Most of the drawings that fill Properties of Dust and Smoke, pt. 2, a layered, quirky, perplexing, and altogether stunning exhibition at McKenzie Fine Art on the Lower East Side, were made by the Alabama-based artist Pete Schulte during a two-month residency at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas.
In July, he presented Properties of Dust and Smoke, pt 1 in Marfa as part of the gig, in which framed drawings on the walls were complemented by unframed works laid out on two unpainted pine tabletops and across a low, long, narrow platform a few inches from the floor.
For the McKenzie show, all of the drawings are set into white shadow box frames and mounted on the wall. Schulte, however, is still manipulating the gallery space by positioning three totem-like drawings — more than 90 inches tall but barely two inches wide — at distinct intervals across the front room’s north wall, dividing it into four discrete arenas of play.
Within these four spaces, Schulte has hung 11 drawings: the first three, to the left, are arranged in a straightforward column, while the others are off-kilter but hardly random — their placement merges intuition and precision into an absolute rightness.
The north wall installation displays a keen sculptural and architectural intelligence — it’s no surprise that the artist also makes objects and wall drawings — that carries through the rest of the exhibition. The drawings themselves, which at first seem to be easily apprehended and quickly digested, demand a deeper reflection on Schulte’s choices and motives.
I referred to the exhibition as layered, quirky, and perplexing because, moving from individual work to individual work, we encounter a meticulously crafted series of graphite picture-worlds, alternately illusionist and anti-illusionist, organic and diagrammatic, spatially ambiguous and assertively flat. These continuously shifting forms might suggest window slats, ornamental medallions, lamplit highways, endless stairwells, and electrical conduits.
Elsewhere, things get more literal — silhouettes of pebbles lined up like the vertebrae of a knobby spine; flashes of light bouncing off shelf-like planes; and a stylized ouroboros, whose alchemical redolence dates back to ancient Egypt, signaling the artworks’ subterranean historicism.
In other words, Schulte’s imagery, flitting across an array of stylistic approaches, assumes a double life, paying homage to reductionism while subverting it with a nimble postmodern capriciousness.
Take the graphite-and-ink drawings collectively called “Untitled (Marfa Group)” (2019) and numbered I through VI. These works are arranged on the wall in a two-by-three grid, so that they read as a narrative sequence.
The “Marfa Group” drawings are all made on square, sepia-toned sheets of paper. Each contain an oval in the center, and at eight points along the circumference of each oval, beams of light stream toward the four corners of the sheet and the midpoints of its borders.
The first oval is toned light gray, while the second and third are bisected between light gray and black (horizontally and vertically, respectively). The fourth is composed of four sectors, with dark gray added to the palette, while number V is divided further, with eight wedges in grays and black that appear to corrugate the form, fracturing the flatness of the picture plane. The sixth oval, like the first, is unitary, but black.
This sequence follows a process-oriented strategy, but the odd illusionism of the light beams pivots the group away from a strictly formalist reading: the pictures are inherently abstract yet heavily suggest a connection to tactile reality. The translucent membrane between the non-objective and the figural conjures a kind of magic that propels the composition’s architectonic solidity and graphic zip into an idealization of the ordinary.
This interchange between the emphatically abstract and the willfully referential helps to parse the doubling of Schulte’s imagery, in which the pervasive monochrome and commanding geometry remain steeped in reductionist rigor, while the simple, bold, often bright shapes invoke the mass-media sources of Pop: an interlocking of classical Modernism (Suprematism, Purism, Neoplasticism, Minimalism, Conceptualism) with the vernacular of advertisements, comic books, and industrial design. Sometimes a bit of colored pigment is added, a blue or a pink, which juices the sweetness of the vernacular a little further, while creating a visual shimmer hinting at a spiritual plane.
In his Seven Discourses on Art (1778), the English painter Joshua Reynolds advanced the idea of a “grand style” discerned from the works of the most admired masters of the High Renaissance. To Reynolds’s eye, the grand style was a classicized aesthetic in which “perfect form is produced by leaving out particularities, and retaining only general ideas.” This order of idealization, which would be adopted by Georgian-period portraitists, became known as the Grand Manner.
The drawings in Properties of Dust and Smoke, pt. 2, with their distillations of past styles (one of Schulte’s totemic pieces echoes Constantin Brancusi’s 1918 sculpture, “Endless Column”) grafted onto oblique references to contemporary reality, constitute a type of Grand Manner for the 21st century, a body of work characterized by, in Reynolds’s terms, “elevation and dignity.”
As anachronistic as it sounds, the elevation and dignity of the forms in Schulte’s drawings are the source of the Apollonian, sanctuary-like effect permeating the gallery. With their tangible sense of simplicity and light, these enigmatic, curiously familiar images in their white frames transform the space into a refuge as comforting as it is out of sync with the chaff of everyday life — a necessary point of stillness amid the unspooling disarray.
Properties of Dust and Smoke, pt. 2, continues at McKenzie Fine Art (55 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 21.
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