According to Keith Russell of Keith Russell Antiques, who collaborated with Essex Street Gallery on their current exhibition, “Concerning Superfluities: Shaker Material Culture and Affinities”, there are only two known Shakers remaining in the world at this time. The Shakers are a religious sect that came to America from England during the 1780s to flee religious persecution and practice fairly progressive beliefs for the time, including gender equality, racial equality, pacifism, communalism with no personal property, and complete celibacy. They believe that labor is a form of prayer that brings them closer to God, as does cleanliness, functional design, and order. These beliefs motivate the necessity to streamline tasks, which is how the Shakers became known for their contributions in technology: the development of the seed packet, the clothespin, the circular saw, the no-kill mousetrap and the tilting chair, for example.
Today they are most well-known for producing beautifully crafted wooden furniture and cabinetry. Each object was made based on the needs of an individual which accounts for variations in dimension and unique modifications in compartments and other additions to wardrobes, writing desks and tables, among other objects. The Shaker aesthetic rejects ornamentation in favor of function, and its paired down minimal approach to material and silhouette serves as inspiration for many contemporary artists working across disciplines. We think back to the exhibition “Holly Hobby Lobby” we visited in 2017 at Kristina Kite Gallery, where artist Lisa Lapinsky incorporated the Shaker’s pegboard to create movable vantage points for her main character, “My Little Chair” to witness a battle between competing feminist objects below.
The exhibition (at Essex Street) does not attempt to draw out explicit connections between the Shakers and the included artists, though some have long studied and collected Shaker Material Culture. Instead it conveys resonances, tendencies and affinities.