Karen Mahaffy

Women and Their Work

Laura A. Lindenberger Wellen

Karen Mahaffy, The Long Poem (approximately 26,720 steps to here and here), 2010; hand-latched wool rug, 13.1 miles; 48 x 96 x 2 inches; courtesy the artist and Women and Their Work, Austin; photo by Karen Mahaffy

Untitled (persistence of moment) no. 2, 2010; digital video; edition of 3; courtesy the artist and Women and Their Work, Austin; photo by Karen Mahaffy

In Persistence of Moment, San Antonio-based artist Karen Mahaffy reflects on the personal rituals we develop while living far away from the familiar. Inspired by her recent trip to Estonia as a Fulbright Scholar, the works on view recount travel experiences without relying on the visual tropes of tourism. Instead, private acts such as walking or looking out a window provide the impetus for works in multiple mediums.

Mahaffy’s digital videos Untitled (persistence of moment) no. 1 and 2 present viewers with glimpses of nondescript corners from a distant land. Each video records the visual patterns created by daylight passing over an interior wall. These large-scale projections give segments of the gallery the appearance of a stone church or the plaster walls of an Eastern European apartment. Yet, the walls pictured are secondary to the dazzling shifts in light that appear on them, and the soft ambient sounds—the rustling of leaves or the clinking of a dish or chime—that accompany them. Mahaffy’s videos capture the subtleties of a specific time in a specific place. She recreates the experience of incidental sites, and she imparts that sense of heightened sensitivity that comes with being in an unfamiliar place.

Mahaffy reconstructs another interior space in Untitled (collection of days). A series of photographs is projected from behind a window-like pane of glass—each was taken from a window in her apartment in Estonia at the same time of day over a period of two months. The blues of the sky change subtly and the dark spot of a bird appears briefly, but any detail in the photographs is obscured by the slightly frosted glass. Mahaffy locates this window by physically replicating the wall of her room around it. Torn strips of patterned wallpaper in varying shades of white give the wall a unique texture. The specificity of this surface contrasts with the blurred images; she precisely recreates the wall but leaves the scenes from the window hazy. The projected images become imperfect documents of her view, instead offering meditations on color and light.

Wandering is another recurring theme in the exhibition. In particular, Mahaffy conveys her experience of stuffing wool into her shoes to keep warm, an Estonian tradition during the cold, damp winters. As Mahaffy filled her shoes and walked, the wool turned into felted insoles. These insoles, then, were the inspiration for a series of topographic felt sculptures, Untitled (drift: Baltic coast), Untitled (drift: Harju/Vene) and Untitled (drift: Tallinn city wall west [and] east). Stacking felted wool in gently overlapping layers to roughly compose the shape of a shoe’s interior, Mahaffy built idiosyncratic maps of places she visited. These contours represent personal meanderings but also suggest specific locales.

Persistence of Moment is full of restrained color, with whites and shadows predominating. This creates a pensive mood that prompts viewers to experience their own quiet wanderings. One of the truly rewarding proposals of Mahaffy’s work is that place is defined as much by timing and duration—signified repeatedly with changing light—as it is by space; she reminds us that travel is an experience of personal encounters, private meditations and flickering moments.

Laura A. Lindenberger Wellen is a PhD Candidate in art history at The University of Texas at Austin.

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