What does a saffron yellow room with a row of wooden pegs around the perimeter by Amie Cunat have in common with some half-finished textile fragments peppered with staples by Elana Herzog? The Shakers. Likewise with a latex drawing of a double staircase by Matt LaFleur and a 19th century wooden box full of spools by the Shakers themselves.
“Everyday Perfection” is the new Albany International Airport Gallery show of art inspired by the Shakers. It creates overlapping associations and beautiful symmetries from one century to the next, with curator Kathy Greenwood focusing especially on the influence of Shaker fabrics and their ornamental designs.
Sometimes, literal (and maybe unquestioning) responses get changed up with scale and materials. The luminous giant white bonnet in the stairwell by Kate Hamilton hovers like a cheerful phantom, the nylon fabric catching both the light and the air. The aluminum mesh in Hamilton’s grouping of life-size bonnets makes them gleam as they turn slightly like a serene and vaguely ominous mobile.
Laura Kaufman updates tradition in more abstract (and obscure) ways. Three plaid patterns made by transferring pigment to paper in careful, repeated short lines reach beyond decoration, the overlapping vertical and horizontal colors interrupted by small, repeating gaps. The origins of these are what the curator calls “systems of language” that come from scientific texts about the origins of dark matter — a 21st century equivalent of the spiritually incomprehensible.
One of the strengths of “Everyday Perfection” is how it goes beyond superficial relationships of pattern and textile-based organization of surface. There are some original Shaker artifacts here, carefully behind Plexiglas, and they remind us that there is an inner logic and intuition within the pre-modernist elegance that Shaker life expresses. Kaufman, to me, is not just borrowing ideas, but following her own parallel motivations. You also see this in her striking sculptural “weavings” of thick slabs of gray felt.
The show rocks back and forth between works that are responses to actual Shaker designs and works that rise out of a similar spirit. Melissa Thorne’s finessed versions of patterns inspired by woven Shaker chair seat designs do suggest what the gallery calls “an ethereal rather than a worldly structure.” The light catches some cosmic sparkle in the pigmented, newly realized geometries.
In a range of works, Matt LaFleur refers to specific Shaker inspirations such as rug designs, but he also seems to exhibit a contemporary Shaker enthusiasm for elemental shapes, natural materials, and simple living. (Remember it is a Shaker song that says “’tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free.”) The large colorful wheel on the floor has a stump set in the center, on which the artist split firewood for his Shaker-inspired wood burning stove.
Brece Honeycutt finds and creates objects that reflect Shaker styles, and displays them rather like a museum would on the wall. Elana Herzog’s seven squarish “Sampler” objects are part weaving and part sewing, combining strips of fabric with pins and staples. Marietta Hoferer makes serene and almost sublime lacy shapes out of soft gray and white on paper. The goal throughout is partly about finding and creating the divine from the ordinary.
Is there an inherent contradiction between the free thinking behind so much of contemporary fine art and the conservative beliefs of the early Shakers, those 18th century believers who renounced “lustful gratifications” and created a mostly celibate, esoteric sect of Christianity? Maybe. Probably. But this show reminds us of another side of art, and of the essentially devotional essence of a lot of artmaking. When at work, artists become focused, absorbed, expressive, and maybe even religiously transcendent.
William Jaeger is a frequent contributor to the Times Union.
If you go:
When: Through Sept. 2
Where: Albany International Airport Gallery, Albany International Airport, 737 Albany Shaker Road, Colonie
Hours: 7 a.m.-11 p.m. daily
Info: http://albanyairport.com/art/albany-international-airport-gallery or 518-242-2241