By Tom Wachunas
“What you see is what you see.” - Frank Stella –
“The best works are often those with the fewest and simplest elements…until you look at them a little more, and things start to happen.” - Clyfford Still –
EXHIBITION: Constructed Spaces: Paintings by George Schroeder, on view at MAIN HALL ART GALLERY, KENT STATE UNIVERSITY AT STARK (lower level of Main Hall), THROUGH SEPTEMBER 22. Gallery hours are Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to Noon
Things happen in George Schroeder’s paintings. Or not. They speak. Or keep their secrets. Are they generous revelations of knowable, familiar things, or silent witnesses to mysteries? That would largely depend upon viewers’ expectations, focus and intentionality in assessing the elegant geometric abstractions that Schroeder offers.
First, the matter of expectations. In closely observing public assessments of Modernist/Postmodernist abstraction over the past 30 years or so, it has occurred to me that for many viewers, non-objective painting often poses what might be insurmountable if not divisive challenges. It seems to me that within this demographic there is the idea that painters (indeed all artists?) are somehow duty-bound to impart easily understandable or inspiring pictures about our time and our world. Art as a user-friendly, cultural opiate. In this digital era of instantaneously available knowledge, it’s easy to become all too comfortable with not having to work very hard for our answers (or our entertainment). We seem to be increasingly complacent if not downright lazy when it comes to exercising our innate intellectual capacities. And to the extent that those capacities become atrophied, our ability to recognize even the possibility of experiencing emotional connections to abstract art is likewise limited.
Now, the matter of focus and intentionality. Sometimes we viewers can be a woefully undisciplined lot as to the actual time we spend examining nonrepresentational art - the time to do the work of really looking and finally seeing. Failure to fully engage our work of looking, which is itself a voluntary discipline, is to deny ourselves the rewards of the pure “art experience” that so many abstractionists (particularly Minimalists and Color Field painters) have historically desired for us.
In his web site statement, Schroeder writes, “My recent paintings are improvised, to some degree, over a scaffold of vertical and horizontal lines. I put something down and respond to it, trying one thing and another until I sense where the painting wants to go.”
His “lines” can just as well be read as juxtaposed planes, in high contrast, that interact in a variety of ways. These interactions – intuitive decisions on the artist’s part, certainly - imbue the paintings with a fascinating formal intelligence that balances rhythmic movement with stillness. And amid all the precision of flat, hard-edged geometric design there is also a richly subtle and playful spatial balancing – a gentle pushing and pulling between positive and negative planes.
Stretch your imagination a little further, and you could conceivably view these works as uncomplicated melodies with strong, resonant harmonies. Schroeder’s spartan, distilled palette of tinted grayish neutrals alternated with deeper blues and/or blacks is, interestingly enough, neither morose nor threatening. Instead, the analogous schemes are very effective in exuding something akin to contemplative musicality.
It’s a sensibility additionally enhanced by Schroeder’s quietly regulated surfaces. He applies acrylic paint with drywall blades or cardboard squeegees for a controlled/controllable finish. There are no frenetic gestures, no impasto brush marks, and nothing of the notoriously plastic patina that acrylics so often deliver. The apparent rigidity of formal construction in these canvases is softened by their ultra-matte look. Schroeder’s paint application allows for delightfully integrated passages wherein the top skin of color has been uniformly scraped away to reveal the grainy tactility of the canvas, tinted earlier in the painting process with shadows of underlying colors.
What finally emerges from these works is a lyrical architecture of sorts, heraldic in its simplicity, and intuitively engineered to conjure moments of serene equilibrium.
Photos, top to bottom: The City I, Citadel II, Untitled (Cement)