The complexity of Shawne Major’s dazzling mixed-media tapestries lends itself to ornate descriptions.
One admirer of her work quoted on her website called her pieces “magical spaces created from the artist’s re-enchantment of objects and materials from disposable production.”
But mere words don’t fully prepare you for what you see when you’re actually standing in front of one.
In “Hundredth Monkey,” one of the standout works in her show at Callan Contemporary in the Warehouse District, pieces of tulle and lace are layered over skeins of costume jewelry and Carnival beads and clumps of plastic barnyard animals and toy bells, all meticulously attached to a sari that belonged to a member of Major’s family.
It’s a densely composed and dizzyingly intricate piece: a work to get happily lost in. And like all of Major’s art, it rewards careful exploration.
With all of its geegaws and frippery, however, the apparent frivolity of the surface of Major’s work masks a more serious set of intentions.
“These works are abstractions but were developed from an idea that humans create filters through which we see and process our realities,” Major said. “As we get older, perhaps these filters get more and more clogged. My works are physical metaphors for these filters.”
In fact, “physical metaphors” is as good a label for Major’s work as any. It doesn’t fit comfortably into a single artistic discipline but rather deftly straddles different categories including collage, assemblage, fabric art and traditional sculpture.
Nearly everything else about Major’s work defies easy categorization, too. Even her use of mass-produced materials (including things like toy soldiers, buttons, king cake babies, rope, dice and Lego pieces) subverts the usual distinctions between “high” and “low” art.
Despite the seemingly random nature of the materials she employs, however, nothing winds up in any of Major’s pieces by accident.
“The power of the fetish object intrigues me,” she said. “The methods by which disparate elements are connected are as integral as the objects themselves.”
Born in New Iberia and based near Opelousas, Major considers herself “an artist with roots in Louisiana.”
While she’s exhibited extensively both in Louisiana and nationwide over the past two decades, it was perhaps the first Prospect New Orleans biennial exhibition in 2008 that focused widespread attention on her work.
Viewers who remember Major’s appearance in Prospect.1 will find much in common between her earlier pieces and the newer ones in the Callan Contemporary show. But Major also sees her work as having developed in several significant ways over the past six years.
“I think my work has gotten physically denser,” she said. “Also, I’m making more irregular-shaped pieces than I used to. The irregular-shaped or pelt-like pieces are more object-like to me, while the rectangular works feel more like abstract paintings and therefore suggest windows onto their own little worlds.”
And it’s not only the shape and scale of her pieces that have changed: “My object choices have changed over time,” Major said. “At the moment, I am using more small metal objects and junk jewelry and fewer toys.”
Even the “canvases” or support media in Major’s new pieces are part of the stories they tell.
“A couple of the large works were done on wedding dresses,” she said. “I was thinking about all the expectations and dreams and hopes wrapped up in the concept of marriage. I thought — what if everything you expected, hoped for, feared and everything that actually does happen in a marriage was all there for you to see when the wedding happens? The dresses are covered with objects that suggest these experiences. My daughter always called these pieces ‘bridal pelts,’ as if someone had skinned the bride.”
But knowing the specific stories that underlie Major’s pieces isn’t necessary to appreciate them. It’s a kind of art that effortlessly engages a wide range of viewers, from kids who will be entranced by the variety of shapes and objects Major uses to those who approach the pieces more cerebrally as visual rebuses to be deciphered.
“I don’t think viewers need to know my intentions to find the work stimulating,” she said. “I do like when people keep looking and can come back and find more to hold their interest.”