Graffiti 2.0: Jeff Schwarz’s Ceramic Abstractions

Jeff Schwarz, “Tile S/N 2015_12_17” (2015), ceramic, 43 x 27 1/8 inches (all images via

To be clear, Jeff Schwarz doesn’t use paint on his ceramic paintings. The marks, swipes, smears, and sprays across his surprisingly versatile surfaces are created entirely with glaze, slip, and clay. While that technical distinction may seem beside the point as you puzzle over his intimate distillations of the urban environment, the difference is not academic.

In STACKS, his striking new show at Outlet Fine Art in Bushwick, Schwarz presents two basic shapes, the cylindrical “Stack” (as it is called in the artist’s titling system) and the rectangular “Tile.” Most are mid-size (two to three feet in height), though a few are smaller, lined up on a tabletop, and there’s one very large piece standing on the floor. The surfaces are covered with a profligacy of mark-making that seems to splinter, scorch and vaporize the ordinarily impervious surface of clay. Some works even venture into the realm of trompe-l’oeil, with opaque strokes of terra cotta giving way to deep space teeming with ethereal lines.

Jeff Schwarz, “Stack S/N 2015_7_24” (2015), ceramic, 19 x 12 x 12 inches

It matters that the markings are glaze, clay and slip (often pumped from a spray applicator) because the consistency between the pigmentation and the underlying form (clay on clay, rather than paint on clay) imparts an organic unity that the artist subverts to disorienting effect.

The categorical titles “Stack” and “Tile,” which are followed by inventory-like designations such as “S/N 2015_7_24,” relate to the modular structure that’s implied in some works and literal in others. The cylindrical modules are stacked most dramatically in “Stack S/N 2015_12_23” (2015), the seven-and-a-half-foot-tall showstopper dominating Outlet’s front room. Its title and stovepipe form evoke the smokestacks emblematic of America’s past industrial might, while the graffiti-like lines covering its surface suggest the abandonment of such Rust Belt cities as Braddock, Detroit, and Flint.

But that reading goes only so far. The markings in Schwarz’s work, while invoking the spirit of graffiti, never venture into mimicry. The lines are too attenuated and too resolutely abstract, trailing up and down the length of the form without coalescing into a word or image. The result is a streetwise lyricism echoing with the Beat rhythms of AbEx, the Diamond Dog days of New York’s ‘70s slide, and the raw fabric of the city just beyond the current wave of homogenization.

Jeff Schwarz, “Stack S/N 2015_12_23,” (2015), ceramic, 91 x 28 1⁄2 x 31 1⁄2 inches

The surface of “Stack S/N 2015_12_23” is composed of three distinct layers: a top coat of lines snaking across the entire form; a hard-edged, opaque skin; and areas that seem to open into deep space, where dozens of translucent lines writhe and converge.

The effect isn’t that of a palimpsest, where the overlays indicate a history of afterthoughts and erasures. Rather, the determining concept seems to be a structured improvisation proceeding from a purposefully restricted visual vocabulary.

Schwarz kicks his circumscribed choices into an array of formally imaginative variations: colors that bleed from green to rust with the sweet slickness of graffiti fill (“Stack S/N 2015_5_25,” 2015); rectangles cut through cylinder walls to create literal, rather than simulated, windows into space (“Stack S/N 2015_7_24,” “Stack S/N 2015_4_30,” both 2015); swooping, expressionistic brushstrokes that dissolve the terra cotta plane like a coat of Zip-Strip, revealing faintly glowing streaks in the far distance (“Tile S/N 2015_12_9,” 2015).

Most of the “Stack” sculptures are comprised of a single component despite their apparent openness to additional elements; all of the “Tile” works, however, are sectional in one form or another. Sometimes the adjoining squares and rectangles, such as the ones making up the above-mentioned “Tile S/N 2015_12_9,” are subsumed into the image; elsewhere, as in the mistily colored “Tile S/N 2015_12_9” (2015), the black, linear separations between the parts are so pronounced that they become the overriding design element.

“Tile S/N 2015_12_1_1” and “Tile S/N 2015_12_17” (both 2015) are very different from the other “Tile” paintings in the show, in that their sections are made up of long, vertical strips whose surfaces ripple like corrugated steel. The first of the two takes its cues from the triple-layered surfaces of the “Stacks,” although the middle stratum is translucent rather than opaque, allowing the black and blue lines squirming beneath to shine through.

Installation view of ‘Jeff Schwarz | STACKS’ at Outlet Fine Art

“Tile S/N 2015_12_17,” however, remains an unyielding surface with no apertures, real or illusionistic, opening into the distance. Its swarm of lines lies on top of the corrugation, slightly corroding its silvery blue patina here and there. The lower third of the piece, as well as the vertical sections to the right, left and center, are blackened as if they’d been doused in gasoline and set aflame.

This piece, with its associations to shantytowns, urban decay, civil unrest, and armed conflict, forces a second look at the other works in the show and the implied violence of their jagged streaks and empty windows. Schwarz’s combinatory and contradictory practice squeezes the hard nut of reality through a formal filter that transforms a familiar device, the graffiti tag, into a form of pure abstraction wrapped in historically aware quotation marks.

Jeff Schwarz, “Tile S/N 2015_12_9” (2015), ceramic, 39 x 24 inches

The slashes and splashes feel qualitatively different from those employed by expressionist painters past and present. Their translation into pigmented clay makes it impossible to look at them without sensing a material distance from the feverishly reworked surfaces that such markings imply. They are not so much exposed as tropes, in a neo-conceptual sense, as they are engaged as signs evidencing how much of the past has been absorbed into the present.

Schwarz’s sculptures, despite their intimations of vanished epochs and banished grittiness, succumb neither to nostalgia nor urban chic. They remain firmly in the apocalyptic now, at once self-contained and, in their actual or implied modality, inherently unstable, harboring the potential for random rearrangements.

Perhaps it’s this duality, this instability, that feels so centered about them, as paradoxical as that is to say. Rock-solid yet melting into air, if they bestow any certainty at all, it’s the inescapable capriciousness of fate.

Jeff Schwarz | STACKS continues at Outlet Fine Art (253 Wilson Ave, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through February February 6.

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