Meghan Shah Sifts Through The Strata

Maybe it’s the splatters, thinning out like fingerprints, that catch you from one side of the room and urge you to come closer. A pink line cuts through the left side, canvas ceding to it willingly. It’s a sort of ordered maze, pinks and blues whizzing past each other on their way to somewhere off the canvas.

They’re definitely telling a story. But of its beginning, middle and end, you don’t have to be completely sure. That’s the central thesis of Meghan Shah’s Progression in Strata, a series of abstractions now open at the Willoughby Wallace Memorial Library in Branford. 

The show runs through Dec. 30 in the library’s Keyes Gallery. True to Shah's artist’s statement, it follows the mantra that “the story is known to the creator and left to interpretation for the audience.”

Shah’s first single-artist exhibition since her residency at Chhaap - Foundation for Printmaking Trust in Gujarat, India last year, Progression in Strata traverses monotype and woodcut printing, painting, and multimedia design on canvas, paper and fabric. Pulled from different periods in her young but productive career, the works tell a story of progress that is not a forward-marching line but looping, inquisitive journey through process, with edges Shah is still hoping to expand and smooth out.

The works are not arranged chronologically so much as thematically, dynamic in the large and low-lit gallery. A nod to the show’s title, there are four monotypes from Strata, Shah’s first undergraduate solo exhibition at Southern Connecticut State University in 2013. Literally one of a kind—monotypes only allow for one printing (or sometimes two), as ink is applied directly to the plate—they are specific and clean in their shape, paper yielding for the plate mark in each corner.

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Just, not too specific. Inspired by her visits to India, they have that vague, frenetic and yet proximate quality of memory, where colors spurt and skate across the paper. There’s an extraordinary eye for not only the detail of the printed work, but for the paper itself, with the sheet’s long fibers soaking up the color just so. If there’s an impulse to categorize, to un-abstract, to sort into experience, Shah resists it, allowing a parade of shapes and colors to dance along the pieces. 

“I don’t want people to have to have a story [about the works],” she said in an interview at the gallery. She recalled a recent exhibition, during which a woman insisted that one of her paintings, an abstracted design from the series In Thirds, was in fact a bird in flight. 

 Image credit Meghan Shah.

Image credit Meghan Shah.

“She wouldn’t leave it alone,” Shah recalled. That’s not what she wants for viewers this time around, she said.  

That’s true of the acrylic on canvas Indigo Thumbprint series, gathered in one corner of the gallery. Pressed to the canvas like thumbprints, several teardrop-sized dots of indigo paint make paths through the images, asking viewers to come on a no-questions-asked sort of pilgrimage. 

There are also wonderful experiments, outgrowths of her time at Chhaap. At the residency, Shah said, “I wanted to see what happened when I became my own critic.” Taking the advice of a professor she’d met in Madison, Wis. some years ago, she dug deeper, sinking into monotype while she had the time to explore the freedoms and limits of the process. 

That’s visible in prints from Inside The Road, which reflect on her time in India last year, and the years before that. In each print, a serpentine blue line appears, sometimes taking much of the page and sometimes disappearing in a splash of color. They are the closest to figurative work that Shah ever gets, with a sort of road shape snaking over the pages, never exactly the same as the one before. 

“The road seems drastically different every time I go, even if it’s like, twice in two years,” she said. “I feel like when I started this road emerged. The road that brought me back to India, the actual road that I experienced.” 

 Prints from Shah's recent  Line Intention  series. Lucy Gellman Photo. 

Prints from Shah's recent Line Intention series. Lucy Gellman Photo. 

Her taste for new technique and subject matter appears again in three recent large-scale prints from her series Line Intention, the product of Shah’s longtime interest in combining monotype and woodcut. In designs totally unlike her other prints and canvases, she plays tricks on her viewers, paint and stir sticks transforming into funky woodcut shapes while inked rollers giver the impression of woodgrain itself. 

They also speak to a restlessness she’s identified in herself—always moving forward, beyond the bounds of one medium and into the next. Now that she has nailed down woodcut, monotype and acrylic painting, Shah said she is interested in taking on cyanotype, a photographic printing process that utilizes a treated photosensitive surface. 

“Once I have a medium figured out, it’s no longer that much fun,” she said. “I kind of want to try something else and struggle and get to a place where I feel good about it.” 

Progression in Strata is on view at the Willoughby Wallace Memorial Library through Dec. 30. The library is open Monday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 a.m.  to 5 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.