Village Voice’s Robert Shuster selects Ward Shelley’s “Unreliable Narrator” Best in Show—
Ward Shelley: ‘Unreliable Narrator’
You’ll probably learn a thing or two by studying the text of Ward Shelley‘s complex timelines—which depict (among other topics) the developments of science fiction and Judaism—but this show’s real pleasure lies in the engaging graphic design. A cartographer of culture, Shelley maps connections between people, places, and ideas with a cartoonist’s eye. Annotated pathways, painted on Mylar with a comic-book palette, snake across vertical segments of time and crisscross, split, and loop to form delightful tangles of linked events.
True to life, the chronologies are messy. A history of teenagers, with numerous vein-like threads emerging from the Industrial Revolution, resembles the human circulatory system. Christianity’s growth in House Divided suggests a plumbing diagram for a home whose owner can’t stop adding bathrooms. Most chaotic, the evolution of Fluxus sends a flotilla of speech balloons (identifying particular developments) swirling around the central current of George Maciunas. Emphasizing those forms over function, Shelley displays each painting next to a copy with the labels removed.
The show’s title might be a kind of caveat to discourage factual nit-picking, but even hard-nosed scholars might find the evident research impressive. The freewheeling style, too, disguises techniques borrowed from 19th-century diagrams. In a nod to Charles Joseph Minard‘s 1869 statistical view of Napoleon’s retreat fromMoscow, Shelley varies the thickness of all his strands to reflect their relative importance. Still, Shelley never gets so serious. He gives knowledge structure but keeps things playful and wry, an approach exemplified by History of Science Fiction: citations for everything from Johannes Kepler‘s Somnium to the latest version ofBattlestar Galactica, all crammed inside a tentacled monster.