Studio Joseph Shaeffer is both a trans-disciplinary studio practice and a virtual repository for the ongoing, contiguous dialogue between the disciplines of contemporary art, design and the sciences.
The ideas generated through this dialogue often emerge in the form of visual projects rooted in and manifest through a conceptually directed process.
Further Investigation: The Art of Joseph Shaeffer
Joseph Shaeffer’s art practice concerns itself with the taxonomies of and blurring boundaries between visual art, science, landscape, and psychology. Mining the formal language of post-Minimalism and the theoretical rigor of Conceptualism, the Boulder, Colorado based artist works in a range of mediums—paper works, paintings, sculptures, and installations—to explore his myriad interests. Nevertheless, a constant thread of scientific, philosophical, and material investigation runs through his recent oeuvre, which has been gathered in “3 Bodies in 3 States,” a survey at Sellars Project Space, in Denver, Colorado, that encompasses the past five years of the artist’s work.
This survey focuses on three bodies of work, the earliest of which is titled “…Manifest as Tension” (2004-06). First exhibited at Denver’s Artyard Contemporary in 2005, this appropriately tense and somewhat noir-ish series attempts to conjure psychological tension via its material cousin. See, for example, TNS 550-5 (A Dark Tower... From The Confines Of The Mind) (2005), in which a series of threadlike stainless-steel cables are stretched taut between four black aluminum arms, which rise outward from a single, shared based like some futuristic spider turned on its back (in this, it could be a technological take on one of Louise Bourgeois’s spider works). See also TNS 11-0505 (Experiences Concealed In The Void... When Observed By Those Who Know us Best) (2005), in which a black diamond-shaped box hung on the wall features a convex lens at its center, the same flinty stainless-steel cables holding it tautly in place. Such terse and tension-filled works operate with a minimum of means. And, though abstract, their materials and the way they have been set in dialectic with each other instantly conjures the psychological uneasiness that the artist appears to be after.
If the dark science of the “…Manifest as Tension” series can recall the works of German artist Rebecca Horn, who is similarly interested in the erotic and psychological potentialities of machinelike sculptures (and has also used lenses as material), the next body of work that Shaeffer embarked on finds instant parallels with the Japanese artist Noriko Ambe’s quite different and poetically topographical visual art. Like Ambe’s “Book Cutting Prrojects,” for which she painstakingly cut contoured craters into open books, revealing the sediment like cross-section of the layered pages, Shaeffer’s “Confront/(A)Void” (2007-08) marries aerial imagery (satellite images in his case) to layers of paper carefully cut into voids. These affecting and elegant works include Void Sketch 003 (Siberia) (2006), in which craterlike white-paper voids reveal a hazy black-and-white aerial image of Eastern Russia beneath, and Void Sketch 002 (Mars) (2006), in which the voids have actually been cut into the reddish-brown image of the fiery planet’s pocked surface.
Shaeffer’s more recent works in this series have found the artist leaving such topographical imagery behind. In its stead are simple sheets of framed white paper, punctuated by cut-out voids, alternately circular, irregular or elongated, minute or large.
One piece that diverges entirely from this pale paper format is Void 19-718 (2008), which is black and thoroughly three-dimensional, crafted as it is from 50,0000 dark cable ties. Hovering off the floor like a child’s vision of a black hole (that is to say, one imagined literally), the work is the darker, older cousin of the smaller wall works, but it casts the same emotional net. For Shaeffer, all the void works are as much about psychological process as they are about art product; the monotonous and meticulous cutting (or carving, say) of the paper became a way to address—and perhaps fill—the emotional voids that haunt the human condition.
Shaeffer’s preoccupation with nature’s geographical forms and science itself is perhaps no surprise, given his personal history. The artist’s grandfather was the president of the National Wildlife Federation. His father and older brother, meanwhile, are also conservationists, working to restore native grasslands in South Dakota (where Shaeffer was born in 1968) and Michigan, with the intention of securing the propagation of indigenous wildlife. The artist’s most recent body of work, “Encroachment” (2009–ongoing) addresses his family’s work and this lineage directly, in pieces that imagine an apocalyptically pastoral future (at least apocalyptic to humans) in which nature itself takes over. As Shaeffer himself has put it, “What, ultimately, will nature do to protect itself from our trespasses?”
Such a question seems to be in the air of the contemporary art world of late, with a recent exhibition at the New Museum in New York—called, Sebaldian-style, “After Nature”—plumbing its dark corners. In Shaeffer’s specific vision, however, nature in its new totalitarian state would choose to include aspects of human technology so as to both thrive and “protect itself from the environment we have thrust upon it.” So far, he has made this idea manifest in a series of small, scientific sculptures that feature both organic materials like hornets nests, porcupine quills, thorns, and beetles, and industrial reliquary such as machine parts, antique foundry patterns, and scientific glass tubing. The sculptures that result have the exquisite detail and autonomy of science lab experiments, aided by the strange charge of visual, non-utilitarian art (and thus recalling the work of artist Eve Andree Laramee). Wall sculptures like Untitled oo1 (2009) has a lovely symmetry: here, a small black foundry pattern provides support for a machined aluminum tube, which has smaller glass tubes to its left and right, as well as below it, all connected by a series of artery-like thin cables. But all is not manmade: the bottom glass tube holds a selection of sharp quills, while the top two glass tubes reveal vertical streams of green moss living inside.
Whether this miniature mise en scène rings true or not, it is an incisive and original apparatus-as-apparition, which might be a good description of Shaeffer’s speculative and conceptually directed oeuvre itself. For the artist is clearly looking forward, attempting to wed together his ideas about science, the environment, and the psychological self in a practice that approaches each artistic idea like a hypothesis, meaning it is only the starting point for further, and ever-further, investigation.