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The Nostalgia Broker

Alex Shear's Obsession with consumerism Has Created a Mirror of Modern America
Melissa Milgrom
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

(continued from page 2)

Conversely, when you browse through Shear's collection you are, in a sense, looking at his life. During the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, he had to evacuate his mother, who lived 15 miles from the reactor, a task that, incidentally, he has some training in. During his military service he was trained in decontamination techniques with the U.S. Army 318 Chemical Corp. By the same token, his collection of miniature brides and grooms began during his divorce eight years ago. And in the 1980s, after a line of drinking glasses he was mass-producing was copied by competitors, Shear entered into a seven-year copyright infringement lawsuit that inspired him to collect knockoffs. He owns 40 bottles of 7UP-like derivatives with names like 7-Down, Upper-Ten and Upside Down.

The longer it took the court case to be resolved (he eventually won), the more Shear began to see business as a type of warfare. Not only did he show up for court dressed from head to toe in khakis, but he expanded his collection into trench art--items crafted by soldiers out of spent artillery shells and cartridge casings during lulls in the fighting. He bought sleek coffeepots, a hurricane lamp, a rug-hooking kit, a 1942 field officer's mug and dozens of other items, all made by soldiers during wartime. He refuses to buy guns or other weapons.

Shear grabs a wooden swagger stick from a shelf of trench art and becomes a squadron commander on an aircraft carrier stationed in the South Pacific in 1945. "We are going to take a run into Iwo Jima at night. Now MacArthur is going to send in Jimmy Doolittle. They're going to drop the big bomb here," he says, cracking the swagger stick on an imaginary wall map and finishing the briefing.

Shear's off-the-cuff, anecdotal style has been compared to that of Sister Wendy Beckett, the bucktoothed nun who hosts a series of art programs on the BBC. He speaks in long tangents, linking items to legends, history to billboards, fathers to basement workshops. During the course of the interview, he often asks himself the questions, answers them and comes back with his own follow-ups. One way in which he engages people in his collection is by spinning stories about what he wishes had happened, a distinct advantage that a nostalgia consultant enjoys over a museum curator.

Although Shear craves recognition for his efforts, he's reluctant to invite people whom, as he says, might not "get it," to see his collection. Especially women he is dating. They may not understand his enthusiasm for, say, hair spray or bathing caps. Take Collection 159: Vanity in America. On a high shelf is a stack of 1960s plastic bouffant wigs for little girls who wanted to look "just like mommy." Next to the wigs are several bathing caps (he owns 50) that appear to have grown out of a coral reef--one, an "Aqua Original Exclusive Mermaid Millinery Creation," has a platinum-blonde wig attached. Soon he's strutting around the living room in a Buck Rogersesque aluminum welder's helmet that is actually an E. Fredericks Hair and Scalp Treatment Vaporizer from a 1930s beauty parlor or, as Shear calls it, a compression chamber for an Art Deco lady.

The subject of hair inevitably triggers Shear's childhood regret of never having had the perfect 1950s flattop haircut. Flattops were as popular in the 1950s as jeans with rolled-up cuffs. "I wanted my hair to be as flat as an aircraft carrier. I used to jump around to barbers who had steady hands. I liked my flattop flat, not listing, and I'd tilt my head three degrees to compensate," he says with a laugh, waving a 1950s Miller "Level Head" flattop comb, complete with an attached carpenter's level. "It would have changed my life if I were the lucky user!"

Shear is a baseball card collector who actually chews the bubblegum. He buys from the gut, using his own criteria of value rather than consulting collecting guides or experts. (Ironically, it's the curators who often come to him for items.) He avoids auctions, preferring the thrill of the hunt. His collection comes largely from flea markets, garage sales and regional antiques stores. Although he once had to dip into his pension fund to buy an eight-foot-tall wooden roller skate for $4,000, most of the items are not costly. On the other hand, the uninitiated may find it odd to spend $10 on a 13-year-old box of Wheaties. But then again, not all collectors have a thing for gymnast Mary Lou Retton. "I like her perkiness. I like her can-do. I like her gold medal," Shear says, beaming. "She's an icon of the '80s." Shear's approach involves anywhere from 230 to 500 overlapping categories, depending on which day you ask. One category is electric lunch boxes (they worked like toaster ovens to make hot meals). Another is five-and-dime-store toys. Still another is roadside memorabilia.

When asked if his collection has ever been appraised, he seems a bit put off and responds, "Can you appraise Andy Warhol's eye?" Ever considered selling the collection to a collector or a museum? "Would the Smithsonian sell its archive?" he retorts.

Shear would never buy a repainted object or a reproduction. The surface must have integrity. It must be well designed, too, exhibiting common-sense ingenuity over technological prowess. Novelty items inspired by fads (such as 1950s vacuum cleaners in the shape of rockets) and products resulting from planned obsolescence give him a thrill. Humor, spontaneity, honesty and his sense of can-do are key. His shelves of Shaker-quality Depression art (funnels, lunch boxes, toys and musical instruments soldered out of used tin cans) reflect American resourcefulness in the face of poverty. His boutique "line" of obsession art handbags and wallets meticulously woven out of thousands of cigarette wrappers by prison inmates shows how the wastebasket, and lots of free time, can inspire art.

Shear never buys just a label, whether it's a designer shirt or a status car. He bought a 1972 Frank Gehry Easy Edges chair because it was constructed of corrugated cardboard, not because it was designed by a famous architect. He prefers what he calls factory folk art and finds standard folk art, such as weathervanes and quilts, respectable when they aren't "art directed," but boring. Nearly all of Shear's items are consumer-oriented and useful, even if they are absurd and silly.

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