Will Sheldon

Raffaella sitting on the rocks somewhere in Maine, 2022 Acrylic on canvas, 28h x 22w in, Company Gallery

Text by Allan Gardner

Will Sheldon is an artist with a rich internal world. Between tattooing, painting, and design, Sheldon’s work has been strongly influenced by the aesthetics of fantasy. His paintings depict washed-out worlds of galleons in stormy seas or sickly-sweet cottages in the woods, undulating and distorted, little places only witches could live.

In the last several years, the world at large has globbed on to this aesthetic framework. Pixies, cottages and swirls of magic have been overprinted onto t-shirts, sprayed and slicked across shiny canvas and carved into the skin of post-teens with choppy haircuts and shaky needles in every major city you could think of. A London gallerist said that having a Will Sheldon tattoo was almost a rite of passage for a certain type of person in the NYC artworld.

PURPLE FIELD, 2023, Oil and acrylic on linen, 78×62 in, Heidi Berlin

A practice, an aesthetic framework developed over decades of work, finds its way out of one’s hands. For anything genuinely exciting, this is an inevitability—we are in a time of increasingly agile, rapid cultural cannibalism. The map is not the territory, the territory rarely exists in any one form long enough to really be seriously mapped. It’s why cinematic attempts at capturing or lampooning aesthetic of the 2020s are so ineffective, a form of media that takes so long to produce seems cringey and out of touch by the time it’s released. The only way to deal with the constant cycle of appropriation is to remain fluid, diverse in practice and true to a vision— you just have to have a vision, there’s no other way.

Raffaella wearing Georgia’s skull belt (green), 2022 Acrylic on canvas, 28h x 22w in, Company Gallery

Raffaella on the lake in Maine, 2022 Acrylic on canvas, 24h x 24w in. Company Gallery

Between two recent shows in New York and Berlin, Will Sheldon cemented his practice as one capable of evolution, innovation, and sincerity. Running in immediate succession, Rafaella at NYC’s Company Gallery was followed by Detached at Berlin’s Heidi. Respectively, these presentations are impressive bodies of work capable of engaging viewers from different angles of entry. Displaying them so close to one another is what creates something unique, addressing the role of aesthetics in contemporary painting without ever speaking directly to it. 

Painting is a good medium for addressing contemporary issues because it can take as long or as little as it needs to. Masterpieces can be made in a day and garbage can be secreted over months of sweat and toil—painting has its own esoteric value system and can be as evasive as it likes. To this end, one can address a lot through the medium. A painter who boxes will tell you that making a painting is the same as being in the ring, a dancer will describe the relationship between the music, the steps and the partner, armchair philosophers talk of painting as a visual parallel to the Sisyphean search for meaning. Painters can really go on, if you let them, because the solitary practice of applying pigment to surface creates a lot of time to really think deeply about your motivations and what it is you’re actually doing. 

Rafaella is visually similar to much of Sheldon’s previous work. His ability to make airbrush seem legitimate is a talent held by few and these paintings manage to act as an emissary for the medium in general. Instead of coming off as a shortcut or way to mask inability, the airbrush is used with utility. Rafaella is not a preening exhibition designed to turn sneaker collectors into art collectors. You will find no hard edges of taped lines or ironic, lazy cultural references. 

Raffaella in the studio with her mannequin, 2022 Acrylic on canvas, 72h x 48w in, Company Gallery

This body of work (as far as I’m aware, all made with a single model, a friend of the artist) eschews many of the themes previously associated with Sheldon’s work. These close crops and obscured landscapes hold no direct visual references to the fantastical, focusing heavily on the emotion and expression conveyed by the face and the figure. At times, the viewer is given the sympathetic position of an anonymous audience. In other works, like Rafaella In The Studio With Her Mannequin (2022), she looks directly at the viewer, shrinking reality around the painting, implying a depth to the composition far beyond the limits of the surface.

A REVOLVING HOUSE, 2023, Acrylic on linen, 78×48 in, Heidi Berlin

DETACHED, 2023, Oil on linen, 78×85 in, Heidi Berlin

Detached is quite different, in many ways a departure from Sheldon’s previous practice. These are not fully-formed, or even deteriorating, scenes or situations. They’re fields of colour, layers of pigment with disembodied characters floating within them. The airbrush is rarely present, with Sheldon employing sweeping, gestural strokes of pigment, eschewing realism in favour of a brevity. We’re able to see the physicality of the colour, the record of application, and the artist’s hand. These new works are full of pace and energy, there’s no sense of rendering. 

The eponymous work is an impressive painting, about two metres on either side and swirling with various densities of oil applied to linen. Not a million miles away from some alternate timeline where illustrators, fashion designers, or character artists still worked relentlessly in sketchbooks, this and many of the other works in the show carry a sense of rhythm in the give and take of the composition. Somewhere, heavily applied strokes of colour necessitate balance, and are met with corresponding structures elsewhere on the surface. Some elements of the figures push towards a realistic rendering, exposing anatomy and elegant frames while others live as loose lines, mischievous expressions floating out from the background.

Close up of Raffaella, 2022 Acrylic on canvas, 20h x 16w in, Company Gallery


What I really like about this show, what brings me so much joy in looking at the work, is the feeling that these paintings were produced during a sustained period of growth. They look so much like practice, someone trying things out and finding that they work perfectly—perhaps even better than the most refined elements of their previous output. There is evidence of colour being applied and then covered, of figures removed in order to better serve the composition—a general feeling that no aspect of this was overly planned. The best paintings are completely aware of the act as a collaboration, of something that emerges from the relationship between the painter, the pigment, the brushes and the surface. 

While in NYC recently, I had the opportunity to visit Will’s studio for a second time and was surprised to see it was already full of new works. Some were started between the shows, others were more recent, but most important was his total lack of surprise at the fact that new paintings were emerging so quickly—it seemed like the idea that they wouldn’t be was kind of ridiculous. What does a painter do but paint?

See our feature on Will Sheldon in print, Issue 21
Allan Gardner is a writer and artist based in London. More stories from Allan here.

Images courtesy of the artist and Company Gallery, New York, & Heidi, Berlin, (photographer: Mizuki Tachibana)