on minimalism.
Shetler's studio bookshelf is filled with books on minimalism.
Mikey Estes

If you could collaborate with any artist, alive or dead, who would it be and why? I would choose to collaborate with either Richard Serra or James Turrell. They both control the space and experience of the viewer so well.

What was the last exhibition you saw and what did you think of it? Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities: Painting Poetry and Music at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. It really wasn't something I was into but I can appreciate what they were trying to accomplish.

Jeff Koons or Marina Abramović and why? If I had to choose I guess Marina Abramovic because Jeff Koons bores me.

Two small experimental works by Shetler. The left one is made with twine and the right is his mark-making accented with watercolor.
Two small experimental works by Shetler. The left one is made with twine and the right is his mark-making accented with watercolor.
Mikey Estes

What's the best advice you've ever received? The best advice as an artist given to me directly was "draw what you see." Best advice that I have read comes from John Baldessari: 1. Talent is cheap. 2. You have to be possessed (Which you can't will). 3. Being in the right place at the right time.

What are you currently working on? Mostly small sketches and thinking about graduation, moving, jobs, residencies, the future, etc...

What's your most valued tool as an artist? My pencil.

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Step Gallery

605 E. Grant St
Phoenix, AZ 85004

art.asu.edu/gallery/step


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