Drawings, paintings, photographs, found objects and texts: Leanne Shapton’s work crosses borders. So what brings it all together? This: she is a poetess of absence. Her best stuff often seems to be about people who are no longer present, and the empty chairs she places on stage are perfect spaces for the reader to enter. That’s why, while I doubt anyone would call Shapton a game designer, his work still feels like a game to me.
You can see it with something like important artifacts and personal possessions from the collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including books, street fashion and jewelry, which tells the story of a relationship of a couple using an auction catalog for all their belongings. It’s beautifully done: pages of chronological lists, from the flyer for the Halloween party they met at, to a rather sad selection of old champagne corks – special moments that are no longer treasured.
It would be so easy for this book to be a vanity, a gimmick. But instead, it’s forensic but, in a way, deeply tender. There’s a role for the reader here in the absence of the main cast – in fact, the role can be whatever you choose to make sense of things. I spent much of the book going through the catalog – swimwear, postcards, old paperbacks with notes – and wondering if that’s where the trouble started, where those two invisible protagonists started to separate. It’s a testament to how good Shapton is at picking these things out that the photographs of the couple themselves are the least compelling aspect of the whole project for me. They look like actors rather than people who really owned these objects and filled them with painful human meaning.
You can also see this game element in Was She Pretty?, which is a series of drawings and written snapshots revolving around people’s exes, each clearly seen from the perspective of the current lover. “Estefania’s ex-boyfriend suggested she wear darker jeans.” “Lionel’s ex-girlfriend Edie loved Brahms. But she preferred the money.”
My favorite entry in this book is about a vase: “There was a vase in the dining room that didn’t seem quite to Stuart’s taste. Eugenie couldn’t throw it away, so she hid it in a cupboard. The deliberate awkwardness of this first sentence with its tortured indirect! No one is really present here in these words, but you are tacitly encouraged to triangulate the information you have, to largely determine how the current lover feels about the former lover. We’ve all done this in real life, I guess, which is another reason why it’s such an easy role to play. That stupid, ugly vase!
In any event. My favorite of Shapton’s books is also the one that feels the most like a game to me. Guestbook: Ghost Stories is a collection of – well, a lot of things. There are floor plans, photo essays, watercolors based on old movies, even a section that appears to be made of Christmas wrapping paper. It’s scary, playful and sad. A whole book.
And strangely, my favorite section speaks of a presence rather than an absence. In A Geist we see a series of photos taken at various social events – magazine launches, album listening parties, “Private dinner for Lucien Pak”. The images are beautifully done – overexposed or made Halloween by too much flash or background characters disappearing into the darkness of the living room. What is happening here?
The first thing that becomes clear is that one person is present in all the photos – a delicate, rather elven-like man in a shiny blue suit. Here he is at a dinner party having fun with a glass of wine. Here he looks serious next to a lady with a fan. Here he is laughing with a fake mustache. The descriptions under each image refer to him as Edward Mintz, which is a perfect name for a guy like this. And then it clicks: all of these events scattered around the world, all with Edward Mintz in attendance, all take place on the same evening: November 2, 2018. This inhospitable presence – a man who seems to fit in everywhere – cannot to have been really everywhere he seems to be, can he?
Otherwise, however, the guestbook is also defined by playful absences. A series of character snapshots appended to what appear to be found photographs can list the qualities of individual ghosts that haunt someone. Moody shots of house interiors – hallways, stairways and back rooms – are listed as being the setting for various moments in a dream we are not fully told about. From there the invention accumulates, new and more melancholic ideas, we do a lot with little.
There are two games for me with this book. The first is simply to understand how each entry works, what might be the central idea, which moves throughout the book, in this case. What are the rules? Where do the photographs or drawings come from? What could have inspired Shapton in each case? (Shapton, inevitably, is one of the most impending absences in his entire oeuvre.) Only then can you play the other game and find out how the ghost – or the idea of a ghost – relates to the story, where absence, as it was, is actually located.
Ghosts are the perfect subject for Shapton, I think – the ghosts of relationships, lovers, places and times. Ghosts – and their games – can also take many forms. One of my other favorite Shapton books is called The Native Trees of Canada. It’s a series of paintings of identification leaves of various species of trees, and I have a feeling that an ancient book with that title exists under the painting of the book that Shapton created. Beneath this colorful foliage, the ancient book now hides there, invisible, warm with its own meanings.