Karen Shaw Decodes Contemporary Art

Intrigue is always a part of Karen Shaw’s artwork. She enjoys combining theoretical systems she designs with codes that order the world. Her conceptual art incorporates codes that are genetic or universal. These can include acupuncture, overheard snatches of conversations or Summantics, a system Shaw designed to reorder words into their mathematical equivalents. Summantics pulls from computer software programming and gematria, a cabalistic method of interpreting scriptures.

Shaw likes puzzles. Recalibrated words, cultural references and implied meanings that encourage contemplation run through her artwork, which can take the form of installation, mixed media paintings, works on paper and more.

Shaw’s art is embraced in Europe, where she’s better known, she said; she has exhibited internationally since the seventies. Countries include Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Guatemala, Brazil and more. This summer she had a solo show in Paris at the Galerie Lina Davidov.

“In Europe, they like puzzles more than here,” Shaw said by way of explanation. “They’re more comfortable with the unknown.”

For around 30 years, Shaw has helped Long Island viewers unpuzzle contemporary art at the Islip Art Museum. Shaw is the chief curator for the museum and the Senior Curator for The Carriage House, an onsite residency program that offers working space to contemporary artists year round.

“I really enjoy curating,” she said. “It’s creating in its own right.”

The mission of the Islip Art Museum is to present contemporary art to Long Islanders and make it accessible. With contemporary art, the idea driving the art is generally important. The art can use unconventional materials, have unconventional presentations and can challenge viewers to the nuances of its meaning.

To make the art viewer friendly, exhibitions in the museum feature several pieces by each artist presented in themed group shows. Artwork selected is challenging but shouldn’t overwhelm audiences who may not be familiar with conceptual art, Shaw said. Information is provided on the art and artists, free of art jargon, to help decode works whose meanings may not be readily apparent.

“We want to show people that contemporary art is not such an esoteric thing and there’s something they can access…The key is to access the work and not to be afraid of it.”

Shaw’s art is part of the museum’s permanent collection. She’s exhibited in group shows at the museum and at The Carriage House.

The next show at the Islip Art Museum is Secret Message. The show runs from Sept. 14 to Nov. 13 with a reception being held on Sept. 25. A separate exhibition of Shaw’s work coincides with the show. In Sept., Shaw’s also exhibiting at the Yale University scientific labs in New Haven, CT.

The Islip Art Museum is a division of the Town of Islip Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs. It is managed by the Islip Arts Council. It’s located at 50 Irish Lane, East Islip. (631) 224-5402, islipartmuseum.org, carriagehousearts.org.

pat rogers

Pat Rogers is a freelance writer specializing in arts and culture on Long Island. When not going to art openings or interviewing actors or musicians, she’s looking for the next interesting story.