I was intrigued, surprised, and, most of all, thoroughly convinced by Pete Schulte’s first exhibition at McKenzie Fine Art, Properties of Dust and Smoke, pt. 2 (October 30–December 21, 2019). Working with graphite and occasional traces of muted color, Schulte’s 37 drawings in the exhibition ranged from 6 by 6 inches to an eccentric format of 2 by 90 inches. The vocabulary encompassed geometric shapes, rounded organic forms, architectural motifs, and arcane signs. Compositionally, the works went from flat, anti-illusionistic surfaces to elusive illusionistic spaces. Looking closely, the viewer is likely to recognize a quirky amalgamation of the affections, ranging from Constantin Brâncuși and Brice Marden to Emma Kunz and Paul Feeley, from reductive modular forms to bulbous Pop allusions, and from Suprematism to cartoons.
I like that Schulte combined seemingly incommensurable motifs derived from reductive geometric abstraction or decorative architectural details, that he could be self-contained or referential or both in the same drawing. I like the way that in some drawings a faint cloud of graphite dust had spread beyond the drawn form, like an exhalation. I like the way that each drawing pulls you closer and invites you to slow down your looking and contemplate carefully arranged accumulations of black and gray dust, to notice the shift in the density of the form and the pressure of the hand, to be open to contrast and tonal shifts, and the granular surface of a worked form.
Committing yourself to work on a drawing that is taller than you and perhaps your reach is a challenge that few artists take up, but to limit that same drawing’s width to two inches requires a highly focused attention, particularly if you proceed by shape and do not rely on gesture to help you move across the drawing. It is the kind of attention that places Schulte in the same company as Piet Mondrian, Myron Stout, Susan York, James Siena, Catherine Murphy, Dawn Clements, Harry Roseman, and Vija Celmins.
This is why I went to the exhibition Pete Schulte: The Train and the River, at McKenzie Fine Art (October 29-December 19, 2021). The synthesis of rigor and quirkiness was most apparent in the wall sculpture “Slow Train (Braid VIII)” (2021), which is composed of a pair of overlapping turtle shells the artist has cast into unsealed bronze.
Schulte repeats the pair of turtle shells vertically until they become a column on the wall. (The larger shell appears to be humping the smaller one emerging from beneath it.) Running down the length of the shiny bronze is a repeated white, vertebrae-like shape the artist has painted. As the title suggests, “Slow Train (Braid VIII)” evokes a train moving across a flat landscape and a braid of hair.
“Slow Train (Braid VIII)” is also a picture of a spine that has been painted on a spine-like arrangement of two joined turtle shells. It doesn’t feel like he set out to make this work, but rather that he discovered it was possible. It is not an expression of will, but of being open to the world and the things you encounter.
This is what I mean when I say that Schulte merges severity and eccentricity in a single work and arrives at something uncanny. One of the pleasures of his objects and drawings is that they simultaneously invite and resist interpretation. The best ones are mysterious and materially sensual. In them, we see Schulte’s sensitivity to light, which is usually hushed, diffuse, and on the brink of fading away.
Swollen, tongue-like forms; narrow, straight bands drawn horizontally and vertically; inverted triangles; wavy bands; and ellipses are just some of the elements in Schulte’s visual vocabulary. He uses graphite, ink, and pigment. At times the drawings work by contrast (black and white), at other times by tone (different intensities of black and gray, with white and perhaps a toned sheet of paper). Solid and transparent forms abut and overlap each other, like shoppers at a Christmas sale.
Schulte’s forms remind me of columns, veils, windows, archaic signs, elongated bubbles (like those in a lava lamp or a cartoon), and heraldic emblems. The oddness of works such as “Slow Train (Braid VIII)” and the tall, narrow drawings that he had in both his first New York exhibition and this one bespeak an artist pursuing his own trajectory, making drawings that transform the rhythmic repetition of the Blues (he lives in Alabama), love of Brâncuși’s modular forms, and desire for elevation into the ether, into something all his own. While he has developed a slowly expanding storehouse of shapes and signs, as well as oscillated between abstraction and figuration, purity and allusion, he has not developed a signature style. He seems at once focused and restless, determined and open.
It is a radical act to make drawing an integral part of your daily practice. I thought about this when the pandemic became official in March 2020 and the lockdown began. Which artists would continue to make work without interruption because they did not rely on studio assistants and fabricators, and were not dependent on the labor of others to make their work? Which artists are truly autonomous in that regard and do not survive on the work of others? One artist is Pete Schulte, whose second show is not to be missed.
Pete Schulte: The Train and the River continues at McKenzie Fine Art (55 Orchard Street, Manhattan) through December 19.