Ordinary household objects often take on extraordinary prominence in the work of San Antonio artist Karen Mahaffy, whose mixed-media projects defy categorization.
An Illinois native who earned an MFA from the University of Texas at San Antonio and now teaches art at Palo Alto College, Mahaffy has exhibited locally since the mid-’90s and has held at Artpace, Blue Star Contemporary, the McNay Art Museum, Sala Diaz and the San Antonio Museum of Art.
Arguably one of her best known works due to its fixed location in Yanaguana Garden by Hemisfair, a laser cut steel shade structure PLAY HOUSE examines concepts that continue to inform her work—memory, place, and moving shadows—while also referencing the historic neighborhood that was all but obliterated for the 1968 World’s Fair. It’s playful and poignant at the same time, and like many great works of art, it only gets better the more you know about it.
Mahaffy’s new body of work Objects of Absence, on view at Trinity Neidoff Art Gallery through Saturday October 15, began seeping back in 2019 when she was invited to be the pilot artist in a summer residency program at the university’s art department & art history. Despite the pandemic delaying the schedule by two years, Mahaffy waited and began the residency last June.
“There were so many things I knew I wanted to explore while I was here,” Mahaffy said Currently on a recent gallery visit. “It’s been a really long time since I’ve had a gallery to myself – a big space where I could do something more installation-based. So I stuck to it. … I almost protected it.”
As Mahaffy explains, having access to the university’s facilities — particularly during student summer vacations — gave her the vibe of being “locked in a museum.” She made the best of the situation, working in the digital lab and the sculpting and printing studios to create components for Objects of Absence. Divided into distinct zones, the work sews together a series of seemingly disparate threads – from the tales and mysteries of personal belongings to Victorian-era polar expeditions – into a coherent but decidedly mysterious exhibition.
The waiting room
Although the zones in Objects of Absence can be approached in any order, the viewer will first encounter a homelike space that explores the passage of time. At first glance, one of the objects in the room might appear to be an ancient relic, but it is actually a wooden hand mirror that Mahaffy crafted from reclaimed longleaf pine using both hand carving techniques and CNC technology. To obscure the reflection, she sandblasted the glass with a map of Antarctic Eagle Island, which experienced an unforeseen large-scale snowmelt during a heatwave in February 2020.
“A very easy read is that it’s about aging and loss — if you look at those kinds of unforeseen events and your sense of identity,” Mahaffy said of the play.
Directly behind the mirror is a wall-sized installation rooted in floriography. Popularized in the Victorian era and amusingly associated today with “19th century emojis”.
“Some of them could be downright caustic,” Mahaffy said. “If you’ve been dumped, you could get revenge by just putting together an arrangement.”
Alluding to the hallmarks of floriography, as well as our “collective experience of illness and loss” in the midst of the COVID-era, her installation places a grid of 12 ghostly floral images—all found in a digital archive—onto a wallpaper of hand-drawn bouquets striding from fresh to wilted , while repeating them up the wall.
“There’s something about the withered flower that’s sad and beautiful at the same time,” Mahaffy mused.
Curious gallery visitors can find the names of the flowers depicted and then try to decipher the meaning of the bouquet with the help of a handy floristry book at reception.
Lost and found
Immediately beyond Mahaffy’s contemporary exploration of floriography, a three-walled room painted a deep teal – a Sherwin-Williams color aptly referred to as Raging Sea – evokes the depths of the ocean.
“I’ve always been fascinated by journeys into the unknown – especially mountaineering and polar exploration,” said Mahaffy. “Expeditions to realms like the sea or extreme environments require meticulous planning and a clear view, but can also be full of hubris and selfishness – which then often fails. If not, let’s call it heroic. Often, on fateful expeditions like the Franklin expedition, we are left with only artifacts to unravel a story.”
Referring to personal effects recovered from this 1845 expedition, Mahaffy made brass spoons, forks and combs using a jeweler’s saw. While all of these raise their own mysterious questions — the forks are joined with Frankensteins and the spoons are etched with cards — the combs best divulge the underlying narrative, as they’re presented like specimens in a sand-lined cedar box.
Other objects in the raging sea zone are inherited pieces that Mahaffy has manipulated to great effect. An antique coffee pot equipped with an LED is perforated with the navigational constellations Cassiopeia and Polaris, allowing tiny stars to be cast on the wall. She also grew crystals on a silver-plated sugar bowl and milk jug, as well as on an upholstered chair attached askew to the wall, suggesting the plight of SOS.
By far the biggest play on the show, Mahaffy’s Arctic Dreams (land is the measure of time) anchors the central zone of the gallery. Consisting of an incredibly long white curtain suspended from a brass curtain rod – both handcrafted – Arctic Dreams is a dramatic example of Mahaffy’s mastery of re-contextualizing ordinary objects.
Leaning against the wall and curling across the floor, the piece transcends notions of domesticity and instead suggests a frozen landscape. Like her spoons, forks, and combs, she references artifacts found from the Franklin expedition, which oddly include two brass curtain rods.
“I just like this idea of this thing being in the middle of an environment or a landscape where it just doesn’t have a job, utility or purpose,” Mahaffy said. “There are a lot of ideas and assumptions why – why did you take that? What does it say about the people who brought it? … I wanted to relate that to the idea of personal items, household items, things that are left behind in the mess — maybe after we’ve gone.”
Another of Mahaffy’s mirrors, hanging on a nearby wall, reflects the icy allusions with an etched composite depicting the melting retreat of Alaska’s Columbia Glacier.
A series of snow-white prints blind-embossed with personal items – gloves, keys, a wallet, a comb – act in a glossy white display case as a kind of final statement in the back corner of the gallery. The effect is reminiscent of blocks of ice.
“I wanted them to live horizontally and not be framed as pictures,” Mahaffy said of the prints. “So there is a bit of back and forth between object and image. You look at an impression – the object that was once there – and you could almost read them as things exposed or unburied in the snow.”
Objects of Absence, Free, Tues.-Sat. Oct.-15, 1-5 p.m., Neidorf Art Gallery, Trinity University, 1 Trinity Place, (210) 999-7011, trinity.edu
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