“Objects of common desire”: Karin Schneider at Dominique Lévy
Karin Schneider: Situational Diagram at Dominique Lévy
September 7 to October 20, 2016
909 Madison Avenue (at 93rd Street)
New York, 212 772 2004
Layer by layer, with a mixture of Mars Black and cobalt blue, the surfaces of Karin Schneider’s paintings are built up until the matte black surface is rendered saturated yet delicate, revealing brushstrokes or internal compositions only when the light falls a certain way. Squint and bend down: these are not by Ad Reinhardt. The stenciled words “Poland,” “Syria,” or “Serbia” replace Reinhardt’s crosses on three of the canvases. Simultaneously challenging and perpetuating the notion that art must build upon a lineage of art history, Schneider’s works in “Situational Diagram” at Dominique Lévy reactivate the works of Reinhardt, Barnett Newman, Tarsila do Amaral, and Mark Rothko.
The downstairs gallery is a visual matrix. A metal armature stretching from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall occupies most of the floor (with the three-dimensional form of a trisected square, as in Reinhardt’s works). Canvases are hung from its bars so that their midpoints match those of the steel frames. Each has been painted in that same Reinhardt-like method. Though the light is generally even due to the semi-opaque glass of the gallery’s windows, one’s eyes must adjust to appreciate how the works vibrate between inner and outer squares, painted in slightly different hues. From the four swatches of black used in all works, each of these (O) paintings was made in one combination of a color pair.
Those four swatches are exercised again in Schneider’s Index series upstairs. In oil, petroleum, and coal on canvas, the paintings infuse Reinhardt’s aesthetics with media that are undeniably subject to the pressures of geopolitical conflicts and depletion. The same materials are in V (MR/RC#1473) (Void) (2016), a centerpiece of stretched canvas laying horizontally in the gallery so that it seems to sink into itself. Void alludes to Newman and Rothko, whose Pagan Void (1946) and Rothko Chapel paintings, respectively, captured for Schneider those artists’ styles. If her Void collapses those styles into a single work, a black lusterless pit, its triteness is not insignificant. “Style,” Schneider writes in the exhibition’s catalogue, “has the function of transforming single ‘useless’ repetitive actions into objects of common desire.” Part of that desire comes from the pull of recognition; the works shy away from discernibility in their low lighting, but maintain an uncanny familiarity. Yet the act of tugging historical works back into the present is not simply an aesthetic decision — to shift those works into the present is to require that the works read within context of contemporary art. By overlaying puritanical monochromes with the names of countries undergoing immense civil and territorial changes and using materials that have caused political turmoil on their lands, Schneider challenges the separation of art from sociopolitical life that was implied by the introduction of Reinhardt’s original monochromes. An edition of Artforum lying on the gallery floor is opened to an advertisement for this show alongside an image of a toddler refugee, explicitly pinpointing that this work exists now, in this gallery, in our media, and in this global context.
The intricacies of each split, void, extraction, cancellation, index, floating, naming, and situation in “Situational Diagram” are explained in Schneider’s accompanying text, a detailed account of terms and formal histories with formulas of initials and mathematical symbols that explain who the artist referred to in each work and how. These accounts function as supplementary reading, with forays into justice systems, linguistics, subject formation, and style. Though they initially read as quite sincere, the equations as titles seem to mock contemporary art that gives formulaic responses to art history; even the works’ alphabetization in the catalogue by title (I for Index, N for Naming), complete with pronunciation guides, reads less as a linguistic or conceptual move than a jab at simple appendages. The formulas necessarily live on the same pages as Schneider’s texts; the explanations alone risk being overly conjectural to the point of overwhelming the artwork while the equations alone risk being reductively structured, obliterating nuances. Can any artist working today claim without humor that their work, from its conception to execution and display, draws solely on a handful of artists’ works? How significant must a reference be to make it into the equation?
Perhaps the best metaphor for the effect of this exhibition is one of the works itself: a wall drawing, WD#SD (@DL/NY, 2016), captures the title of the exhibition and diagrams a geometry of telescoping squares connected via a diagonal line through their top left corners. At the intersections of black lines, white dots seem to appear peripherally but disappear thereafter in an inversion of the famous Hermann grid illusion. Like that illusion, these works exhibit a fleeting visibility. Askance, they seem to be canonical, but en face they reveal themselves to be acutely contemporary. The black paintings’ visibility is also fleeting in a more literal sense: Schneider has specified that any collector purchasing the works must allow another unspecified artist to paint over the canvas after acquisition. And so the cannibalization continues.