‘Frank Shaw: ReConsider’ | Family Archaeology Uncovered and Unlocked

“Love (3)” (1993), graphite on paper, 30 x 20″, is from one of Shaw’s earliest series of drawings. (from the artist)

Childhood memories made for a powerful exhibition at the Salina Art Center, a culminating moment in the Kansas City artist’s 30-year career

I come from people who don’t talk about feelings — who most of the time cannot explain their emotional states to themselves, let alone verbalize them. Such dearth of attunement leads to inattention to the inner states of others, as well, which means there’s often not much left to talk about. For a long time, the two words that best described my experience of people expressing their most basic and fundamental emotions were silence and muteness. So many things left unsaid. So many things that to this day are too hard to shape into sounds.

Shaw’s parents, children of the Great Depression, saved every conceivable odd and end, some of which the artist incorporated into “Inheritance” (2017-22), shown here in a detail. (photo by Dimitris Skliris)

Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy wrote, yet for me, paradoxically, longtime Kansas artist Frank Shaw’s very personal take on his particular family in his exhibition “ReConsider,” mounted last fall at the Salina Art Center, made it a rare show with near universal resonance.

Anyone who has ever experienced the tensions and mysteries that exist within family systems, witnessed elders aging and shrinking from giants to ghosts, or come back to a childhood home as a changed adult would likely have found the show deeply moving. To be understood and be seen in and through the experience of another can be incredibly powerful, and it’s worth considering where such power comes from. In this case, it came from the courage and determination on the part of the artist (and his extremely supportive spouse and interlocutor, fellow artist Mary Kay), to bring a hugely demanding project to fruition and the foresight of the Salina Art Center to give it the space it needed.

The works in “ReConsider” were also the most powerful culmination to date of an artistic practice that has been evolving for 30 years just outside of Lindsborg, Kansas, where Frank and Mary moved after receiving MFAs from Yale to teach at Bethany College. Thematically, in a roundabout way, “ReConsider” came full circle to one of Shaw’s earliest series of drawings, “Love,” which shows the cosmic reverberations of a couple’s intimate relationship in an enclosed domestic space. Formally, “ReConsider” owed its spare, pared down visual lexicon to Shaw’s long-standing experimentation with abstract forms, often created on found materials and shown as sculptures across wide expanses of space.

The materials of works such as “Yesterday Was Tomorrow” (2022) were excavated from an old upstate New York farmhouse where Shaw grew up. (photo by Dimitris Skliris)

In the searingly vulnerable “Reckoning (A Trace of What It Was)” (2016-22), Shaw wrote down his memories and ruminations about his parents’ house. (from the artist)

Shaw’s use of found objects and abstract forms entered perfect symbiosis with the installation’s aim of transposing the artist’s experiences in his childhood home. In his approach to abstracting those experiences, Shaw hinted at his own story while remaining reticent about most particulars — both to capture the essence of the foundational traumas he was contending with and to allow us as viewers to fill in the gaps with our own details and stories.

The materials of the installation that filled all four of SAC’s galleries were excavated from an old upstate New York farmhouse where Frank grew up, where his parents (children of the Great Depression) saved every conceivable odd and end lest it go to waste, and where the Shaw siblings eventually had to sift through decades of familial accumulation as their parents aged and died. These processes unfolded over the course of eight years, with the installation taking another three to crystallize after Shaw finished moving two U-Hauls, three carloads and a couple dozen shipped boxes of salvaged possessions — everything from used toothbrushes and scrap wire to doors and a mantel — to his home and studio. There, he molded the possessions into incredibly precise and poignant metaphors for the emotions and questions (all of them seemingly unanswerable) that this exercise in family archaeology uncovered and unlocked.

Shaw’s monumental effort of personal, familial and cultural reflection, which most of us never have the time or the emotional wherewithal to undertake, is evident in the scope of the arrangements he created, as well as his beautiful, poetic, searingly vulnerable texts that also became objects in the exhibition. In “Reckoning (A Trace of What It Was),” Shaw wrote down his memories of growing up in his parents’ house and ruminations on it as it was falling into disrepair:

Too familiar to notice, too self-involved to see
The place from which I came
Mom and Dad overworked; anxieties unnamed
Shelves laden with railroad history books
Dad questions only to confirm preconceptions
Real paintings in my room now
Presuming to be an artist, pretending to understand
TM and three piano lessons so I’d be interesting
Longing to be poetic, struck mute holding the pen
Vainly looking for myself
Finding an ill-fitting suit, an unsharpened pencil
Unable to name the varied trees of the forest within
Searching for a dictionary in my box of crayons.

The full text occupies 13 large handwritten pages, and Shaw wrote each page out 13 times. When exhibited, each set of 13 sheets is layered atop each other, and the text appears as a ghostly trace that the reader must struggle to parse. Just as in our memories, the information is there somewhere, but damn if it isn’t hard to make things out clearly in the fuzzy depths.

I visited “ReConsider” twice in the fall of 2022 and have thought of it regularly since. Among the great gifts that art and artists can give us are chances to feel seen and understood, opportunities to be more tenderhearted with ourselves and others, and lessons in being a little better able to unravel our own emotional knots and tangles. I’m grateful that seeing Frank Shaw’s work allowed me and many others to experience all of those things in a profound way and hopeful that this appreciation might introduce his talents to yet more people who also might benefit from them.

Tour the exhibit online at www.salinaartcenter.org/reconsider-frank-shaw.

Ksenya Gurshtein

Ksenya Gurshtein is the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University. She is also an art historian, critic, and translator, who has written widely on contemporary art.

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