At the far end of the main gallery Thomas Scheibitz mounted the painting “Untitled (No. 632)” on a slant within an inset in the wall of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. Its four rectangles, thinly painted in rose and violet washes or a combination of violet, green and brown, with varying densities of white brushed along the edges, were simultaneously divided and framed by a wide band that is partially painted industrial gray with some of it khaki.
The diagonal placement in an inset suggested that it was a surrogate window (or painting) in the midst of falling, but not, as some have claimed about painting’s status, felled. Instead of repeating this commonplace view of painting, Scheibitz isolated “Untitled (No. 632)” from the other, conventionally mounted paintings, including a tondo, that were spaced widely apart on both of the gallery’s adjacent walls. The partially gray band and the white paint brushed along the edges suggested that the painting was unfinished, that more needed to be done. Even in this diminished state, painting’s task remains open.
Scheibitz’s willingness to reframe a line of philosophical and aesthetic thought typifies his approach. Instead of turning the thought into a style or a habitual and predictable gesture, he finds a way to examine painting’s contested status from another direction. There is something smart, funny and poetic about the way he undoes the Bauhaus’s belief in rational principles regarding creation.
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The largest painting in Scheibitz’s recent exhibition of paintings, sculptures, collages and prints was A Panoramic VIEW of Basic Events, which was also the title of the exhibition. Mounted in the small gallery space furthest from the entrance, viewers would see it only if they walked through the expansive main gallery.
The simplest way to think about A Panoramic VIEW of Basic Events, which is divided into nine more-or-less discrete, horizontal rectangles, each of which contains a distinct pictorial possibility, is that it is engaged in a lively dialogue with the sixteen paintings in the main gallery space. It is not a culmination of the smaller paintings, but an incomplete index of the “basic events” they evoke.
In A Panoramic VIEW of Basic Events, Scheibitz’s palette is a juxtaposition of grisaille and off-kilter primaries, as if mixed by a highly precocious elementary school child. He used a simple geometric vocabulary of rectangles, triangles, trapezoids, and circles, with a few additions. There are flat shapes and schematic, three-dimensional forms, such as the cube in the upper left hand rectangle and a frontal view of an open, peaked roof-like structure in the upper right. The yellow circle in the top middle rectangle could be a clock or circular fan casting a stylized shadow, but the white circle in the bottom left remains abstract.
The viewer has to be attentive to the visual contradictions and recombinatory aspects of the forms and structures. In two areas, one shape can be read as extending into another, and near the center, an open, diagonally tilting rectangle — an echo of the falling painting in the main gallery — both pierces the picture plane and is flattened by it. By dividing the painting into nine rectangles, the artist subverts the idea of a wide-angled view. The shapes and forms within the rectangles are closely cropped, and they sit in a very shallow space. There is no panoramic or comprehensive view, no vantage point.
Scheibitz wants the viewer to make distinctions rather than just look. Out of such seeing one might become aware of habits of looking, the commonplace of seeing but not noticing.
Along with A Panoramic VIEW of Basic Events in the small gallery, there was a print and a tall, narrow, partially painted, greenish-yellow sculpture, Standard, which had been placed on a pedestal. From the side, Standard looked like an oversized, Art Deco cash register with a row of pom-pom-like balls attached to the front. Depending on your perspective, Standard’s compressed width allowed it to oscillate between silhouette and volume, 2D and 3D, an interchange that was treated as a formal issue in many of the paintings, including A Panoramic VIEW of Basic Events. But it is also more than a formal issue for Scheibitz. He recognizes that the movement between 2D (the world we are capable of inventing and controlling) and 3D (the physical world we inhabit and cannot control) is problematic.
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The artist’s translation of source into paint or object is never literal or direct. Transformation is the key to Scheibitz’s work — he wants to arrive at something palpable that escapes definition. In doing so, he opens up a space where we can consider the relationship between seeing and naming.
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Four photographic prints, which relate to the one in the side room, are mounted on the wall leading to the main gallery entrance. Each print is a collection of images from various sources, including reproductions, photographs, pages taken from different kinds of magazines — whatever caught the artist’s eye. They are arranged in a way that most likely means something to Scheibitz, but any underlying logic eludes detection. Out of this collection of seemingly random images comes the rest of the paintings, which are modest in scale, untitled, and numbered.
The paintings undo figure-ground relationships, conflating flat areas with thin dimensional forms. It is an unstable realm where forms appear threatened, but seem relatively cheerful about their unavoidable demise. “Untitled (No. 628)” was a circle trying to eat itself. ”Untitled (No. 623)” was a gray, mist-like ghost with a Munch-like head standing in front a pale blue mirror (or is it a monochrome painting with a thick black frame?). “Untitled (No. 624)” looked like a yellow apple core with two red, beady eyes, or a piece of cheese standing on its edge with two bites taken out of it. (The contour line and suggestion of volume shares something with the early drawings of Claes Oldenberg, when he was still inventive in his observation and depiction of common things). Simultaneously abstract and representational, “Untitled (No. 624)” occupied a zone of experience where we can’t quite name what we are looking at.
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There is a pleasure to Scheibitz’s work that engages both eye and mind. The nature of the encounter is not simple. In his poem, “Man Carrying Thing,” Wallace Stevens opens with this line: “The poem must resist the intelligence/Almost successfully.” (This is what Oldenberg couldn’t sustain.) It is what Scheibitz does so well, and what he shares with Thomas Nozkowski. Both artists make what initially appear to be viewer-friendly paintings based on things they have observed, but they decline to show us a nameable world. This is what is ethical about Scheibitz’s abstractions. He refuses to let us think that we can have important insights into the human condition whenever we feel like it, that all we have to do is walk into a gallery. Plus, his humor is not a form of distraction.
Thomas Scheibitz: A Panoramic VIEW of Basic Events took place at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (521 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) from January 12 to February 18.
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