MILITARY MANEUVERS WITH COMPUTER AND COLOR BY HILARIE M. SHEETS, NEW YORK TIMES
From the day when Eric Chan and Heather Schatz switched seats in a figure drawing class as undergraduates at the University of California, Berkeley, and finished each others' compositions, they have engaged in a back and forth that underpins all of their art. Producing work under the name ChanSchatz since graduating in 1990, the two artists (who are husband and wife) have since expanded their collaboration to include an ever-widening pool of guests as they explore how different ideas and groups of people intersect in contemporary life.
ChanSchatz invites friends, artists, students, local merchants and, most recently, members of the American military based in Iraq, to choose from colors, text phrases and forms culled from the artists' vast drawing archive. Their selections become the springboard for large-scale silk-screen works that are abstract yet still reflect the participants.
Next weekend, "PTG.32 APUS" (short for "Painting No. 32, Art Project United States"), a collective "portrait" of 24 military men and women, from an Army private to a Marine Corps captain, goes on view in "Here and There," an exhibition of ChanSchatz's work at Massimo Audiello in Chelsea.
The starting point for the artists was a realization that while the troops' presence in Iraq was woven into daily American culture, they did not personally know any of the soldiers. The artists connected with military personnel through groups like the Freedom Calls, a foundation that keeps members of the military in touch with family through communication stations in Iraq.
ART IN REVIEW; ERIC HEATHER CHAN SCHATZ - NEW YORK TIMES BY HOLLAND COTTER
Eric Chan and Heather Schatz, who scramble their names into a tidy corporate unit, have been a collaborative team for nearly 15 years. And their work coincides with a number of themes floating through art at present: the use of systems, especially digitally based; the overlap of the organic and the artificial, and the fine line between art and commerce. (Mr. Chan and Ms. Schatz routinely solicit corporations to donate materials for their work; the contributers are acknowledged, by logo, in a display near the gallery entrance.)
For this show, they have produced a series of shadow-box wall cases -- they call them ''architectural accessories'' -- each of which is fitted with layers of sliding doors. The interiors have been padded with patchworks of embroidered fabrics, some natural, others synthetic, many with a metallic sheen. The stitchwork is computer driven, with the shapes drawn from an on-line database of forms the artists have compiled over the years.
One inspiration for their current work, the gallery says, is medieval tapestry. This makes sense, not only for whatever motifs it yielded (some of the stitched pieces look like chevrons), but also for the example set by loom technology itself, with its combination of hands-on control and mechanical aids. Centuries ago looms were programmed with a rudimentary version of computer punchcards. And weaving, with its incremental approach to the visual, suggests an early version of digital art.
ERIC AND HEATHER CHANSCHATZ: IN PLACE OF ORIGIN
The loss of the Real (always capitalized, as if it were the name of a dear friend, or a celebrity) is a pervasive condition decried by everyone from radical leftist philosophers (Zizek, Baudrillard, Virilio) to the extreme Christian Right. The blame, depending on your source, lies somewhere along the spectrum between the increased reliance on televisual interfaces as a means of framing the communication and condensation of quotidian events on one end, and the loss of core values of faith and morality on the other
The urge to replay the drama of this deficit within the relatively safe conventions of visual practice-film, television, painting, photography-more often than not leaves us nowhere but in a state of pallid nostalgia. Unable to reconnect with the flittering remains of our core systems of rational thought, we seek solace in the facile fumbling of secular evangelists promising us spiritual asylum. In exchange, we agree to stop griping about crimes against humanity, foul smells, tyranny, inept customer service representatives, overpriced groceries. The road to salvation is paved with consumer satisfaction.
How can the enduring tradition of aesthetic pleasure continue to provide sustenance when the very idea of the euphoria of sensual experience has been crushed by our over-reliance on the manifold means of self-gratification? The theatrical impulse-the provision of a stage on which to enact both our dissatisfaction and our deracination from the roots of desire-slips too easily from our hands when we consider the effort involved. We are lethargic; we have little desire to sit still and watch (let alone to perform!), and become critical and weary of those whose futile attempts at compassionate chicanery fail to distract us. The lives of celebrities and their alter-egos-stars of reality television, bloggers, dubious figures of marginal sexual scandals-supplant any sustained engagement with our mundane, quotidian lives. Yet like fast food, these characters and their exploits are oddly, if ephemerally, satisfying.
Recently, I've found myself looking back to abstraction, something in which I had long lost interest, as a means of recalibrating my aesthetic radar. But the false premise of pure abstraction (after post-structuralism, the binary of representational vs. abstract no longer retains any meaningful value-who in the last three hundred years ever really believed in the fiction of the picture frame, after all?) has emptied out the coffers of such conceits as truth/beauty/beauty/truth, and pleasure/death/death/pleasure-the only foursquare binaries of any interested in the first place.
ChanSchatz have, for some time now, been involved with prodding our sorry asses back into the realm of sensuality, while investigating the ways in which the subjective mind conceives of objects that serve to anchor memory. Theirs is no cheap, meretricious come-on, but a full-figured burlesque, unashamed of its brashness and outsized personality. Their paintings, furnishings, prints have often begun with a syllabary of icons (some abstract, some more anthropomorphic, some object-based), offered to certain individuals (patrons, inspirational mentors, strangers) as an initiatory gesture. The resulting choices are then incorporated into an overall image constructed by the artists that serves to narrativize the chosen icons into an open-ended thematic construct. Questions arise as to the universal or objective value of such work. For example, what does it mean that the artists themselves first codified the icons into visual morphemes? Does that limit the kinds of choices available to the'director'? Or is this kind of preliminary rule necessary in order to allow the director to commence the process of casting the roles? Is the result a true collaboration, or a manipulation of simple acts of will subordinated to the artists' overarching goal? Most importantly, what kind of appeal do the resultant works hold for those whose will had no involvement in their coming to fruition?
In a typical work of art, we give ourselves over to the artist and her/his vision. But in the latter part of the twentieth century, we witnessed a breakdown of this logic. In the works of conceptualism, the visual or concrete manifestation is less important than the rules upon which it is based (to paraphrase Lawrence Weiner, it is of no importance whether or not the work is executed; what matters are the instructions). In 2000, Robert Rauschenberg conceived and gifted to the Whitney Museum of American Art a work entitled Synapsis Shuffle, comprised of 52 panels-like a deck of cards-that could be arranged and rearranged at will (at the opening, a seemingly random series of celebrities, including David Byrne, Chuck Close, Merce Cunningham, Renee Fleming, Michael Ovitz, Ileana Sonnabend, and Martha Stewart were given the opportunity to shuffle the group of paintings and observe the results). The potential of the work, more so than that of the aforementioned pieces by ChanSchatz, is/was fixed, and the visual results less than inspiring. Of course, Renaissance artists executed their frescoes with the help of assistants from their workshops, yet the result was always attributable back to the individual bearing the brand name, the trademark. Just ask Vasari; God's beneficence made his hagiography possible, yet the names we remember are his rota of anointed aesthetes. The inspiration was spiritual, its manifestation corporeal: the transubstantiation of art.
So, through this theological conversion, we are returned paradoxically back to the Real. We are increasingly aware of the staging of the real in everyday life, as internet blurs into television slips into PDA morphs into supersonic travel smudges into videoconferencing distorts into online fantasy games. How can the relatively static medium of painting manage to keep up with this restless spatio-temporal careering? The works of In Situ play with the very possibility of being in a space, in a place. The title of the exhibition itself challenges the idea that anything can exist universally in one place at one time, and nothing confounds that truism more than the space represented inside of a painting. "In Situ"refers to experiencing something in its natural habitat as opposed to some disenfranchised space. But what is a painting's'natural habitat'? The artist's studio? A museum? A collector's wall? Perhaps the'in situ' of a work of art is the space occupied by the work itself? If so, the'in situ' of painting may be the space represented within the confines of the frame itself.
PTG.76 (White Pitcher) opens to our view with a brilliant orange proscenium-nearly the opening of a cave, to be precise-behind which a menagerie of ecstatic, proliferating glyphs coruscate in the brilliance of an unseen light source. This painting, as with the others in the series, problematizes the innate cognitive need to differentiate dialectically between inside and out, present and past. The forms we see lurking within the grotto-like space are both utterly vexing and comfortably animate. The effect is like a glimpse into Atlantis's sub-oceanic living room, and yet our anxieties of the vast depths are offset by a vague sense of familiarity and recognition. A white pitcher, from which the picture derives its name, sits on a table, perhaps about to be accepted into the clutches of a green urn-headed creature whose gray arm extends like a crane from its bulbous body-the latter barely visible within the Eames-like chair in which it is seated. This body occupies the site of our own, reflecting a theatrical avatar whose corporeality mirrors our own yearning absence.
PTG.73 (Large Canopy) confounds this conceit even further. While the frame of the work is apparent (yet always in flux, as the large pieces are comprised of several silk-screens on separate stretchers, with the images often bridging from one panel to the next with but a hair's breadth of space to create a discontinuity of line), we observe another frame'in situ,' which is to say within the spatial matrix circumscribed by the work's exterior limits. Layering is rendered an obsolete concept, as every object, every spatial indicator is laid flat on the same plane. The entirety of the dramatic scene is pressed up against the resolute flatness of the picture plane, and the colors are aloof-vibrant as they might be-silk-screened into the fabric of the ground to craft a continuous, smooth, fluid surface. This is the eternal present, the place of origin, where myths are born-suspended, jovial, ludic, and pristine-in a space just out of reach, yet always'just there.'
This essay accompanies Eric and Heather ChanSchatz's exhibition, In Situ at Galerie Michael Janssen, Cologne, Germany, April 18-June 2, 2007.