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From an interview with Alyssa Fanning that appeared in BOMB (August 2013), I learned that Zoe Pettijohn Schade’s research interests led her to the Bibliothèque Forney in Paris, France. There, she was able to study and copy from its collection of rare, original drawings and gouaches of textile design made by anonymous artists dating from the 1700s. Her study of pattern — repetition and difference — is driven by various factors. One of them, as she states on her artist’s website, is her belief that:
[…] forms of repetition soothe the eye into accepting increasing amounts of information, expanding the space of the picture plane. As the layers multiply and become denser, the embedded and abstracted images rise to the eye in their own time like memories.
Bringing together layers of diverse images, Schade — a postmodern Ariadne — is able to construct and negotiate a labyrinth of visual possibilities without losing her way.
Ever since I first saw Schade’s work, just a few weeks ago, my mind kept returning to “Melencolia I” (1514), the engraving by Albrecht Durer. In fact, just before starting this review, I looked it up once again. While Schade’s gouaches and Durer’s engraving appear to have nearly nothing in common, I hope to make it apparent why I have connected them, rather than pointing to the more obvious link between her recent gouaches and vanitas paintings in which a skull is prominently featured.
The seven works in the exhibition Zoe Pettijohn Schade: Shifting Sets at Kai Matsumiya (March 30 – May 12, 2018) demand that the viewer slow down and surrender to a long scrutiny that is both unsettling and wondrous. We look and we look at ourselves looking at what is arrayed before us: conflict arrows, gravestones, feathers, silhouettes of a toy soldier pointing a rifle, stuffed monkeys, ruined statuary, moiré and marbling, and much else. There is a visual immediacy to her images that goes beyond their sources: we do not necessarily need to know where they come from.
According to the gallery’s press release states, the exhibition includes two new works plus “all five large paintings that Pettijohn Schade has made since 2005.” While Schade works primarily in gouache, she also uses gold, silver, palladium, copper, composite, and abalone leaf. I don’t think it is far fetched to think of Schade’s works on paper — some of which measure 40 by 60 inches — as illuminated manuscript pages. This becomes more evident in the two recent works where one of the patterns she uses evokes the marbled endpapers we see in late 19th-century books.
I also suspect that the two recent works are evidence that Schade is changing direction and moving into what would be new territory for her — a compressed field of patterns that she adroitly superimposes upon each other, arriving at a visual density that borders on overload but never crosses over. The results are enthralling and masterful.
It is one thing to get lost in a meticulous, intricate work of overlapping abstract patterns and quite another to have it look back at you in the guise of mournful monkeys and the decapitated heads of medieval statuary, with skulls and candy-colored gravestones peeking through the dizzying welter of interpenetrating images. In the two recent works, “Crowd of Crowds: Obedience Scale” (2018) and “Crowd of Crowds: 100th Monkey” (2017), the colors are brighter and the patterning denser and more insistently all-over as they stretch from edge to edge and top to bottom.
In “Obedience Scale,” feathers interlock with silhouettes of soldiers and gray monkeys peering out from black-tipped red and blue feathers. As the feathers descend, a number turn black or gray, or the pink washes out. In some cases, an outline of a monkey is filled in with partial images of pink, pale blue, and green gravestones. By flipping the various layers of images, Schade interrupts the pattern so that we began looking for differences and disruptions within the composition.
What is a marvel to behold is the degree to which Schade tilts the entire arrangement of repeated images toward breakdown without sliding into total chaos. Instead, through strategic disruption augmented by the increased use of gray along the bottom of the gouache, she turns the composition into what felt like an intensely focused reflection on mortality. This concentrated gaze was heightened by the images of skulls prominently embedded amid the patterns, just above the bottom edge and more or less in the middle. The proximity of ruined statuary heads, which are rendered in long vertical strokes that slightly blur the image, is disquieting to say the least.
Many of the images seen in “Obedience Scale” are also present in “Crowd of Crowds: 100th Monkey.” Finished the year before “Obedience Scale,” the colors are brighter, and the sectioned views of colored gravestones are more apparent. In this work the mournful monkeys seem to be beseeching the viewer. Working at a tortoise’s pace, Schade surely must be hyperaware of time passing. In a world that prizes speed, she moves according to her own internal rhythm, caring little for art world fashion. If she is allied with anyone, it is with the anonymous artists who made the original drawings for the Bibliothèque Forney textile designs.
Schade’s consciousness of time’s winged chariot radiates throughout the work, offset by the evident joy she takes in being precise and in control of every inch of the surface. Everywhere you look, the work is marked by unerring decisions and choices, an unrivaled intensity of concentration. She recognizes that she is shaping her passage through time, even as she acknowledges its corrosive effects.
In Durer’s “Melencolia I,” the winged figure — a personification of both Melancholy and the creative artist — sits with her head resting on her hand; in the other she is holding a caliper, while other instruments associated with measurement and geometry surround her. If the figure seems stuck, unable to take action, the engraving is a masterpiece of rigorous attention and absolute precision.
While it might seem that another of Durer’s masterpieces, the engraving of “Saint Jerome in his Study” (1514) might be a more apt metaphor for what Schade is up to, I think the reason “Melencolia” came to mind is because it struck me that the artist is showing us what is passing through Melencolia’s mind — the sense of being nearly overwhelmed by the world. The feathers descending in Schade’s “Obedience Scale” evoke the fate of Icarus who flew too close the sun.
However, instead of succumbing to the chaos of everyday life and the maelstrom of images coming at her from every direction, Schade slows everything down: she takes stock of what is aiming at her, but, unlike the monkey, never turns mournful. She celebrates the inevitable because she recognizes how much it fuels her desire to make the most of every minute of her time.
Zoe Pettijohn Schade: Shifting Sets continues at Kai Matsumiya (153 ½ Stanton Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 12.