September 13, 2015

Marjorie Schwarz at Goss-Michael Foundation


(You can click on the images for larger versions; and apologies to all for the hasty photography.  Also, fwiw, Google's replacement interface for Blogger has been greatly improved since the last time I posted, but at least for me remains more difficult to work with; e.g., the layout of this post is not all I'd like.)

We’re looking at thirty-five paintings of photographs.  Concerns regarding media and translation are of course invoked.

The photos are mostly head shots.  Many look like annual school photos; but the figures are often off-center.  This could in some cases be because the original photos were casually or amateurishly shot – e.g., the top half of one figure’s head may have been cut off in the original photo – but in at least some others, it must have been a choice by the artist, e.g, when a disembodied head floats off-center within the picture space.  The odd framing reminds us that we’re looking at an artifact, as well as enhancing a sense of disjointedness and displacement in time as well as in space.



More noticeably, nearly all the figures are literally decontextualized, their backgrounds distinctly if not solidly blacked out, with the edges of the figures sometimes limned sharply against the background and at other times blurred; or, in two paintings, the figures appear, sharp-edged, against winter white-ish backgrounds.  But the figures nearly all look relatively “cut out” or separated from their background.  One effect is not just to focus attention on the “subject,” but also on the insistent focussing on it, i.e., on the choice or process of over-emphasizing the distinctness of the figure.  This might refer in part to our cognitive and psychological operations or predispositions in viewing “portraits”; I also found it difficult not to read the overall effect as suggesting alienation and/or dysphoria.



Yet efforts to bring into focus the figures themselves are defeated by carefully calibrated degrees of blurriness which obscure the details, to a greater or lesser extent, or prevent recognition altogether.  Sometimes the blurriness consists in an explicitly painterly roughness; at other times, it’s “photographically" blurred or smeared in a manner reminiscent of some of Gerhard Richter’s work; and the colors used in the subjects’ faces are often muted.



















Emotions and idiosyncratic features sometimes seem nonetheless poignantly clear; but in some cases, the subject is rendered monstrous, or even abstract.





In contrast, some of the clothing is rendered in relatively crisp detail or heightened color.  The often subtly colored blurriness of the faces contrasts with the “cut out” aspect of the figure and the relative crispness or vividness of some of the clothing.

The color palette is subtly luscious, sometimes seeming muddy at first glance but on closer inspection satisfyingly sophisticated, occasionally spiked with odd or firey hues in ways that seemed both substantively suggestive and aesthetically inspired.

There is also a pronounced juxtaposition of disparate painting techniques, which might be considered postmodernist but again calls attention to itself, although the different techniques also seem strategically selected for the particular areas in which they’re used.





A number of the paintings are variations on the same photographs (see many of the images above, including, e.g., compare the outline of the figure with red sleeves resting along the bottom of the picture frame with the outline of the “floating” baby head shown near the beginning of this review); but the clothing, hair color, and facial features are morphed to greater or lesser degrees, as if suggesting, e.g., different realities in alternate universes, or realities that might occupy the same space at different times, or just different aspects of the subject (or the photo of the subject) as conjectured and/or expressed by the artist.  It should be mentioned, however, that the paintings seemed to be hung in an order that obscured shared photographic sources.



Many of the images are of children probably too young to be self-conscious, but others seem more aware; and the poses of adults in two paintings seem almost theatrical – as if both heads were cut out from a photo in which a man looked down at a seated woman who looked up, returning his gaze in a stereotypically loving pose – but an uncertainty as to the full meaning of their facial expressions seems emphasized by the manner in which they’re presented.

A last piece hung by itself around the corner is all but impenetrable – I was reminded of Rembrandt’s self-portraits; but this is much darker and murkier, as if the blackness of the backgrounds in most of the other paintings had finally engulfed the figure.  At first glance, the head does not seem “cut out” from its context – it’s barely distinguishable at all, from its background or otherwise – yet closer inspection reveals a relatively sharp edge of darker paint delineating at least part of its outline – although both head and background are further obscured by sheer, lighter streaks hanging like haze between the painting's "subject" and its viewer, an effect atypical of this group of paintings.

This richly complex body of work certainly complicates portraiture, while evoking thoughts about the accidents and deteriorations of photographic records and memory, as well as of intramedia translation; the relationships among subjects (that peculiarly ambiguous term), grounds, and contexts; processes of cognition and recognition, including our efforts to identify and define ourselves and others in the moment and over time, and how the results are intensified or contorted by emotion; the complexity and ultimate unknowability of individuals even when with us in person, and how a well-focussed photo seems to freeze reality in the moment, yet how even within the instant, Heisenbergian uncertainties swirl while a non-existent present continually passes; the seeming impossibility of ever penetrating to some more stable, underlying reality . . .

Schwarz's paintings seemed to me beautifully strange and among the most interesting I’ve seen in a long time.  Thanks to Goss-Michael for bringing them together and providing an opportunity to get a fuller appreciation of Schwarz’s multiplicitous methods and concerns.

(The exhibition ran May 7, 2015 - June 30, 2015 at Goss-Michael Foundation, 1405 Turtle Creek Blvd., Dallas.)

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