Finding Stories in the Ordinary: Shana Kaplow’s “Near and Far”

Ink paintings of common household furniture overtake one of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program gallery walls at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The ghostly remains of ordinary tables and chairs entice me to take a closer look. As I imagine sitting in those chairs and dining at those tables, this alluring overture gives way to a restlessness and a sense that something is missing. Smoky ink brushstrokes gracing down-white paper create disquieting images of tables and chairs with amputated limbs. The objects, so reminiscent of those in my home, bring forth a feeling of nostalgia within me. But what narratives are hidden and silenced in the material production of these objects? And how am I complicit in these absences?

Kaplow_DSC7455_670In her recent MAEP exhibition, “Near and Far,” Minnesota-based painter and video artist Shana Kaplow begins by painting the tables and chairs occupying the intimate spaces of a home as a prompt to consider how individuals fit into the larger cross-cultural exchange of material things. Kaplow employs both realism and abstraction in her paintings to explore the true essence of ordinary objects. The unembellished line work or polished surface reflections in ink bleed into a gestural abstraction. Through a visual reinterpretation of various angles, proportions, and sections of objects, Kaplow connects the materiality of her personal life to the stories of popular items made afar.

KaplowIn the center of the gallery stands The Table’s Surface, an imposing, large-scale dining table engineered with wood and steel frozen at its tipping point on two forward leaning legs. An accompanying video, Gravity, is projected onto the canvas-like surface of the table and captures saturated ink droplets sliding down paper. Kaplow’s careful manipulation of the table’s four points of stability simulates the unstable process of constructing prevalent, everyday objects. A dining room table, often the centerpiece of any home, in this case carries no plates, cups, silverware, or food. The black and white palette of tears on the otherwise empty table seem to symbolically disclose the loss and disconnection between the table made from afar and the personal attachments constructed after its purchase. Kaplow positions the table on Carpet, an ink painting rendered on thin sheets of white paper. Wisps of ornate designs in grey-toned ink melt into the pores of the paper carpet, offering a stark reminder that the furniture I use to provide warmth and comfort in personal rooms too often overlooks the human cost of production. As the table appears to fall, Kaplow captures the perplexing moment before everything topples over. Except the table remains still, devoid of life—a silent crash.

Translating these tables and chairs to ink activates the untold stories they carry. As Kaplow remarks, “the concrete world also carries along the textures and presences of what is unseen.” Certain works hold a familial lineage, such as Kaplow’s family table replicated in The Table’s Body. In this ink painting, a black table hovers over the baseboard of the gallery wall. The object’s appendages fade away, leaving one deviant table leg that, to the eye, balances the entire structure on a single precarious point. The Table’s Body plays with physics, offering only the faintest trace of parts of the table that once existed. This intentional lack of completion spurs me to reflect on the process of its construction. What stories are lost throughout the journey from maker to consumer and what memories do I create to mark the objects as my own?

Similarly, in paintings titled Shadow 1-8, the absence of the entire chair becomes apparent as Kaplow constructs the limbs of the furniture using negative space. The viewer is asked to visually reconstruct the object via the shadows left by the empty legs, but the physical absence calls into question what I am choosing not to see. The tangle of empty limbs in this series sparks a consideration of what goes missing during its journey to a home. Like a phantom limb, the chairs continue to hold the memories of labor, culture, or craft—elements often unknown to me when I purchase them. Playing, blurring, and diffusing the utilitarian function of the objects, Kaplow brings new thought to what it means to participate in both a material and cultural exchange.

In comparison, Particulates experiments with ink through the random proliferation of small sketches of objects. These ink paintings carry a more free-flowing, associative invitation to dream. The loops and circular lines set this dynamic school of images swimming up the gallery walls; they diverge from the architectural precision of the objects occupying the rest of the gallery. The chaos of this collection of 300 small sketches accumulated over the course of a year faintly recalls a banana, gun, egg, ball of string, or jellyfish. Particulates plays with the creative imagination outside the confines of mass production and standardization common to global industries. What cultural and personal particularities are lost in these systems? The soft ink brushstrokes extend an invitation to contemplate the stories these objects may hold.

Kaplow_DSC7386_670Likewise, Endless Stack features chairs painted in ink stacked from the floor to the ceiling of the 30-foot-high gallery wall. The sleek and modern representations of IKEA chairs become a balance of excess. These objects can be endlessly replicated and sold, often for very little. This contemporary tower of Babel addresses the disconnections forged between cultures throughout daily, and seemingly innocuous, material transactions. Endless Stack soars upward like Constantin Brancusi’s luminous and polished sculpture called the Golden Bird housed in Mia’s collection. Like Brancusi, Kaplow breaks down and isolates complex subjects to reveal their essential nature. As Brancusi notes, his work used realism in pursuit of an “inner, hidden reality, the very essence of objects.” Kaplow’s ink paintings emulate the simplicity and refined elegance of Golden Bird. Altering the form and dislocating it from its normal, intimate environment, Kaplow revises the meaning of an ordinary object.

What unseen stories hover in the corners of material things giving form to our daily lives? What drives this divide between the near and far, maker and consumer, object and person?  The detachment of these objects from their normal use in the home causes me to consider the multiple spaces they have traveled and the hands they have touched. By taking them apart, “Near and Far” unravels a larger story of material production and memory. Kaplow reclaims the artfulness embedded in the things we own; in doing so, she reveals the layered human connections we construct in relation to them. In an era when the separation between maker and consumer persists, Kaplow gently upsets the intimate worlds we build that block out the unknown and disconcerting narratives from afar. “Near and Far” leaves me with an important question: what is our relationship to the objects that surround me and build what I call home?

Shana Kaplow is currently exhibiting a new series of work in the exhibition “Low Lying Area” at Rosalux Gallery located at 1400 Van Buren St. NE, Suite #195, until August 31st. More information can be found here.