M I K E  S H A F F E R 










An Essay by Bobby Donovan from the Exhibition Brochure for "Lines, Order, Chaos," an Exhibition at University of Maryland University College, Adelphi, MD, June 2003


Shaffer describes his 40 years of drawing, painting, and object making as "a long beginning." He is a rogue talent, having arrived at art not through the typical venues of art school or artist role models. Instead, his interest in artistic expression emerged from his college studies in chemistry and the life sciences. Always curious and analytical by nature, Shaffer initiated a self-study of aesthetics when scientific answers, however accurate, remained incomplete.

Mike Shaffer was born in 1939 and raised in western Maryland. His father, a textile plant mechanic, taught him the use of tools. More significantly, he learned from his father "a reverence for materials and respect for methods and mechanics."

By the early 1960s, while he still did not consider himself an artist, the understanding of structures and their underlying principles of design had become a fixed idea for Shaffer. To this end he began and intensive investigation of architecture, particularly the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. (Years later, he would produce more than 150 small sculptures exploring variations on the theme of the gabled house). Also at this time, Shaffer introduced himself to modern art by decoding the visual enigmas of the then-acknowledged contemporary masters. The incendiary cocktails of Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko's somber harmonics, and Barnett Newman's detached austerity have since informed Shaffer's creative sensibilities.

The influence of any given style, or the borrowing of a formal vocabulary, was not a critical priority for the young artist at that time. Instead, what Shaffer eventually came to recognize in the expressions of his immediate predecessors was the importance of the process and the meaningfulness of the purpose. Through their accomplishments he was able to appreciate art-making as more than a craft. He discovered its lofty aspirations, its infinite possibilities, and its struggle for perfection. In short, he came to believe in the validity of art and the hard work of creativity.

If the abstract expressions of the '50s taught Shaffer to suffer the work, then surely the pop artists of the '60s reminded him to play. And he plays with a quirky gamesmanship. He has developed an idiosyncratic pop-formalist style. Hidden beneath the detached facades of his rigid structures, obscured among the hypnotic repetition of lines and patterns, innate in the odd notions and found objects proudly displayed in his studio, there is play. It is refreshingly indulgent childlike play, with all the freedom and jest the word implies.

To make his art. Shaffer employs a strategy of systematic sabotage. He is a crafty inventor, predisposed to sneaky gadgets and trap doors. His instrument of choice is the intersecting line at approximate right angles to form the omnipresent grid. A signature element in his work since the early '70s, the grid provides stability. It serves as launch pad and ground control for all things untidy and unteathered. Moreover, the grid apes the geometry of the canvas itself and, in doing so, reinforces the prime directive of modern expression: that within these parameters is space dedicated to the original and the unexpected.

Shaffer is hardly the romantic. While his towers, particularly the somber ones, can at times evoke the revelry of the lonely sentinel, and his delicately structured houses, in their simplicity, may conjure some kind of a contemplative drift, we must not be fooled. Shaffer prefers to make art rather than to cast spells. He is too much a product of our hectic, kinetic world to trust in soulful implications. Industrious and pragmatic, he is a get-it-done sort, commandeering the universal tools of language, color, mass, and repetition to make his statements. His faith resides solely in the creative act itself. Our enjoyment of his work is derived from his own contagious delight in materials and methods.

The Exhibition Brochure was published by the Office of Special Programs in the University of Maryland University College Office of the President. The exhibition was made possible in part by a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Bobby Donovan is a painter, printmaker and curator, and Assistant Director of the College's Arts Program.