The condition of the practice has never been so concisely described as when Yves-Alain Bois titled a seminal essay “Painting the Task of Mourning.” (1) First published in the 1980s and then brought out again in the early 2000s for a landmark show at the Walker Art Center, Bois describes Robert Ryman as “the guardian at the tomb of Modernism,” a description that has stuck with me. I thought it might apply to the work of David Schutter, but it does not. For Schutter straddles Modernism, on the one side dedicated to an age-old discipline of material, observation and theory, on the other the postmodern approach of research and institutional critique. Schutter’s work, an arduous labor of love, does however feel tinged with mourning.
For "Repertory," which closed January 3 and was Schutter’s third solo outing with Tony Wight Gallery, the artist focused on a series of cloud studies by John Constable. For any viewer Schutter’s work has at least two lives. First, as what you initially see, gray abstract masses. On inspection they reveal rich hues and tones within the gray palette, myriad brushstrokes, glazes and applications, but ultimately confusing objects. With "Repertory" we confront a large wall, a solid rectangle that bisects the gallery and completely absorbs the massive support beam. On it hang a modest grouping of small curiously thin paintings, stretched canvas gesso-ed white and caked with various grays. On the other side, the layout and scale of paintings is duplicated. This marks a unique departure for Schutter, to my knowledge this is the first time the artist has addressed the situation into which his paintings are shown.
David Schutter. Installation view of "Repertory" at Tony Wight Gallery. 2008. Image courtesy of Tony Wight.
The effect at a distance is akin to an Allan McCollum “plaster surrogates” moment. The wall, the paintings join to become one large sculptural object. An instance of disruption, this massive construction completely altering the gallery serves only to display flat paintings that seem to serve as stand-ins. For what? For painting? For salon-style hanging? But each one is clearly labored over, each a compendium of precise gestures, marks and applications. Each has its own overall tinge of color, and within it a vast array of values and hues.
It is when one begins to dig into the information behind the work that the project becomes formidable. It is at this time when a viewer, or beholder, is confronted by art in a way rarely experienced. Some choose to dismiss the entire prospect; others rather dwell on the objects themselves and forgo the rest. Even if it is the work that is ultimately displayed as art, it is all inextricably linked to the process and research behind it.
As a student of Schutter’s, I know firsthand that his knowledge of history, painting and philosophy is exhaustive. I remember talking to a fellow student once about his work. I knew the work had much more going on than gray abstraction and my classmate seemed to know the answer. “His paintings are about memory,” the other student said. This seems to be the sort misrepresentation Schutter’s work gets from people when faced with the daunting job of trying to unpack an intense process that in some ways is astute scholarship turned into artwork. A further example of Schutter’s scholarly vocation is the exhibition he curated, “The Brutal Line” at the Smart Museum of Art, which closed January 4, an examination of the drawings by artists from the Renaissance, Modernism and the contemporary who deal with extreme physical and existential states graphically.
David Schutter. Installation view of "Repertory." 2008. Paintings: after YCBA C 117 x2, after YCBA C 156 x2, after YCBA C 128 x2. Image courtesy of Tony Wight.
For the work in "Repertory," Schutter deals with a collection of ten studies of clouds by John Constable from the Yale Center for British Art, hence the encryption YCBA in the titles of the paintings. The wall mimics the dimensions of the installation at the Yale Center for British Art, and the arrangement also mirrors the way the Constables are hung. After studying the paintings, the drawings and supportive archives, Schutter set them aside, and set out to “re-make” them with similar materials. If these are not to be tests of memory, then what are they? Paintings of memory? The surfaces of Schutter’s paintings lead me to believe that if one were able to some how remove the image from the Constables, this is what might remain. Painting as the act of forgetting.
In the adjacent gallery at Tony Wight was a suite of graphite drawings on vellum related to the paintings. Looking at them I assumed they came first. Preparatory works preceding the repertory, the way George Grosz would do rigorous exercises of countless lines and brushstrokes every morning before beginning work. Here, it seemed that Schutter was getting all the mannerism out, all the reflexes to make subjective artful moves, clearing out the urges, before setting about the work of Constable. In actuality, the drawings came last...as if Schutter had amassed all these moves from assimilating Constable and had some left over that had to get used up.
Considering both the drawings and the paintings, my thoughts wander to those art history fetishes the tabula rasa and the palimpsest. Is the goal here to record the moves of Constable, wipe them away, and start again, only to build up layers of attempts, an index of research peeking through? How would one make a clean slate? The act of applying paint automatically “dirties” the canvas. But the result here is somewhat blank. Equally paradoxical is the idea of constructing a palimpsest, although that appears to be what Schutter has achieved. In a way this is the existential struggle painting is in today, trying to remember and forget. Trying to clean the slate and allow the previous work to show through.
In The Optical Unconscious Rosalind Kraus relates a story about Michael Fried asking her if she knew who Frank Stella’s favorite American was. (2) It was Ted Williams. He “sees faster than any other living human. He sees so fast that when the ball comes over the plate […] he can see the stitches. […] That’s why Frank thinks he’s a genius.” After I had been looking at the exhibition a while I thought about that and how I, on the other hand, take so long to look at art. Schutter’s work rewards that approach, it is geared towards long viewing. So it was while intently staring at these grey paintings, pouring over the bits of paint and licking the sides where the muddy pigment splattered on the white primer I thought, “I see slower than anyone else.”
(1) Yve-Alain Bois, “Painting the Task of Mourning,” in Painting at the Edge of the World, Douglas Fogle, et. al. (New York: Distributed Arts Publishers, 2001.)
(2) Rosalind Kraus, The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994.)