The Life Ecstatic: Judith Schaechter at Claire Oliver Gallery, 513 West 26th Street. New York, Sept 9 – October 22.
All artists strive to depict the human condition; Judith Schaechter does this in a series of extraordinary narratives in stained glass that address life, consciousness, and the unending richness of created form. A recipient of several National Endowment for the Arts awards as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship, Schaechter teaches in the Craft and Material Studies department at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia. Her recent show at Claire Oliver Gallery focuses on flight and space, actual or imagined in new and brilliant ways. Birds rule throughout! Schaechter admits that she has recently become a bird watcher although she always enjoyed animals, even as a teenager. She confides that a bird’s shape is appealing—a living form but without the complex appendages of arms and legs (hard to draw). Instead, they possess infinitely malleable wings to manipulate as clusters of feathers mounted on a cushion, a leaf, or even the plates of a tortoise shell.
And then, the female body! What label do we employ to address this humanoid form, alternately pained, wistful, pensive, mourning, and ecstatic: everyperson—everywoman—everyman? The very fact that for some she is a point of confusion, even awkwardness, allows us to perceive how difficult gender inclusion remains even for our seemingly progressive society. She is us—each one of us—no question. In The Life Ecstatic, the signature work of the show, this body is weightless, unfettered by time or gravity, enraptured. Mesmerized by reverie or perhaps sensation, or perhaps both, she is suspended in a blue droplet shape. Space is translucent, burgeoning with floral overgrowth. The proximity of forms does not oppress but provides a kind of restless, nervous joy. Can there ever be enough leaves, flowers, tendrils, buds, or insects, to assure the continuity of life? As in all her work, Schaechter suggests associations very possibly even outside of the artist’s conscious intention. Warm and cool colors evoke day and night and to anyone familiar with glass painting from the Middle Ages, the belief that matter consists of four basic elements. Here we see earth (female) in the solidity of the body painted in cool purples. The deeper blues evoke water (also female). The male elements of fire and air appear in orange and yellow. We recall Boethius: “Concord rules the elements with fair restraint: Moist things yield place to dry, cold and hot combine in friendship: flickering fire rises on high, and gross earth sinks down.1.
Schaechter’s work has been invariably intellectually rich, with multiple references to both visual and literary traditions. This new show does not fail the challenge. In Persephone‘s predominantly ochre color scheme, we see a section of earth, above and below the ground line. The cut-away view evokes our childhood memories of natural history museums. At the bottom, underground, a naked Persephone tugs on a long stem of a flower. The composition was inspired by the poem “Persephone Writes a Letter to Her Mother” by Alicia Stalling (Archaic Smile , 1999) with the lines: “ I miss you and think about you often./ Please send flowers. I am forgetting them./ If I yank them down by the roots, they lose their petals. . . ”
Mare Tenebrarum (Sea of Darkness) is taken from Edgar Allen Poe’s prose composition Eleonora of 1850: “They penetrate, however, rudderless or compassless into the vast ocean of the ‘light ineffable,’ and again, like the adventures of the Nubian geographer, “agressi sunt mare tenebrarum. . .” (they ventured out against the sea of darkness; Incidentally, the Nubian geographer is never precisely identified.) In the text, Poe speaks of understanding, especially perceived in ecstatic states: “They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their gray visions they obtain glimpses of eternity. . .” We see a female figure supine, gazing upward, and lashed to the back of a horse without saddle or bridle. The mare and rider (we have two females here) rush headlong through a profusion of wildflowers. There are no recession lines; the horse and rider are silhouetted against an unmodulated plane. Simplicity itself, the panel is constructed of two panes of glass, the upper layer flashed beige, the lower, a clear glass support. The upper layer is sandblasted and painted with a grey-black paint in various intensities. Schaechter communicates that the figure was inspired by the story of Odysseus’ encounter with the Sirens. Desiring to hear the Sirens’ call, but fearful of being seduced, Odysseus stopped the ears of his men with wax, and had them lash him to the mast as their ship passed the Sirens’ rock. The figure is calm, even suggesting here a wide-eyed ecstasy. Her hand is raised in a teaching gesture, evoking the attitudes of Christ or the Buddha, as well as sibyls or other female prophets known from many religious traditions.
Schaechter has long shown interest in the medieval practice of the anchoress, a woman selecting self-seclusion, usually in a tiny dwelling abutting a holy site, such as a church. The artist has previously made glass sculpture on the theme. Her 2016 panel Anchoress shows a honeycomb patterned cell enclosing a figure bent over in a fetal position. Her long flowing hair marks her as female. Above her bursts a riot of birds, flowers, pods, and leaves competing for space against a dark sky. This striking juxtaposition is bordered by precisely measured squares of gray textured stone. Solid and void, enclosure and freedom, movement and stillness, interior and exterior; all are in dialogue.
Her Tiered World shows three vaguely concentric ovals against a starry backdrop. In the central oval lies the everyperson on a carpet of light blue flowers. She takes the exact position as the figure within The Life Ecstatic, but reclining. Thus we discover an element of Schaechter’s creative process. The artist will frequently develop an image as a fully completed segment of glass that may rest within her workshop for some time. In what may seem like a process of birth, at a propitious time, the figure is then given context. This comparison also reveals the technique of plated layers of glass. Tiered World uses both a red and blue layer to which Schaechter adds yellow by applying silver-stain. The cast shadow painted in grey over the flowered carpet emphasizes the weight and gravity of the figure. Schaechter confides that Tiered World reflects a traditional narrative of the human condition, our concepts of heaven, hell and earth, but it also suggests the Freudian interpretation of our modern selves as id, ego, and superego. This theme is addressed again in Human/Nature which is divided in half, nature to the right and human to the left. As in Anchoress, birds soar free through foliage, in contrast to a single standing figure completely swathed in headscarf and robe who holds flowers above a vase. On is reminded of Botticelli’s complementary Birth of Venus and Primavera. After sea-born Venus is received by earth, she is clothed—and “human.”
One of the most common reactions to Schaechter’s stained glass is amazement at its intricacy; this is highly labor-intensive work. The artist has explained: “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 . . . easily filled. . .” These segments of glass are held together with a technique of copper foil and solder. In ambient light, the structure is more easily apparent. Schaechter poses next to Odalisque, where the solder lines are silver and the Victorian lace veiling the figure appears as a matte surface. One can perceive that the lace is painted on a surface layer over a second layer containing the figures. Circular holes drilled in the base layer display inserts held in place with copper-foil. In transmitted light, the possibilities of uncolored and colored glass are more apparent. The segment framing the figure in The Life Ecstatic layers red and blue flashed glass. The dominant red is achieved by removing almost all of the blue layer; silver stain and grey-brown paint appear on both the red, blue, and the uncolored glass.
By happy coincidence, the Met Breuer has mounted an exhibition of Paul’s Klee’s works from the museum’s Berggruen Klee Collection “Humor and Fantasy” on view until December 31. It was a joyous moment to realize that these artists share some engaging directions. Both balance a disarming simplicity that addresses monumental questions with humor but also poignancy. Formally Klee’s palette often recalls Schaechter’s. Klee often uses water color, a medium where the ground, the white of the paper, penetrates the pigment overlay. Schaechter also works with color perceived through light. After my confrontation with Schaechter’s aviary, I looked with renewed sensitivity on Klee’s Falling Bird (Abstürzender Vogel: 1984.208.4) and Strange Garden (Seltsamer Garten: 1984.531) where bird heads, wings, faces, and leaves coalesce into new creatures—or their appendages – nonetheless trailing their past like a genetic markers. Viewing Judith Schaechter’s work always leads to new discoveries.
- Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, Book IV, Poem 6, trans. Richard Green. Macmillan: New York, 1962, 96-97 ↩