Wayne Thiebaud @ Toledo Museum of Art

Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings @TMA

Wayne Thiebaud, Boston Cremes, 1962. Oil on canvas, 14 x 18 in. Crocker Art Museum Purchase, 1964.22. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

 

Prior to the Toledo Museum of Art’s exhibition Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints and Drawings, all my knowledge of the artist came from a handful of images from 20th Century art history books, which mostly featured his paintings of slices of cake behind glass which, like the repetitive Campbell’s Soup cans of Andy Warhol, offered subtle commentary on postwar commercialism and mass-production. But here we’re exposed to the full breadth of his artistic career, which also encompassed still life painting, portraiture, landscapes, cityscapes, and more, and all in a broad array of media. While Thiebaud may have initially made his mark as a staple of Pop-art, this exhibition reveals that his work is surprisingly diverse and rooted in art-historical tradition, and that he had an uncanny ability to translate centuries-old genres into the artistic vocabulary of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Born in 1920, Wayne Thiebaud’s panoramic career has taken many trajectories, and it isn’t over yet.  When he was just sixteen, he took a job at Walt Disney Studios, working as an animator for Pinocchio and a variety of film shorts.  During the Second World War he joined the airforce intending to become a pilot, but was transferred to the Special Services Department where he worked as a map, mural, and poster designer.  After the war, he both studied and taught at Sacramento City College, and fell under the influence of the New York School of postwar abstract expressionists, such as Pollock, Kline, and DeKooning, whose gestural abstract style he  conscientiously began to quote in his own work, as in his very abstract painting The Sea Rolls In (on view in this exhibition). But Thiebaud ultimately  preferred representational art, and in his serialized paintings of frosting-rich plates of cake, he found a way to synthesize the gestural impasto of DeKooning with the illustrative nature of traditional still-life painting.

Filling the entirety of the TMA’s spacious Levis Gallery (and even spilling over into a large adjacent gallery) are chronologically arranged works which span the breadth of Thiebaud’s career, some on view for the first time.  Trucker’s Supper, a work in the TMA’s permanent collection, sets the tone of much of the subsequent work on view; a plate with a slab of roast beef and some french fries inhabits a stark-white indeterminate background space, all the paint rendered in rich imposto (an effect which mostly gets lost in translation when these works are reproduced in books or online).  Thiebaud was a figurative and illustrative artist, but if you step in close, you’ll see passages of brushwork that reveal his admiration for his abstract expressionist counterparts. While his paintings are certainly not hyperrealistic, in applying the paint so thickly some of his paintings of cakes become almost sculptural, and the paint mimics the texture of frosting with a surprising realism bordering on trompe l’oeil trickery.

Wayne Thiebaud, Pies, Pies, Pies, 1961. Oil on canvas, 20 x 30 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Philip L. Ehlert in memory of Dorothy Evelyn Ehlert, 1974.12. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

After firmly (and perhaps unwittingly) establishing his reputation as the painter of cakes and pies, Thiebaud explored figure painting so as not to be defined by a single subject. Like his still lifes, his figures generally inhabit empty white spaces, recalling the portraits of Manet, who often placed his figures against grey, uninhabited space (as he did with his portrait of the French journalist Antonin Proust, a work in the TMA’s collection just a few galleries away).

Wayne Thiebaud, Betty Jean Thiebaud and Book, 1965–1969. Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Thiebaud, 1969.21. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Thiebaud was largely unsatisfied with his early attempts at portraiture, however, and in the 1960s he turned toward landscapes and cityscapes, genres he would continue to explore in subsequent decades.  But his treatment of the subject is joyously whimsical.  Thiebaud’s improbably vertical cityscapes and landscapes heave and buckle in a visual parody of the streets of San Francisco and the mountainous terrain surrounding the San Fernando Valley.  Some of these stylized landscapes feature parabola-shaped hills, and seem like playful, almost cartoon-like caricatures of the land (in the 1940s, Thiebaud indeed worked for a while as a cartoonist).

Wayne Thiebaud, Street and Shadow, 1982–1983/1996. Oil on linen, 35 3/4 x 23 3/4 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1996.3. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Wayne Thiebaud, Park Place, 1995. Color etching hand-worked with watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, graphite, and pastel, 29 9/16 x 20 3/4 in. (sheet/image). Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1995.9.50. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

A generous selection of prints and drawings makes the point that Thiebaud was also a consummate draftsman.  He was interested in printmaking for the entirety of his career, and in Delights (a series of seventeen aquatints), Thiebaud applied the visual textures of hatching and cross-hatching to replicate in a different media the tactile textures we find in all his previous still lifes.  Featuring reductive, scribbled-in  illustrations of cakes, pies, and ice-cream cones, these small prints have the stylized polish we might expect of a New Yorker cartoon (a publication for which Thiebaud illustrated many covers, and subscribers to the magazine will have recently seen his painting Double Scoop grace the August 17, 2020 issue).

Wayne Thiebaud, Dark Chocolates, n.d. Etching hand-worked with colored pencil, 8 7/8 x 10 1/4 in. (plate), 14 3/8 x 15 1/4 in. (sheet). Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1995.9.36. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Wayne Thiebaud, Cake Window, from Delights series, 1964. Etching, 4 15/16 x 5 7/8 in. (plate), 12 3/4 x 10 3/4 in. (sheet). Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1995.9.1.13. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

The show concludes in an adjacent gallery space which showcases some of his recent work, which is largely a continued exploration of earlier themes and genres.  But here we also find an ensemble of paintings that feature clowns, a new subject in his work.  Stylistically, these subtly parallel his paintings of cake and pies, and much as Thiebaud used paint to replicate the thick frosting on a cake, here it replicates impastoed clown makeup.

Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings is a diverse and sprawling exhibition, which is exactly the sort of retrospective the artist deserves given the breadth and depth of his oeuvre.  While Thiebaud developed a distinctly recognizable style of his own, he was never bound to a specific theme or genre, and this exhibition triumphantly gives the lie to any notion that Thiebaud was simply the Pop-era painter of cakes and pies.

Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings is on view at the TMA until May 2, 2021

Glass in Four Dimensions @ FIA

Glass in Four Dimensions @ Flint Institute of Art in the Harris – Burger Gallery

Installation image – Glass in Four Dimensions, Image courtesy of Jonathan Rinck

When Albert Einstein advanced his general theory of relativity, he argued that there was a fourth dimension: spacetime.  According to theoretical physicists, spacetime has very physical properties: it can literally warp, bend, and even tear.  So can molten glass, of course, and the exhibition Glass in the Fourth Dimension, currently on view at the Flint Institute of Art through March 21, features a selection of glass works from the Studio Glass Movement (the 1960s through the present) which directly or indirectly speak to the concept of the fourth dimension.

The works in this single-gallery exhibition space collectively take playful liberties with the technicalities of what the fourth dimension actually is.  Some of these sculptures celebrate the intrinsic weirdness and plasticity of glass (itself described by some physicists as a “new state of matter”).  Others evoke Daliesque, other-worldly realms.  And some take a more literal approach, directly referencing both time and space.

Steven Weinberg, American, born 1954. Fluted Concentrics, 1995. Cast and cut optical crystal 7 3⁄4 x 7 13/16 x 7 13/16 inches. Courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, Photography by Douglas Schaible

Evocative of some sort of transcendent and other-worldly space, Steven Weinberg’s Fluted Concentrics, is a work of cast and cut optical crystal, inside which exists a set of abstract architectural forms.  Though Weinberg’s works are largely inspired by the forms of ancient Mayan architecture, here this little cubic micro-world seems suggestive of the counterintuitive universe of M.C. Escher.  Richard Ritter also gives us a sort of micro-world with his Florescence: Series #11, which visually reads almost like a sort of oversized petri dish, within which are emerging biomorphic, organic forms. And Czech artist Petr Hora’s Hadros visually reads like liquid suddenly arrested in time and space, its internal patterns (micro-bubbles that formed when the glass was molten) vaguely reminiscent of a Hubble image we might expect to see of the vaporous membranes of some deep-space nebula.

Petr Hora, Czech, born 1924. Hadros, 2006. Cast and acid-polished glass. 18 3⁄4 x 15 1⁄2 x 4 3⁄4 inches. Courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, Photography by Douglas Schaible

Some of these works subtly imply the passage of time through their form and structure, such as an ensemble of undulating Dale Chihuly bowls, which characteristically rest inside each other much like Russian Matryoshka dolls; the transition from small to large is suggestive of growth over time, or perhaps expanding ripples or sound waves.  Though Chihuly’s style couldn’t be more different, its effect responds well to Tom Patti’s Four Ringed Echo, a cuboid sculpture comprising layers of glass which contain a set of vertically stacked rings expanding upward and outward, again implying both time and movement, much like successive frames of stop-motion photography. Both works also directly speak to the ambiguity of the nature of glass, which straddles the boundary between liquid and solid.

But at its most literal, the fourth dimension is a reference to the interconnectedness of both space and time, and some of these works address this directly.  Admittedly, all sculpture does this to some degree.  A painting or photograph can be taken in by the viewer instantaneously, but sculpture exists in three-dimensional space, and must be appreciated in 360 degrees; the viewer must move around it, incorporating the element of time.  But unlike many traditional sculptures, here, largely because of the reflective nature of glass, these works surprisingly transform as we move around them.

Some of these sculptures do this in dramatic fashion.  Just take a look at Czech artist Bohumil Eliás Sr.’s Silent Inhabitant.  It’s a cuboid composite of layers of square plates of glass; when viewed from the side, it’s a mostly transparent cube.  But slowly move 90 degrees to the front, and a blue, three-dimensional floral form enclosed within suddenly materializes, the result of thin layers of paint applied by the artist on each successive layer of glass.  A similarly dramatic transformation occurs with Slovakian artist Yan Zoritchak’s Space Messenger. Here we find a wedge of relatively empty and transparent glass that suddenly fills with surprising and counterintuitive shapes, forms and colors as we move around it.

Yan Zoritchak, Slovakian, born 1944. Space Messenger, 2002. Cast glass with copper patina and gold leaf. 19 9/16 x 16 15/16 x 5 1/8 inches. Courtesy of the Isabel Foundation. Photography by Douglas Schaible

As for the theoretical physics behind Einstein’s revelations regarding spacetime, I’ll never understand them, though I do find the fourth dimension fascinating with the help of a good NOVA documentary. Glass in the Fourth Dimension, however, is both welcoming and accessible.  And much like the rest of the permanent works on view at the FIA, this exhibit makes abstract art enjoyable to those who might not generally consider themselves fans of abstract art.  There’s an undeniable craftsmanship and polish on display, and all these works are undeniably beautiful. Furthermore, the time-based element to this show emphatically makes the case that art is best viewed firsthand (and over time), and not just instantaneously as an image online or in a book– a compelling reason to come see this exhibition in person.

Glass in Four Dimensions @ Flint Institute of Arts through March 21,2021

Radical Tradition @ Toledo Museum of Art

Therese Agnew, Portrait of a Textile Worker, Shorewood, WI, 2002, clothing labels, thread, fabric backing. 94 1/2 x 109 3.4 in. Image Credit: Museum of Arts and Design, New York; purchase with funds provided by private donors, 2006 Photo: Peter DiAntoni

There’s something visceral and tangible about quilting that sets it apart from other artistic media.   In a very literal sense, quilters stitch together the fabrics of the past and present, imbuing each work with a historical and cultural weight.  Radical Tradition, on view until February 14 at the Toledo Art Museum, explores how American quilts of the 19th through 21st centuries have engaged with prescient social issues.  The show supplements works from the TMA’s own collection with a generous selection of quilts from nearly two dozen lending institutions, and together they demonstrate the medium’s historically robust social engagement, speaking to issues ranging from racial justice, prison reform, women’s suffrage, LGBTQ rights, immigration, and much more.

Radical Tradition forcefully challenges our preconceptions of what a quilt even is, and what’s on view might better be described more broadly as “fiber art.”  Ben, for example, greets viewers at the show’s entrance.  Ben, from the TMA’s own collection, is an endearing fiber sculpture by Faith Ringgold of a 1970s-era homeless man, brandishing buttons, pins, and patches which serve to tell his story.  He’s a veteran of the Vietnam War, and the meagre few possessions he totes and the bottle of alcohol he clutches are suggestive that he’s fallen onto hard times. The buttons he wears call for various progressive political and social reforms.  It’s a very human, heartfelt, and sympathetic portrait.

Faith Ringgold, Ben, 1978. Soft sculpture/mixed media, 39 x 12 x 12. Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, Ohio) Image Credit: © 2020 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York

At Work III isn’t even fiber, but rather backlit strips of 16mm polyester film sewn together to form a traditional “log cabin” quilt pattern.  The film strips are extracted from various industrial films showing anonymous female hands engaged in labor in the textile industry, and the work addresses the historical anonymity of those in the textile and garment industries.

Sabrina Gschwandtner, Hands at Work III, 2017, 16mm film, polyester thread, LEDs, 26 7/8 x 27 x 3 in. Image Credit: Image Courtesy of the artist and Shoshana Wayne Gallery

While this exhibit is perhaps liberal with what materially constitutes a quilt, there’s certainly a thematic continuity in the show’s focus on quilting and social engagement.  Many of the quilts on view (especially the older ones) were created to raise money for various social causes or humanitarian organizations, such as the Cradle Quilt (for the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society), Liberty Tree (for the temperance movement), and the Red Cross Quilt (to support the organization during the First World War). The Vietnam Era Signature Quilt was made to raise funds to rebuild a North Vietnamese hospital that had been bombed during the Vietnam War, and it includes the signatures of Leonard Bernstein, Gloria Steinem, and Pete Seeger, among many others.

Abolition Quilt, ca. 1850. Silk embroidered quilt, 59 x 59 in. Historic New England, 2.1923. Courtesy of Historic New England. Loan from Mrs. Benjamin F. Pitman, 2.1923.

 

Gen Guracar, Vietnam Era Signature Quilt, c. 1965-1973. Made in Mountain View, California, 80 x 63.5 inches. International Quilt Museum, Gift of Needle and Thread Arts Society, 2007.008.0001 Image Credit: International Quilt Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

In many, the very fabric of these quilts helps to underscore their message, such as Portrait of a Textile Worker by Terese Agnew. It’s an image based on a photograph taken by an undercover human rights advocate of a sweatshop worker in Bangladesh. The quilt comprises 30,000 individual clothing labels, each only individually visible up close; mosaic-like, together they form an image of a textile worker stationed at her sewing machine.  It’s a poignant image that speaks to the exploitation of underage and underpaid laborers in the garment industry who work as temporary contractors for big-box clothing brands.

One particularly arresting and prominent work is the ensemble of large, triangular quilt blocks from the International Honor Quilt, a project initiated by Judy Chicago and originally intended to complement her iconic Dinner Party.  Just like each individual place setting of Dinner Party, here each triangular block pays homage to a significant woman from history or mythology, and in its entirety the work consists of 542 individual sections. Each block was created by a different individual, and they reflect a wide variety of styles and techniques.

Judy Chicago, International Honor Quilt (IHQ), initiated by Judy Chicago in 1980, Created in response to The Dinner Party. Hite Art Institute, University of Louisville. Image Credit: © 2020 Judy Chicago / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As a telescope enthusiast, I was naturally drawn to Anna Van Mertens’ evocative Midnight until the first sighting of land, October 12, 1942, six miles off the coast of current day San Salvador Island, Bahamas.  It’s a black quilt which, as the title implies, charts the course of the stars in a patch of sky as they would have been seen by Columbus and his crew during these hours, so fatefully freighted with the weight of history to come.

This is a visually satisfying show with much to offer, and it makes the most of the TMA’s spacious New Media gallery suite.  There’s also an impressively broad range in style and content.   Some of the works range from the playfully exuberant VanDykesTransDykesTransanTransGranmx DykesTransAmDentalDamDamn (a showstopping, mural-scale work that is as massive and wild as its title implies) to the solemn Dachau 1945, a quilt made from the subdued, neutral patches from prison uniforms of inmates of Germany’s notorious Dachau concentration camp.  Radical Tradition masterfully combines beauty, poignancy, energy, and conceptual depth, and it’s a show that triumphantly lives up to its wittily oxymoronic name.

Unknown Maker, Dachau 1945, 1945, Wool, 69 1/2 x 77 in., Michigan State University Museum Collection, 2015:66.2. Image Credit: Courtesy of Michigan State University Museum. Photographed by Pearl Yee Wong

Radical Tradition is on view at the Toledo Museum of Art through February 14.  The show is accompanied with an exhibition catalogue.

InterStates of Mind @ MSU Broad

InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

In 1928, Ford Motor Company acquired 2.5 million acres of forest in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon with the intent of supplying the company’s Michigan factories with a reliable supply of cheap rubber. Here it erected Fordlandia, a pop-up town populated by locals who, coaxed by competitive wages, worked in the employ of Ford Motors. Ford aggressively pushed American culture onto the workers, mandating, among other things, required poetry readings (in English), community sing-alongs, and American cuisine. In 1930, the workers revolted, and the Brazilian army had to restore order.  The endeavor was a failure.  The region wasn’t sufficiently conducive to growing rubber trees, and by 1934, the project was abandoned; however,  Fordlandia’s buildings still stand, and the town attained immortality as a major inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World.  Fordlandia is just one of many examples of the automotive industry’s influence on culture presented in the MSU Broad’s excellent exhibition InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile.

This large exhibition fills the entirety of the Broad’s second floor gallery suite with a multimedia selection of art and ephemera largely (though not entirely) selected from its own collection. While it sometimes addresses the automobile industry in broad strokes, the exhibition also addresses how the automotive industry shaped Lansing in particular. InterStates of Mind gives special attention to some of the economic, environmental, and social problems exacerbated—if not always directly caused—by the automotive industry.

InterStates opens with a trilogy of early, iconic films which emphatically proclaimed an unfettered optimism of the automobile (and in technology in general) to realize an earthly American utopia.  In 1939, for the New York World’s Fair, General Motors constructed an impressively large animated diorama of a city of the future, at the heart of which was the automotive industry and the highway system.  The 23 minute film Futurama slowly pans through this sprawling model (designed by GM’s Norman Bel Geddes) as a narrator envisions a future in which science, technology, and the highway system are harnessed to create an ideal society. Though many of the film’s predictions indeed came true, its flamboyant optimism in a technology-driven utopia certainly rings hollow in retrospect.

Master Hands, a film also produced by General Motors, artfully walks the viewer through the manufacturing process of a 1936 Chevrolet.  Underscored by a triumphant, Wagneresque soundtrack composed by Samuel Benavie and performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the film’s visuals really are aesthetically beautiful, and the music engages with action on the assembly line in a perfectly coordinated dance. Master Hands showcases the undeniable ingenuity behind the assembly process.

As a foil to the optimism of these films, InterStates also presents an ensemble of the socially poignant photographs of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and other photographers whose work documented the lives of those worst hit by the Great Depression.  “There’s no way like the American way,” a billboard loudly proclaims in a photograph by Arthur Rothstein, though the blighted buildings in the background brutally undercut this cheerful sentiment.  While some of these photographs don’t directly reference the automobile itself, they collectively push against the utopic, concurrent visions of Futurama.  

Arthur Rothstein, Sign, Birmingham, Alabama, 1937, printed 1987. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, purchase

Dorothea Lange, Gas station. Kern County, California, 1939, printed 1987. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, purchase.

This exhibit gives prominence to an ensemble of eight large photographs by Brazilian artist Clarissa Tossin, whose conceptual project When Two Places Look Alike addresses the overtly colonialist nature of Fordlandia.  Many of the American-style homes built for the workers in Fordlandia still stand, and Tossin’s photographs wittily draw visual parallels between the architecture of Fordlandia’s homes with those of Alberta, Michigan, also a company town established by Ford in the 1930s.

Clarissa Tossin, When two places look alike, 2012. Courtesy the artist, Luisa Strina Gallery São Paulo, and Commonwealth Council, Los Angeles.

Given Lansing’s prominence in the automotive industry, it seems fitting that this show localizes much of its content.  A generous portion of the exhibit explores the social impact of I-496, the expressway which serves as a main artery Eastward and Westward through Lansing, and the construction of which displaced a mostly African-American population from their homes.  A massive enlargement of an aerial photograph shows a stretch of these houses prior to the construction of the expressway, hinting at the many lives that it would seriously interrupt.

While much of this show examines the automobile’s influence through a jaundiced eye, it certainly refrains from being drearily pessimistic.  There’s a whole ensemble of photographs highlighting the phenomena of the roadside attraction.  And some works celebrate the visual potential of the materiality of the automobile itself, such as Chakaia Booker’s rubber sculptures that playfully flaunt the aesthetic potential of used tires, which she manages to cut, sculpt, twist, and manipulate into forms that look almost organic.

InterStates of mind offers a considered and thoughtful re-assessment of the automotive industry’s impact on society.  Though this exhibit is certainly informative (expect to find yourself reading your way through large parts of this exhibit), it’s also visually rewarding, offering visitors a veritable cornucopia of works which snugly make the most of the Broad’s exhibition space.  While these works certainly aren’t disparaging of the automobile’s influence on culture, they collectively approach the subject with an honest ambivalence, and the early 20th Century visions and promises of a technology-driven American utopia, in retrospect, ultimately seem to ring hollow.

InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

 

Video courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum
InterStates of Mind is currently on view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, and runs through August 2021.  The exhibition is free, but to ensure a safe experience timed tickets must be ordered in advance.

Luminous Visions and Path to Paradise @ Toledo Museum of Art

Phillip K. Smith III, Flat Torus 4. Photograph by Lance Gerber Studio

This year, the Toledo Museum of Art added to its permanent collection Flat Torus 4, an ethereal light installation by multimedia artist Phillip K. Smith III.  This work is the visual anchor of the exhibit Luminous Visions. Concurrent with this single-gallery show is a sprawling retrospective of the stained glass art of Judith Schaechter.  As different as these two exhibits are in form and content, they both directly engage with centuries of art history, they both take luminosity as their subject, and they’re both visually mesmerizing.  As such, these two separate shows compliment each other like the varied notes of a musical chord.

The centerpiece of Luminous Visions is Flat Torus 4, a series of wall-mounted concentric rings which, with the aid of computer software and LED lights, moodily project diffused light into the gallery space.  It’s an instillation which recalls the atmospheric light sculptures of Dan Flavin.  Flat Torus 4 is tactfully placed in conversation with an ensemble of other works from the TMA’s collection which literally or metaphorically take light as their subject.  These include a 19th Century painting by Sanford Robinson Gifford of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, beautifully illuminated by a rising sun.  And a 15th Century sculpture of a seated Buddha speaks to the metaphorical and spiritual associations of enlightenment and illumination.  The works in this exhibit span nearly 700 years, but Flat Torus 4 is the undisputed star of the show; its soft light bathes the whole room in its shifting colors which slowly and satisfyingly cycle over the course of 40 minutes.  This micro-show is an interesting and visually satisfying vignette, and it seems like great starting point for what could be a larger exhibition addressing light and illumination in art across the TMA’s collection.

Phillip K. Smith III, Flat Torus 4. Photograph by Lance Gerber Studio

In contrast to the stately serenity of Luminous Visions, the glass works on view in the traveling show Path to Paradise are loud, irreverent, uncomfortable, and often violent. Yet they’re also undeniably beautiful and cathartic.  Glass artist Judith Schaechter takes her inspiration in equal parts from Northern Renaissance art and the aesthetics of Mad magazine.  Through January 3, the TMA is showcasing forty of her works, supplemented with original sketchbooks brimming with preparatory drawings which offer behind-the-scenes access into Schaechter’s creative process.  Path to Paradise is her first survey exhibition, and given the impressive scale and scope of her body of work, it seems like one that’s long overdue.

The Battle of Carnival and Lent, 2010-2011. Stained-glass panel, 56 x 56 in. Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, NY; Marion Stratton Gould Fund, Rosemary B. and James C. MacKenzie Fund, Joseph T. Simon Fund, R. T. Miller Fund and Bequest of Clara Trowbridge Wolfard by exchange, and funds from deaccessioning.

Beached Whale, 2018. Stained-glass panel, 27 x 40 in. Courtesy Claire Oliver Gallery, Harlem, and the artist.

Schaechter manages to take a medium that reached its apex in the Gothic era and masterfully translate it into a 21st Century vocabulary. By applying a technique of layering glass which results in subtle gradients and shading, she lends her work a contemporary illustrative quality that you wouldn’t see in a 12th Century rose window.  It’s a tedious process—each work takes months to complete– but much like the Old Masters of the Northern Renaissance, Schaechter delights in the details.

This show presents her earliest works in conversation with some of her most recent, surveying the trajectory of her career.  Among these include The Flood, a triptych which thrust Schaechter into the national spotlight when it was displayed at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery when the artist was 29 years old. The figures that populate her fabricated worlds often seem caricatured, but she demonstrates an impressive ability to switch back and forth between cartoonish imagery and lucid realism, even within the same work.  New or old, all her works are rendered with astonishing detail.  In My One Desire, the background is teeming with plants, animals, and dazzling kaleidoscopic bursts of geometric patterns that snugly fill every bit of negative space, recalling a Renaissance tapestry. The work’s theme of a dying unicorn also situates this work in the tradition of Renaissance art, though the story here remains characteristically enigmatic. This horror vacui recurs frequently in her work. In A Play About Snakes, we encounter an elaborate pattern of twisting, writhing snakes that mimic the ornamental patterns found in medieval illuminated manuscripts– the Cross Page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, perhaps.  Regardless of the subject matter, all her works teem with ebullient detail; no wonder she describes herself as a “militant ornamentalist.”

Although her work is often thematically dark, it can at times be playfully whimsical.  Specimens shows a grid of various imaginary creatures preserved in little jars as if on display in a natural history museum; they seem plucked from the world of Hieronymus Bosch…or perhaps Dr. Seuss.  And her improvisatory Exquisite Corpse is an homage to the silly party game of the same name which famously originated at the dinner parties thrown by Surrealism’s founder Andre Breton.

But much of Schaechter’s work is unsettling. We encounter many images of violence and death, a surprising number of which are actually sourced in Renaissance-era paintings and illustrations. Some of these works directly speak to recent and contemporary events.  Sister is a disquietingly calm work in which the pose assumed by its lifeless subject references the haunting Vietnam-era photograph of the “Napalm Girl.”  But within the work, this young girl inhabits indeterminate space, and Sister (much like Picasso’s Guernica) comes across as a universal statement against wartime atrocity which could apply to any time and any place.  And in Emigration Policy, we see a dog drowning as it desperately tries to catch up with a departing ship (or was it thrown overboard?).  The violence in her work is never gratuitous, but rather serves to encourage empathy and compassion on the part of the viewer.

The Floor, 2006. Stained-glass panel, 36 x 34 in. Collection of Claire Oliver

The subject matter of Schaechter’s work runs the gamut between agony and ecstasy, and is Shakespearian in its scope.  As to the question of why her work is often so uncomfortable, Schaechter responds on her website with a passage excerpted from James Poniewozik essay The Art of Unhappiness: “What we forget…is that happiness is more than pleasure sans pain.  The things that bring us the greatest joy carry the greatest potential for disappointment.  Today, surrounded by promises of easy happiness, we need someone to tell us that it is O.K. not to be happy, that sadness makes happiness deeper.”  Bearing this in mind, as uncomfortable as many of her works might make us, it seems that the body of her work is– in the final analysis—ultimately life-affirming in its unashamed embrace of the totality of the human experience.

The Path to Paradise: An Interview with Artist Judith Schaechter

Toledo Museum of Art  –  The Path to Paradise: Judith Schaechter’s Stained-Glass Art   —  Jan. 3, 2021 | Levis Gallery