M I K E  S H A F F E R 




Exhibition Catalog BlackRock Center for the Arts, 2003




A Conversation with Artist, Critic, Curator, Joe Shannon
About the Line Paintings from the Exhibition Catalog, "Mike Shaffer Line Paintings," BlackRock Center for the Arts, May, 2003

JS. Let's talk about scale now. I would guess they are about five by five feet. Is that fairly standard for you? [MS nods yes.] Okay, lets look at Bananarama, very, very different from Strawberry The loops are not quite as dominate but the grid is the power and here you used a yellow background. Is it mottled or flat?

MS. You know, I can't remember. Looking closely I could tell you but I'm not sure now.

JS. You subsequently added some splatters, a little bit of Jackson Pollock I assume. The lines of the grid vary nicely,  they are set at evocative angles which conjures up a nice tension. Why is it that sometimes you show these on the horizontal and other times not?

MS. It depends on how the work is developing—its character. I decide after I've had a chance to step back and look at a work in its completeness. The only ones I show at an angle are those with clearly evident horizontal and vertical lines that are at an angle either in a grid or in a horizontal/vertical pattern. I want to emphasize the overall arrangement of intersecting lines by making it contrast with the painting's edges which are shifted away from their conventional orientations. The whole effect, I hope, grabs the viewer's attention making the works more powerful.

JS. There are those who might argue that you are being led by a gimmick.

MS. That is certainly a valid point but I don't see this as being "gimmicky." The idea seems to come right out of the works themselves. I could argue that there is no reason NOT to tilt the paintings if doing so seems logically related to their content. Why should anyone, especially in a field generally recognized for its connections to creativity, be bound by the custom and conformity associated with the way they are displayed? Compared to shaped paintings and draped canvases, showing works at an angle seems to me to be tame.

JS. Well, I do see your reasons- it is effective. The painting Earth Net Mind Set is a good example of that effective use. Here the angled grid is aesthetic logic. It has a dark irregular background. But I am looking now at the angles here where the horizontal black grid is behind a wafting kind of looping cloud, maybe some floating circles and spirals of blue and some confetti-like flickers of white. How did you do that?

MS. That's a good observation. In this one the background is mottled, as you call it. The small light patches that show through were made by simply not covering the white ground completely with the dark background. The flickers are spatters that were added last but, as with most of these works, when I put on another layer, in this case the dark purply black, I can add dimension by letting sections of previous ones show through to varying degrees.

JS. Years ago, in writing about abstract works like these, Clement Greenberg would have pointed out the old empirical notions of the past and say "depth---you don't want depth." Virtually all abstraction then was flat but of course this is another generation and depth is perfectly acceptable. According to Greenberg, the two-dimensional element was the absolute foundation and power of abstraction but on the other hand, if you look at a Jackson Pollock, you always see depth and space. Now, lets look at Beach Plum Outcome.

MS. The layers start with a fairly uniform background of dark plum as the title suggests followed by smattering of light blue swirls.

JS. Then you put on your grid in a completely asymmetrical fashion so that some of the lines are angled down, some are pinched toward being a cone and some are not. There is a lot of improvisation and I imagine you were trying for another kind of image.

MS. Another variation on the theme.

JS. Green Bean Cuisine, absolutely aleatory. It almost suggests figures-there on the left-something is going on! Are we viewing the rudiments of a depictive work? But no, it is still very abstract. You have made a kind of unity by interlocking some of the linear elements. You offer a sense of potentiality, which you keep secret. One of the strongest things about any abstraction is to bring, if possible, a new area of provocation and this work does this very well. I like the arcing yellow grid and how it comes up to meet the one coming down from the upper right. Interlocking with the next one sweeping across. It gives the whole work a satisfying kind of majesty and breeziness.

MS. Going now from go to stop, the red Tomato Soup Recoup shows what happens when the grid elements are almost totally obscured to produce mostly light swirls and spots on a deep red field.

JS. In this work you have obviously splashed paint into your image. How do you do that?

MS In some cases I do it the same way Pollock did, by shaking or dripping it off the end of a stick or a brush.

JS. Pollock used those sash brushes too, you know.

MS. I read about that. I also dribble paint from squeeze bottles or small cans depending on how thick it is. I squirt thick paint from plastic bottles and drizzle thin washes out of the aluminum pie pans I mix it in. I paint with pieces of cardboard and rags and sponges and at times I squirt it from hypodermic syringes. We didn't talk about it earlier but in Beach Plum I set the cans I was using in the wet paint to make circles and smeared places.

JS. Of all that I have seen, where you have tilted the canvas to orient the grid along the horizontal/vertical axis, Green Mountain is one of the strongest because the grid is very dominate and very colorful. It's blue and white and yellow and red-the red is especially persistent and thrusting. To the right in this case-could go either way. The impetus and speed suggests-by the arched verticals makes it look as if a great wind is pushing it to the right. I also like the way the rudimentary drawing with the lined loops gives it an interesting focus toward the left whereas the whole push of the imagery is to the right because of the vertical arcs.

MS. One of the effects I worked on in this painting that is not done always is illustrated by the little amorphous fields of yellow splattered around in clouds rather than being uniform or regular.

JS. Yes, they are quite effective because they are reinforced by the yellow in the grid. The yellow has a dual purpose here adding to the general schizophrenia of the work. Where other similar dualities work in the other images—a virtue, good of course.

MS. What is your take on the way people always seem to want to find representational images in abstract work?

JS. I don't think it's a necessity but it is a natural and impulsive tendency. For example, when you see space in a Jackson Pollock or a Hans Hoffman, they would say no, it's only two-dimensional. We tend to think of it as space if it looks like space. Also we see figures. Pollock's later work became more figurative because he began to see figures in what he was doing and gravitated in that direction. It's completely opposite from his early work.

MS. Now we are looking at Grapefruit Mousse.

JS. I think of Mark Tobey when I see such a scribbled dance as this. You say that Mark Tobey and Agnes Martin have had a vibration in your life and its very apparent here but at the same time, you transformed it into something very personal. What makes the difference is your personality and personal devotion to the forms that come tumbling out of your mind. This free association is a vital part of abstraction. It's the "each act triggers the next" thing and as you have said, you keep shooting, you keep working on it till you like it.