Painting is dead. Painting is no longer dead. Painting has never been dead. It occurred to me while taking in Pieter Schoolwerth’s new work that all three of these propositions are true. After all, there’s been painting since the Lascaux Caves, with more of it now than ever. It’s also been pronounced back from the grave too many times to count. As for painting being dead, well, I bring that up somewhat cautiously since years ago, I wrote that the idea still retained some vestigial currency in the art world. For my trouble, I was roundly castigated on Facebook by commenters who insisted that I personally subscribed to the notion—something I neither said nor believed. What I meant, and still mean, is the argument that painting is dead is as much of an artifact of modern art history as abstraction or anything else—a bell that once rung cannot be unrung. Depending on their level of anxiety over their chosen practice, painters can engage with it or not. Schoolwerth’s latest show, spread over both of Miguel Abreu’s spaces on the Lower East Side, seems to lean toward doing the former.
Schoolwerth presents “painting without painting…transformed into painting with painting,” which sounds like gibberish, especially since most of what’s here consists of video, digital photography and sculptural reliefs made of wood. So what the hell is he talking about? Basically, he’s addressing the well-explored paradox that paint, while concrete, is used to manifest something that isn’t: pictorial space. The twist is that Schoolwerth sees this as a metaphor for a culture that dissolves reality into ones and zeros.
The jigsaw-puzzle complexity of Schoolwerth’s premise is given weight by the aforementioned reliefs, which are deeply carved into layers of interlocking parts depicting figures recessed one into the next. Some of these compositions are then photographed or scanned, with the results photoshopped before being printed on canvas to serve as substrates for, yes, paintings (the reliefs serving collectively as the model spelled out in the exhibition’s name). In them, tangled topographies of imagery are augmented with brushstrokes—the point, apparently, where “without” becomes “with.” Meanwhile, Schoolwerth’s titles, which reference waiting rooms and student centers, evoke transitory places where nobody remains fixed for long.
The centerpiece of the show is The Casting Agent, a video that’s too busily weird to describe easily. In a nutshell, it involves two performers elided by software into ghostly contours that absorb and glide through a space bounded by platforms and abstractly decorated theatrical flats. The players repeatedly pop out of or climb through these devices to the sound of an electronic whoosh; sometimes they talk to each other on oversize, toylike walkie-talkies.
So, WTF, right? Schoolwerth’s formalistic brainteasers may not be for everyone, but what I found particularly interesting about them is that the artist is deliberately on a fool’s errand: attempting to ascribe tangibility to a world rendered immaterial by technology.