Judith Schaechter: Dark Matter
Claire Oliver, 513 West 26th Street New York, NY 10001, Sept. 4th, 2014 to Oct. 25th, 2014
We are mesmerized. The polished sheen of the glass radiates colors as intensely as jewels. A myriad of forms in kaleidoscopic transformation suggest at once flowers, sea urchins, snowflakes, or bacteria. Crystalline circles like flowers or alabaster Easter eggs multiply in extravagant exuberance. Tree branches, undulating snakes (or are they veins?) spread across the profusion. They hover over a web of silver/black, the solder that holds Schaechter’s worked glass in place. These are objects as well as narratives. They cross boundaries rarely enounced in contemporary art. The medium is centuries old – far before the deployment of oils on panel by the brothers van Eyck, reaching back to a time when the separation of art and purpose was unknown. Worth, the value of what we now call art, was determined by three criteria: the intrinsic nature of the materials, the skill of the fabricator to execute in the specific medium, and finally, the placement/employment of the work. Art was no peripheral luxury. It was at the core of politics and statecraft, the construction of religious experience, solidification of social status, and one of the major loci for storing wealth to be accessed in times of crisis. Schaechter’s complex works, both material object and narrative discourse, communicate with this great sweep of historical resonance.
Schaechter is postmodern in the most fruitful sense. She rejects only modernism’s simplicity of form disassociated from individualized experience. She retains, paradoxically, in her figural profusions, modernism’s profound respect for beauty and transcendence. Her works are beautiful – not pretty, not attractive, not comforting – but disturbingly beautiful. For the Middle Ages, beauty was not only an aesthetic concept; it was an attribute of God. The good was beautiful, eliciting desire of possession, and thus enabling the soul to distain ephemeral pleasure to seek the higher good. Schaechter comments: “Did you ever stop to think that ornamentation became a crime when we declared that God was dead? We lost the ability to believe in metaphor.” The power of beauty enmeshes the senses, and was supremely functional in the production of commodities, to use the modern word. Art was not to please but to persuade. The most prized medieval object was the reliquary, valued beyond land, political power, or transferrable wealth. Indeed, possession of the reliquary actually enabled all of the above; it gave power to its possessor to establish status and draw clients to the site. These objects were intensely beautiful, invariably of precious metals, polished stones, and intricate design. They enshrined the bones of the saint, whose proximity insured protection and, ultimately, transformation. Often images of conflict and death appeared, glittering, on the exterior, announcing that within resided the most abject of detritus, human remains. Such contradiction deeply structures our experience viewing Schaechter’s production.
There is a depth of erudition and engagement. Literary themes show a complex network of many sources, including the Bible, classical myth, archeology, contemporary psychology, and fairy tales. In fact, a close engagement with almost any of her works conjures associations with themes outside of the artist’s conscious intention. They are made present by her ability to strike chords with similar expressions of the human condition. Acedia, for example, reflects on a condition that medieval commentators observed among professed religious; that the soul could feel a restlessness that prevented both work and prayer. Schaechter’s panel intimates this spiritual lethargy. Later, Acedia would transform into Sloth, one of the Seven Deadly Sins as depicted in Breughel’s 1557 engraving. I’ll take Schaechter over Breughel. Schaechter’s hapless figure, her arms extended, apparently robbed of the ability to act, floats in isolation among lush border panels. The fine mesh that acts as a veil in New Ghost, here wraps tightly around the figure, apparently stifling movement. The profusion of activity in the borders, pulsating stars, birds in flight, and burgeoning flowers jostling for positions, seems unreachable.
New Ghost, one of the most transfixing works in the show, presents an ethereal figure hovering against a starry sky above a modern city seen as if from an airplane. The panel is composed of two layers of glass. The body is on a blue flashed sheet, set behind a layer of red flashed glass, meticulously sand-blasted and then engraved to create the impression of a thin red mesh cloaking the figure. In Birth of Eve, a passive body folded onto itself tumbles into existence above a floral strewn carpet. Eve’s eerie combination of pinkish life and bluish decay is accomplished in three layers of flashed glass; the multi-hued flowers vary between two and three layers.
The artist loves the physical challenge of glass; with each piece she expresses a hope for “new avenues of technical exploration.” The very intractability of the material, necessitating the time-consuming effort to design and cut, paint and stain, layer, engrave, and solder draws out her creative juices. She notes that, “Ironically, I find my ‘artistic voice’ is liberated only by the severest of technical restrictions. The more monotonous and difficult a process, the more exciting I find it. Incidentally, for this reason I’ve always found the process of painting intolerable. Nothing is more horrible than a blank canvas and nothing more easily filled with meaningless, arty brush strokes.” Schaechter’s work follows the tradition of leaded and painted glass as developed in the Middle Ages, but embraces, as well, innovations of the twentieth century. She uses copper-foil instead of lead, which permits more variety in contour. Her works are not meant as barriers against the weather, and through use of the light box have the freedom to move location. In addition, innovations in paint and in shaping the glass by techniques such as sandblasting have enhanced the options for manipulation of color and depth.
Waiting Room, in a way, is one of her most technically traditional works, essentially vitreous paint applied to the surface of glass and fired, in this work, multiple times. We see four women seated on similar chairs, one following the other in horizontal format. Their dress varies: softly feminine with ruffled blouse and curled hair, seductive and independent with strapless dress, efficient in skirt and top, prim and reserved, covered from wrist to toe in black. No figure intersects with the other. Are the images four manifestations of the same woman, personifications of societal expectations, or a sequential passage of times in life? The artist explains that she produced the figures first, following with a matte background. When the background was completely dry, she sprayed on a soapy liquid. Once that layer was dry she worked a badger brush across the surface, a process that produced a pattern of blotchy but always unpredictable circles.
Her draftsmanship is close to the Northern Renaissance developments in the art of glass. The art of painting on glass actually is a predominantly graphic art; its detail is essentially monochromatic and laid over a color that is intrinsic to the glass. Both color and line thus retain their own distinct formal qualities. Roundels, such as the Judgment of Susanna (South Netherlands, circa 1510–20, on display in the Cloisters) consist of uncolored glass modulated by vitreous paint and silver stain, the paint applied in a variety of methods, from smooth, tonal washes, to stipple, to continuous lines. The paint can be subsequently modified by lifting off with a stick or needle or by smearing to blend the edges before firing. Waiting Room shows parallel richness in its monochromatic variation of value and line.
The microscopic life teaming in the borders surrounding Harpy, the dense vegetation of Fleeing Foxes, or the elision of tropical and sea flowers in Birth of Eve, remind us of the artist’s fascination with biology both as subject matter and as formal inspiration. Schaechter’s father’s career as a microbiologist is inescapable. The artist is an enthusiastic patron of the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, founded to educate future doctors about human pathologies. Amidst its extensive holdings, jars of fluid preserve embryos, parasites, and body parts such as the brains of epileptics and celebrity criminals.
Glass sculpture is a new development for the artist. The works are kiln cast and then hand-carved and vary between six to seventeen inches. The small-scale, translucent figures evoke the cast and cut Roman Imperial era artifacts on display at the Metropolitan Museum. Hand-sized and precious, the objects display an extraordinary diversity of iconography. Bog Mummy, in dark glass, immediately evokes the mysterious fascination with which we view mummified corpses. Across Europe, peat bog immersion has produced amazingly life-like remains through millennia of history. Despite the similar format of a small detached head, Anchoress projects an entirely different character. Calm and serene, the prominent bone structure of the face dialogues with the thick braids of the hair circling the forehead. The image is white and virginal, communicating the aura of sanctity associated with the self-secluded intensity of the medieval holy woman.
Reflecting on this welcome show, after her last at Claire Oliver, we should acknowledge a major site-specific work in the interim. Between 2010 and 2012, Judith Schaechter produced an extraordinary installation (now dismantled) at the Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia. The site is now a historic ruin, offering artists space for intervention. Schaechter confessed that it had been her “dream venue… a truly amazing place. Each cell has chapel-like proportions and a window aperture reminiscent of a cathedral architecture. Not to mention the beauty of the decay…” The skylight panels on the themes of the chained Andromeda, the fall of Icarus, the penitent Magdalene, Atlas shouldering the heavens, and Noah confined in the Arc, radiated color and narrative into spaces of isolation and of sadness. They, like all of her work call the viewer to meditate on the reality of human suffering and the hope of transcendence. This year Schaechter has been named a Fellow of the American Craft Council. Well deserved.