With the six new paintings included in this show, Pieter Schoolwerth further develops his Portraits of Paintings series, and enhances his ‘reworkings’ of old master figure paintings with compressed rearrangements of still lifes and landscapes. As made palpable by his uncannily identical large and small interpretations of Luis Melendez’s, Still Life With Beef, Bowl of Ham and Vegetables, and Receptacles of 1772, Schoolwerth continues to apprehend and keep in check the impulses to both ‘critique’ and ‘express oneself’ through painterly depiction. Instead, he literally uses paintings from the past as the raw material upon which to ground his pictorial operations. As the rubric suggests, the Portraits of Paintings are allegorical in nature: each work deliberately stages the act of painting and depiction itself.
The process enacted to create every work in the series to date remains essentially the same, yet it has become notably streamlined when compared to Schoolwerth’s preceding efforts. With the figure paintings, for instance, he begins by choosing primarily European pictures from the 16th to the 18th centuries, traces the contours of the multiple figures in the pre-existing image, before displacing and overlapping the bodies at hand to form a new, single hybridized figure. In what could be described as a reverse Analytic Cubist effect, in lieu of the articulation of one figure from multiple points of view, what emerges is one perspective on a chimera like mass that results from the superimposition of several bodies, with the head functioning as the central, magnetic point of compression. As it were, the new imaginary ‘figure’ stands in as a depicted ‘portrait of’ the original group.
In Portrait of “The Healing of Tobit” (after Strozzi), Schoolwerth further condenses an already tight scene by the Italian Baroque painter, a biblical allegory of vision in which Tobias, with the help of the Angel Raphael, has applied fish gall to his father’s eyes, and gently pulls off the white patches to restore Tobit’s sight. Strozzi anticipates the magical narrative slightly by revealing the angel’s identity, which is lost again through Schoolwerth’s act of monstrous scrambling. Significantly, the fish in the lower right corner of the 17th-century picture, the source of healing of Tobit’s vision, is absent from the new painting. As it were, the work of transformation of the pre-existing visual narrative offers no singular body or subjectivity other than the one afforded by the material action of paint itself. What transpires is a kind of double movement: abstraction followed by re-presentation, or rather extraction and re-incarnation.
In the still-lifes, each of the individual depicted objects is drawn and recombined to form a hybridized mass – which often comes to assume a new ‘figural’ entity – a singular, often biomorphic object floating amidst the monochromatic ‘ground.’ The compression of the Melendez composition, for example, produces a shape suggesting a bizarre shoe, etc.
Lastly, when ‘portraying’ works of landscape, Schoolwerth treats the source painting as one composed of three elements – the earth, the sea, and the sky – that together form an image of the pre-modern world. He traces each of these ‘figurative’ zones and overlaps them into a new singularly painted area – or ‘figure’ – that stands isolated on the ground, perhaps an allegory of the world as it stands in 2010.
In more general cultural terms, all of the figurative Portraits of Paintings to date address the issue of making figurative paintings at a time when the physical body has become increasingly unstable in reality. Today’s image of one’s self exists as an amalgam of multiple, contiguous and competing images circulating instantaneously on the various screens of the digital realm. If our current experience of time and space is one of compression, superimposition, extrapolation and multiplication – all four characteristics owing to a certain order of abstraction – then the contemporary body might be considered a direct product of these forces. In a sense, the pictorial operation of the Portraits of Paintings methodically reflects, and even refracts this pulverized state of things. What distinguishes Schoolwerth’s project, however, what constitutes its element of resistance, lies in the final stages of the painting process, at the precise point when something akin to a new body appears, like a memorial to the flesh and blood body in flux. The delicate question then becomes that of the living dead.