Painting Rebuses - Analysing Emily Ludwig Shaffer’s Art

Looking at Emily Ludwig Shaffer’s paintings makes me feel like I am entrapped within a game. This is not to say that I am being held hostage, but rather sucked in by the enchanting worlds the artist has created with oil paint. At first it seems that the environments pictured in Shaffer’s pieces are not too much out of the ordinary. The individual elements seem conventional, plausible, if not familiar. Yet, combined, they align into a surreal labyrinth. Even after discovering the discrepancies in the deceivingly normal depictions it is tempting to continue trying to solve this puzzle.

One of the reasons why the indoor and outdoor spaces in Shaffer’s paintings become increasingly surreal and fantasy ridden, is due to their multiplicity of planes and dimensions. Whilst certain areas and elements seem credible and realistic at least for the duration of time they hold our attention, moving onto other points and parts of the painting reveals inconsistencies in perspective and scale. For example in Color Braid, 2019 (1) the individual planes: the windowed mezzanine, the stairs, and the downstairs bay seem congruent when considered separately. However, in fuller view the inconsistencies in perspective and composition make the scene surrealistically incongruent. This effect is further explored through the braid blown out of proportion and placed on top of the dissected building. Framing the scene with an enlarged surreal object not only brings out the fantastic qualities of the pictures environment, but also structures the whole scene, only coming into sight after a sequence of individual scenes is analysed.

Compartmentalisation is a common feature in Shaffer’s art. In Shadow box moon back, 2018 it is quite literal with its open box structure, whilst Left Room Right Light, 2018 and Up Out In, 2019 are more subtly divided into parts by walls, doors, windows and paintings inside the portrayed rooms, additionally structured by a woven net reminding the viewer about the dimensionality of these deceptively flat compartments. The convoluted relationship with reality and fantasy makes the whole scene appear surreal, and maze-like. This in turn reminds me of another concept that sometimes applies to games as well, liminal spaces. Perhaps I think of this term because deciphering Shaffer’s environments feels like being in a constant state of transition, and I mean that not only in a corridor transit sense, but also in a fluctuating between familiar and unknown sense. 

Liminality comes to the surface when looking at the skies in the paintings. I say skies in plural because many of Shaffer’s paintings depict multiple visions of the sky or atmospheric indicators of the time of day, and weather conditions. And so in View to the Night Box, 2019 two skies are captured in one scene, one starry night contained in a box, and one pastel evening or early morning sky. The purplish sky indicating a transient part of the day is also featured in From the Ha-Ha Wall Comes the No-No Dance, 2019, and Up Out In, 2019 has a window view of a morning garden, and at the same time features an evening alley enlighten by a street lantern. Thus, the incongruences in space are additionally convoluted by incongruences in time. Liminality is therefore expressed throughout the different dimensions of the artworks. 

Apart from the environments being deeply suggestive of surreal riddles, it also shows through the  female presenting figures that are sometimes featured in Shaffer’s paintings. As seen in From the Ha-Ha Wall Comes the No-No Dance, 2019 the characters are painted in metallic grey, that of metal sculptures perhaps, they are faceless and frozen in action. Their demobilisation and ironically coexistent mobility reminds me of chess figures frozen in their action as the war is about to begin (yet again I am coming back to games). The in-between state seems to be a recurring theme in Shaffer’s work, the understatements and incongruences being what keeps the intrigue and surreality going. Once ensnared, it is hard to escape. 

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