It's possible that visionary artist Gabriel Shaffer's paintings are enchanted: Images of birds reportedly fly off the wall and "I had a painting returned to me because one lady claimed it was haunted," the artist reveals. Then there's a piece called "Plantation Escape Plan," a 40 by 40-inch canvas featuring a a large and floating head, its hair and beard blue (like many of Shaffer's characters), its troubled features also a map of collaged papers and labyrinthian twists. The painting is complex and vaguely disturbing; according to Shaffer, "It keeps coming back to me because it hasn't found its owner yet."
Most of Shaffer's paintings do find homes. Fittingly, so has Shaffer, who relocated to Asheville from Chicago half a decade ago. "I was coming out of a dark depression when I first came here," he says. "I was nihilistic."
Despite the bright colors, pop-culture references and comic book leanings," Shaffer's paintings of a few years ago were decidedly angsty. Tiny eyes or extra eyes or horns perch on unwieldy and misshapen heads, skulls are tucked into corners, and works are christened with titles like "Her Faceless Empire" and "Black Holes and Sunflowers for Breakfast."
For those who've only known the artist for the past year (an exceptional year: he was selected by WNC Magazine for its On The Verge: 10 of the Best Emerging Artists in WNC issue and gallery show; named best artist in Xpress' 2009 Best of WNC reader poll and, now, is hanging his first show at Asheville's Blue Spiral 1 gallery) it's probably difficult to correlate today's upbeat and vivacious Shaffer with his anguished former self. But it was Shaffer who told ArtQuotes.net, in 2006, "I have had various extreme experiences and visions throughout my life, that have shaped and motivated quite a bit of the reasoning behind my work. I suppose one of the major motivators for me comes from the opinion that mankind is on the verge of a conspired apocalyptic reckoning."
That's an intense statement, but Shaffer, today, seems less focused on potential apocalypse; more focused on the future. "At that point, what I was purging was more personal in terms of what I had to get through, he explains. "Art is a way of facing things are dealing with them. Now the external forces have changed: It's more about the people around me than me."
Shaffer's immediate surroundings have become integral to his work. Asheville, which he says "has given me a life," is a muse in the newest series, such as the brilliantly Autumnal "Unto this World," in which a Cherokee dressed in full regalia pauses just outside the Biltmore Estate gate house. Figures are tighter, more realistic in proportion. Human hands, trees, feathers and the textures of buildings are sharply rendered, showcasing Shaffer's immense (if unschooled) skill. But even these new works, some of them consciously constructed to appeal to a wider audience – an audience that visits and purchases from the Blue Spiral — there are also layers of Shaffer's unique vision and raw creativity.
Shaffer calls the collection (which includes an image of the Thomas Wolfe stone angel) "A fantasy Asheville where time lays on top of itself. It's Asheville Oz."
He continues, "It's like a Pied Piper thing. My world, if I was to completely throw someone into it, would be too much. That's why you have the cityscapes and the Thomas Wolfe thing. It's not just pure weirdness," he says. "Well, it might be weird for somebody who's not accustomed to my stuff, but it's not too far out there. There are a few pieces that are out there, but there are some with direct narratives that relate regionally. … I'm trying to present a range in terms of approaches with the collage styles and subject matter," he says.
Backgrounds in the paintings — from a sultry winged and mermaid tailed siren in "A Forgotten Ode" to the tentacle-limbed, horned creature in "The Marble Feeder" (inspired by a childhood nightmare) — are constructed from layers and layers of found paper. This is Shaffer's signature: Sometimes the collage (like in the mermaid's tail) is a front-and-center element of the work. Other times, the scraps almost disappear into the milieu — until a perceptive viewer notices an image or a word that leaps from the drone.
Some paper work stands out, demanding to be included: In the Cherokee painting, Shaffer salvaged a fragment from a notebook dealing with Native American policy in relation to colonialism. Shaffer says, "With my background, I try to have a healthy dose of conscious thought, but the real unconscious activity goes on within the background process."
The scraps often come from religious books, found at Goodwill. But Shaffer's salvaging has taken him into — perhaps appropriately, considering the Mythological metaphors prominent in his work — some Cimmerian caverns. There are papers collected from alleyways and culled from a deserted mica mine (Shaffer's first date with his now wife), there are medical ledgers from an abandoned building once part of the V.A. Hospital. Of the latter, Shaffer admits to feeling afraid, and — perhaps like the gloom that haunted him when he first arrived in Asheville — happy not to go back. "I had a connection to that place and I don't have to return," he says of the spooky building.
Still, the end justifies the means. "It opens up the ability for random things to come in that show me they belong when the piece is finished. Collectors will interact with a piece" and realize a specific message, meant for them alone — a piece of a ledger from the town they were born; a special date. According to the artist, "I feel like the pieces are working for me after they're done."
Even with that supernatural assistance from his work, Shaffer's task is a daunting one. His first "show" followed the Asheville flood of 2004. Jobless, the painter went with his mother (outsider artist Cher Shaffer) to a festival and set up an impromptu parking-lot sale of his portfolio work. By January 2005, he'd sold all of his paper pieces and — even that early in the game — was being sought out by collectors. Today, Shaffer's work is owned by members of Aerosmith, Foo Fighters, Cat Power, Kid Rock and (this one came as a surprise to the artist himself) Texas Senator Wendy Davis. Not only does he aspire to rise in regional and national prominence and support is family through his work, but the artist wants to put his adopted hometown on the map. "It's important for those of us here now, making work, that if we're going to continue to make this place viable as an arts destination, we've got to really go balls to the wall. It's the best small arts city in the [eastern U.S.] right now; it's the Santa Fe of the East."
He adds, "I feel indebted to the place. Everyone supports [my art] so that gives me a feeling of okay, I've got to carry through."
Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Gabriel Shaffer
what: Exhibiting Fiat Lux collection of paintings as part of the New x Three show
where: Blue Spiral 1
when: Thursday, Jan. 7 (opening reception 5-8 p.m., show on exhibit through Sunday, March 21. bluespiral1.com or gabrielshaffer.com.)