The familiar and strange meld together in the work of Indy-based Marna Shopoff. Take, for instance, her painting "The Bathtub," which shows the original construction pit of the World Trade Center not as it actually appeared in the late 1960s, but as if seen through the haze of a dream, with muted colors ranging from pink to lavender to orange. Other Shopoff compositions portray contemporary buildings that seem alight with a restless kinetic energy, as if viewed from a passing car.
Much of Shopoff's work evokes Midwestern architecture, but inspiration has come from beyond the Midwest - including Rome, which she first visited in 2009.
"I was influenced not only by the visual beauty of the architecture but the overall physical experience of the space," says Shopoff of her visit to Rome's Piazza Navona. "The age of the buildings, the cracks in the architecture, and the lingering essence of the years of history reflected through the piazza's atmosphere: the feeling of the air, the smell of the streets, and the residual energy of the place."
Not that Shopoff finds herself drawn to the Italian piazza (or town square) as a subject. The energy of her work has more to do with the hurried, fragmented nature of contemporary life.
"We're constantly in a state of unrest," says Shopoff, referring to our wired society. "But we are also surrounded by structures where we can take comfort in the strength and solidity of the architecture. I use architectural structures as a way of questioning life though my paintings."
These structures that she chooses to represent on canvas, she says, are "strong and lasting while here, but ultimately fleeting in nature."
While her paintings wrestle with 20th-century ideas and 21st-century dilemmas, the foundation of her work remains solidly classical in terms of technique.
"Each piece starts by using imprimatura to stain the canvas, with a compositional under-painting while building up thin translucent layers with glazing techniques," she says. "Working on multiple paintings at once I can intuitively respond to each piece building up layers over time."
Often Shopoff's oil on canvas paintings begin with a photo reference "as a point of entry." As multiple layers are applied, her work becomes increasingly abstract.
Shopoff recently received two commissions through the Frank and Katrina Basile Center for Art, Design and Public Life. One, yet to be completed, is for a new Dow AgroSciences research facility. The other, "At Peace in the Ecosystem," is a colorful diptych that will be on view at the 5th floor waiting room at IU Health Riley Children's Hospital.
The diptych painting pictures koi fish that swim upstream and become dragons. While it's a different subject for Shopoff than usual, the overarching themes of strength and transformation are not out of line with her work.