Daniel Shea, Ex Nihilo

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by InOtherWords (here). Softcover, 140 pages, with over 200 black-and-white and color and reproductions. Includes a set of six posters and a thin booklet (with 16 black and white reproductions), and comes in a high-gloss folder secured with a rubber band. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 1000 copies. Design by OK-RM. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Ex Nihilo is also available in a special edition (here). The special edition comes in a black folder and includes a signed print. There are 16 variations of the print (each offered in an edition of 2). In an edition of 32 copies.

Comments/Context: Daniel Shea is an artist based in New York whose his practice combines photography, sculpture, and installations. Alongside his successful career as a commercial photographer, Shea constantly works on personal projects, showing a distinct photographic vision and aesthetic. Last year, he published a highly acclaimed photobook 43-35 10th Street (reviewed here), which in a clever and complex manner, examined the ambiguities and politics of urban development in Long Island City, a neighborhood in New York. 

Shea’s new photobook was published earlier this year in close collaboration with the London-based design studio OK-RM, and was commissioned by fashion brand 1017-ALYX-9SM, which was founded by Matthew Williams in 2015. The project places a strong emphasis on sustainability in fashion. The title of the book, Ex Nihilo, is a Latin phrase meaning “out of nothing.” The collaborative project is described as “a work of fiction, exposing the mysteries of how matter and being appear to emerge from nothing.” 

Ex Nihilo comes in a white high gloss folder with a solid rubber band, and includes a set of six posters and a booklet in addition to the main photobook. The cover shows an image of a building overlaid with an image of a rock, bringing together raw materials and man made construction. The colophon details are embossed on a folder flap, and are an elegant design touch. Together, these printed objects “explore distinct formats, materiality and print techniques.” The project also exists as a series of installations (appearing around the world throughout 2019) and a capsule collection, which included both women’s and menswear and was shown in Paris in January 2019 (the models walked carrying a copy of Ex Nihilo).

The design of the book emphasizes its nonlinear narrative – it is a flow of images without a set beginning or end, and even the page numbers seem to start in the middle. The book’s soft cover folds back on itself, offering another unexpected twist. Throughout the book, the photographs vary in size and their placement on the pages is never the same. The book is printed on thin paper, and offset lithography techniques add texture.

The photographs assemble a diverse range of themes, avoiding a straightforward narrative and rather setting an atmosphere through the visual flow. They document the details, locations, and people that became an integral part of producing the Alyx clothing collection, bringing awareness to the entire cycle of creation. The images capture the factories used by the brand and their environment, with close ups of a machine working, a pile of bolts, tools arranged on the shelves, dust on the floor, and studio interiors. Photographs of ore make reference to brand’s iconic belt buckles. And there are numerous architectural shots, yet most of the buildings look like monoliths, drawing parallels with the shots of geological formations and mountains.  

Shea also included a selection of employee portraits, posed against a plain background in their work outfits – the full body images are arranged together on spreads, emphasizing the collective effort behind the production. Three of these portraits, in silver, also appear superimposed on an image of red rubber gloves in industrial settings, creating another layer of connections between them. There are also photographs of nature, both in color and black and white, depicting trees, mountains, water, rocks, forests – they serve as a connection to the environment, making reference to the origins of everything. 

Shea’s photographs are highly formal, putting the focus on shape, composition, and line. He also continues to experiment with superimposition, overlaying nature onto industrial elements, or geological formations onto buildings, and occasionally excerpts of text appear over the images. The photographs collect together the various elements in the system, considering them in a wider context, and ultimately, “exposing the mysteries of how matter and being appear to emerge from nothing.” 

In addition to the book, there is a selection of six posters. They each pair a photo from the book with text underneath, sharing thoughts on the “life of the imagined artist behind them.” One of the photographs is a close up of a skyscraper, with the middle part printed in light silver; the text underneath reads, Walter “imagined what it would mean for buildings to have always existed, buildings without architecture. No capital accumulation, just monoliths that belong to geology.” The third element in project is a unbound booklet with a series of black and white photographs. Alluding “loosely to an archive of long lost works,” the images depict a selection of sculptural multiple-exposure object compositions against a black background, with obscure captions that feel like scientific or technical references, AT03-IT06, DE14-ES09, etc. The inclusion of the posters and the booklet considers images in another iteration, reinforcing the idea of transformation and interconnectivity; they also add to the theme of experimentation with printing and materials.

Ex Nihilo is a curious, multi-layered project, the result of a thoughtful experimental collaboration. Shea applies his artistic sensitivity to the challenge of creating a narrative inspired by the Alyx vision of sustainability and social responsibility. The result consciously plays with concept, photographs, and textures, setting atmosphere and offering an open ended narrative to explore. In an interview with It’s Nice That, Rory McGrath of OK-RM explains the intention, “Clothes don’t exist in a social vacuum, they are mobilised and deployed by individuals and groups for specific purposes. That’s why storytelling is necessary in fashion. This is also why a clear belief system is so important, as without ideological precision you can’t control form or context.” Ex Nihilo artistically reflects this demand to take a stand. 

Collector’s POV: Daniel Shea is represented by Webber Represents in New York and London (here) and Andrew Rafacz in Chicago (here). His work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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