Richard Shaffer

Eugene Binder Gallery

Richard Shaffer’s subject is his workplace: a two-story interior that is layered and papered with clippings and quotations, and stashed throughout with tools and utensils, memorabilia and found objects, niches and shadow boxes. Shelves bearing trails of objects are reproduced full-scale in paintings. Paint applied to canvases laps over deliberately onto walls. It’s like a house of mirrors in which everything is significant but much is obscured, and little is revealed on a too-hasty walk-through.

At this show, Shaffer presented works on paper and on canvas. Small pieces, such as Arc with Sun, 1987, and Avatar Box, 1986, show how Shaffer extracts images both from his immediate environment and from meditations on philosophical literature, particularly phenomenology. Arc with Sun is composed of texts collaged onto canvas. Coaligned but separate, they create a grid-form infrastructure over which arcs are drawn, lending optical movement to the plan. A small circle on a yellowed text has a compass-dot center, like a retinal burn from looking up at the sun. Near it is a black, half-circle clipping of a Galilean galaxy, or a white spiderweb, which finally emerges as a spiral with spokes, surrounded by an encircling finger. The celestial forms, lurking texts, and soft chalky surfaces resembling cloudy skies recall Joseph Cornell’s metaphysical tableaux. But Shaffer doesn’t miniaturize his work, as Cornell did. His are exact embodiments of the scale of the original source material he uses.

Avatar Box calls to mind an Art Deco table radio; it is rectangular and one end is curved to incorporate a semicircle. The object’s “usefulness” inheres in its geometric properties. It is the didactic, or iconic, demonstration of the fusion of two opposites, the male and the female, made cubic and spherical, weighty and tactile—a physical presence with more power than any diagram. Avatar Painting, 1986–87, recalls Piet Mondrian’s work—more precisely, the photographs of Mondrian’s studio, which show paintings arranged on every wall. Its subject is the wall of Shaffer’s studio. At its center is a depiction of a shelf, before which are two small tables. To the left is a folding screen of human height, next to a niche resembling the avatar box; to the right of center, a large rectangular black painting, and a square frame on short feet. This is a dark, nocturnal scene in grays and blacks, with a white beam emerging from the niche. As a studio subject, it omits paintbrushes, paints, and the easel, the very objects which make the work itself possible and testify to its execution. But it presents in sharp distillation those objects which feed meditation and which, when isolated this way, have a certain unfamiliarity, as if they’re awaiting explication. The work describes mental states that transcend the finite, but depend utterly upon the palpable in order to do that.

—Joan Seeman Robinson