In “So-and-So,” Rae Mahaffey presented 11 abstract paintings (all 2015) that signal an exciting high point in an already accomplished, 30-year career. Impeccably crafted, with beautiful, layered surfaces, the colorful panels are relatively large for Mahaffey; the biggest are 5 feet tall. Perhaps it was in confronting panels of this scale that she began to register them as human presences, dubbing them Bachelor or Rookie, for example, a conceit she extended to the witty exhibition title. The paintings have “personality”: lively and smart, they engage the eye and the mind with their intriguing complexity. In each case, Mahaffey creates tensions between geometric and organic forms, flat planes and thin volumes, autonomous parts and unified whole.
A West Coast regionalist who moved from Seattle to Los Angeles before settling in Portland, Mahaffey associates the Northwest with old-growth forests and the timber industry—hence the wood panels and her incorporation of the grain itself as a pictorial element in almost every work. In Author, the grain spreads over four of the 10 irregularly shaped fields into which Mahaffey has partitioned the composition. Her favorite painted patterns include rings and discs in rows or grids, and clusters of freehand ovals that read as bubbles. Associations abound. Red- or blue-and-white stripes conjure flags, tents, awnings. Targets appear, and what looks like chicken wire. A gold-on-green meander in the regal Khan suggests the influence of Islamic art, while stenciled numerals and letters oriented every which way in Pundit and Sage, respectively, convey a sense of controlled chaos. Most compelling is how Mahaffey brings shapes into contact in varied ways, abutting, overlapping or interlocking them, and how each type of contact elicits its own affective response.
As a printmaker, Mahaffey has worked in lithography, in monotype and in vitreography, which employs glass plates. Several of her public art commissions—most recently, a 2010 installation at the El Paso International Airport—consist of fused-glass panels. In this exhibition she introduced 10 small glass pieces (each about 6 by 7 inches), which stood upright on shelves. For each piece, four or five sheets of glass screen-printed with curvilinear drawings were stacked and fused together. The layering and translucence echo similar effects in Mahaffey’s paintings, where lower strata remain visible through screens of surface pattern. In this and other ways, her work invites meditations on seeing, perceiving and thinking through various filters—of gender, say, or culture. In Shaman, one confronts the elusive problem of identity itself, as embodied in a shape-shifting motif that appears as, alternately, a circle, a disc, a torus, an aperture, a boxy letter “O,” an abstracted paper clip. These forms are sometimes isolated in their own compartments, other times regimented in rows or gathered in crowds. Pattern and repetition in Mahaffey’s vibrant works, while pleasurable in themselves, can create metaphors for ways of being and feeling in the world.