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Art review: ‘Recent Works by Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer’ at 709 Penn Gallery | TribLIVE.com
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Art review: ‘Recent Works by Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer’ at 709 Penn Gallery

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Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
'Exodus VIII,' acrylic on canvas from 'Recent Works by Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer,' the artist’s new geometric landscapes exhibit at 709 Penn Gallery in Downtown.
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Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
'Let Them Stay,' acrylic on canvas from 'Recent Works by Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer,' the artist’s new geometric landscapes exhibit at 709 Penn Gallery in Downtown on Sunday Dec. 21, 2014.
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Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
'La Primera cita (diptych),' acrylic on canvas from 'Recent Works by Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer,' the artist’s new geometric landscapes exhibit at 709 Penn Gallery in Downtown on Sunday Dec. 21, 2014.
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Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
'Sin Titulo,' acrylic on canvas from 'Recent Works by Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer,' the artist’s new geometric landscapes exhibit at 709 Penn Gallery in Downtown on Sunday Dec. 21, 2014.
ptrTKARtshaffer05122514
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
'Raices,' acrylic on canvas from 'Recent Works by Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer,' the artist’s new geometric landscapes exhibit at 709 Penn Gallery in Downtown on Sunday Dec. 21, 2014.
ptrTKARtshaffer02122514
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
'Exodus VIII,' acrylic on canvas from 'Recent Works by Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer,' the artist’s new geometric landscapes exhibit at 709 Penn Gallery in Downtown.
ptrTKARtshaffer04122514
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
'Let Them Stay,' acrylic on canvas from 'Recent Works by Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer,' the artist’s new geometric landscapes exhibit at 709 Penn Gallery in Downtown on Sunday Dec. 21, 2014.
ptrTKARtshaffer01122514
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
'La Primera cita (diptych),' acrylic on canvas from 'Recent Works by Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer,' the artist’s new geometric landscapes exhibit at 709 Penn Gallery in Downtown on Sunday Dec. 21, 2014.
ptrTKARtshaffer03122514
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
'Sin Titulo,' acrylic on canvas from 'Recent Works by Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer,' the artist’s new geometric landscapes exhibit at 709 Penn Gallery in Downtown on Sunday Dec. 21, 2014.
ptrTKARtshaffer05122514
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
'Raices,' acrylic on canvas from 'Recent Works by Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer,' the artist’s new geometric landscapes exhibit at 709 Penn Gallery in Downtown on Sunday Dec. 21, 2014.

More than two dozen semi-abstract paintings by Columbian-born artist Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer of Hempfield fill the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust‘s 709 Penn Gallery, Downtown, with color and context.

From the largest works on display, such as “Let Them Stay,” which is a response to recent news of Latin American children emigrating to the United States, to the smallest, pieces from her “Exodus” series, which concerns the immigrant experience in general, each piece is full of symbolism and meaning for the artist, who herself is an immigrant.

“I like to work in layers,” says Cuellar-Shaffer, and she means that literally and figuratively, imbuing each with a sense of her history, given her background in interior architecture and graphic design. Psychology, architecture and interior architecture have all found their way into these recent works.

A native of Palmira, Colombia, Cuellar-Shaffer graduated with a degree in architectural design and perspective from the Fundacion Academia de Dibujo Profesional in Cali, Colombia. She also studied fine arts at the Instituto Departamental de Bellas Artes and Academia Labrada in Colombia.

After living in Miami since moving there from Colombia in 1999, Cuellar-Shaffer moved to Western Pennsylvania in 2004 with her husband, Adam Shaffer, executive director of the Westmoreland Arts and Heritage Festival.

Being an immigrant, Cuellar-Shaffer has fueled her creative process from experience. Each piece represents a part of a narrative of an immigrant’s journey where anything can become the subject: a memory, a photo, a change in scenery.

“Interest in psychological narratives is a constant of my work, where identity and evolution take center stage,” Cuellar-Shaffer says. “The desire of experimenting has led me to create these entities that are in constant metamorphosis.”

The entities Cuellar-Shaffer is referring to are abstract figures that fill imaginary landscapes. Some are obvious, such as the portraits of a male and female figure, painted in profile, that hangs opposite the gallery from each other. Each is untitled.

“The two untitled pieces are perhaps my most anthropomorphically defined works of the past five years,” Cuellar-Shaffer says. “Despite and because of that, they are portraits of souls, energy, where the flesh is not flesh; they are beings terrified of life and its uncertainty, that need to be nurtured and talked to.”

Fascinated by the complexity of human emotion, Cuellar-Shaffer looks for moments where different sentiments share the same space.

“La Primera Cita” (First Date) is one of these moments.

“When two people meet each other for the first time, they are occupying the space between their inner selves and the other’s expectations of them,” Cuellar-Shaffer says. “Fear, curiosity, excitement and nervousness are competing with each other.”

Cuellar-Shaffer says the piece “Raices” (Roots) is the result of “the need to search for an identity that is woven and is revealed with the multiculturalism of the moment.”

With this piece, the eye vacillates between the figure and ground. It’s intentional, says the artist, in which past and present fight and reconcile with the many layers of paint and overlapping elements. “It offers a glimpse at the undisturbed presence of the origins,” Cuellar-Shaffer says.

Several works from Cuellar-Shaffer’s “Exodus” series line one wall, each representing different facets of the immigrant’s journey. Of all of them, “Exodus XIII” is the most discernible in terms of imagery, featuring a horse as the predominant figure in the painting.

“The figures in ‘Exodus XIII’ are like the child that doesn’t want to be apart from the parent, who fights the anxiety and the thrill of the unknown,” Cuellar-Shaffer says. “This fight is as old as humanity itself, which is why I suggest a horse in the painting, an image that reaches back to conflicts between native Latin Americans and colonists.”

It’s worth noting that Cuellar-Shaffer will be in the gallery from 7 to 9 p.m. Dec. 31, during First Night. Everyone who signs the guest book before the end of the exhibit — Jan. 23 — will be entered to win an original piece of artwork chosen by Cuellar-Shaffer. The winner will be announced at the closing reception, from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Jan. 23, and notified via email before Jan. 31.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected].

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