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ROCHESTER, New York — Judith Schaechter’s stained glass works reach so far in different directions that trying to classify them becomes a taxonomy problem. Her medium, techniques, and references are deeply rooted in Medieval and Renaissance art, but her execution, agenda, and subject matter are unusual for stained glass. Her work is based in craft, but her finished products are highly conceptual. Her imagery and symbols are both personal and universal. Even the title of her retrospective at the University of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery, Path to Paradise, contains a kind of contradiction, alluding to a quote from Dante’s Divine Comedy: The path to paradise begins in hell.
Religious rapture is an excellent frame through which to view Schaechter’s stained glass compositions — most of which are not windows, but light boxes. (Even those that begin as windows eventually become light boxes.) MAG’s Curator in Charge/Curator of American Art, Jessica Marten, developed the retrospective with Schaechter over the past four years. This show furthers Marten’s reputation — acquired with a 2018 retrospective of Rochester artist Josephine Tota — as a champion of weird, ecstatic, preternaturally driven female artists. In Marten’s lecture on Path to Paradise, she beautifully delineated Schaechter’s knack for deeply transforming her references into expressions of personal experience and handwork. It is the kind of devotion to practice that lifts art from profession to calling.
The exhibition’s centerpiece (which initiated the relationship between Schaechter and Marten) is “The Battle of Carnival and Lent” (2010-11). This six-paned, 56 by 56-inch work is one of 17 windows that comprised an installation by Schaechter originally sited at the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. The tumult in the scene plays out as a maximalist struggle between virtue and vice, the grotesque and the beautiful, the celebratory and the punitive. While it references the similarly titled 1559 painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, it shows an understated yet undeniable affinity with the work of Hieronymus Bosch. Schaechter’s artworks demand slow looking and repeat viewings. It is almost impossible to absorb “The Battle of Carnival and Lent” in a single viewing — and this is just one of some 40 works by Schaechter, drawn together from 35 different collections.
“Still Life with Bankrobber” (1996) exemplifies Schaechter’s obsequious attention to detail: on a white tile floor, a prostrate bank robber is surrounded by a mask, gloves, a gun, and other sundries. Taking in the narrative might initially distract from the jarring geometrics of the composition; each of the small, hexagonal tiles that compose the background of the image — there are hundreds — is slightly different because of the perspective. Even in works in which elements repeat (sometimes including entire figures), the artist takes on the arduous task of cutting a unique shape each time.
One notable exception to this is “Specimens” (2004), which features a menagerie of Schaechter’s odd little creatures, first hand-drawn and then etched into multiple layers of glass to achieve different color and texture effects, suspended in an eight-by-six-inch grid of identical specimen jars. This is one of the few works made with an assistant — a process that ultimately has proved incompatible with her hands-on working method — but it is an excellent showcase of Schaechter’s powers of engagement through pattern, color, and “militant ornamentalism” (a phrase she credits to her friend, Philadelphia artist Adam Wallacavage).
Schaechter emerges as a powerful feminist voice as she teases out the female figure in art history and re-presents her as radically complex — complexity being the one of the greatest luxuries denied to women across the history of humanity. Even her segregation of stained glass from religious institutions reads as a feminist action, in the context of Schaechter’s vision. Unlike the sunlit glass art in houses of worship, Schaechter’s boxes — their form an allusion to both female biology and the glory box as hope chest — are removed from the unblinking eye of a patriarchal system. Hers is a compelling world, and one nearly impossible to comprehend in full or look away from.
The Path to Paradise: Judith Schaechter’s Stained-Glass Art is scheduled to continue through May 24 at Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester (500 University Ave., Rochester, New York). The exhibition was curated by Jessica Marten.
Editor’s note: Please note that physical viewing hours for this exhibition have been temporarily suspended in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Cognizant of the importance of discussions around art and culture during this time, we encourage readers to explore the exhibition virtually here as many of us continue to self-isolate.