Building Blocks: Thomas Scheibitz at Tanya Bonakdar
Thomas Scheibitz: Abacus at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York
October 28 to December 19, 2020
521 West 21st Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, tanyabonakdargallery.com
This is as bracing a show as we have come to expect from the German painter Thomas Scheibitz. Didactic and ludic in equal measure, each of his paintings is charged with the task of bringing together opposing forces in a world where art is equally figurative and abstract. If the paintings prove they are something much more than pastiche, it is owing to further dialectic: that the paintings be handsomely realized yet left unsettled and unsettling.
How we know this is immediately apparent in an overview of the exhibition where each painting flaunts its singularity–in striking contrast with shows commonly seen wherein in a bid to convince the viewer of the career, all works on display are merely alike. Consistency is not the goal when it comes to Scheibitz so much as inner stylistic coherence and purpose.
Pile (all works, 2020) is architecturally disposed, yet freely so. Linear squared elements and planar and volumetric spaces are conjoined in an unforced way to maintain a sense of perpetual experiment and exploration. If ever there was a painting that could claim to be descended from Friedrich Froebel’s kindergarten blocks, this is it. Founded in 1837 to induce learning in children through active play, Froebel developed his set of building blocks, which are still in manufacture, to stimulate inventiveness in relating objects in space. Universally known to induce spatial thought and so a child’s portal into adult worlds, this concrete genealogy was very evident in Scheibitz’s previous exhibition at Bonakdar, a show of paintings devoted to the topic of the studio. Geometric and volumetric figures conjoined in a kind of mental space of creative learning. In the current exhibition of deliberately disparate canvases, Pile has all the attributes of creative learning through mental alertness. But as cerebral as this may sound, when viewed up close the painting is typical of the artist’s sensitized craft.
Taken together, Key and the hanging sculpture Magnet , both from this year, are explicit as to method. Scheibitz’s visual vocabulary derives from abstract universal elements that lend themselves to being read as signs, elements he freely permutates Hanging together in Magnet are shapes in outline which create interference such that interior spaces proliferate. Permutations and combinations yield rich figure-ground ambiguities. Key has fused the spatial choices in a flattened quasi-cubist picture plane reminiscent of Juan Gris. Through such revision, Scheibitz has set himself an ambitious program of learning that also extends to embedded meaning and reference. Compelling attention in this regard is Speicher 1072. Budding stalks, perhaps? But this is not adequate to the ambiguities, not so innocent, neither as common motifs nor as universal elements set out in neutrality.
Simple clarity of figural elements in a straightforward-seeming planar space in this painting gives off an air of innocence, but this assumption is soon dispelled by consideration of its title. This contains a reference to Camp Memory, site of the 2014 massacre of Shias and non-Muslims by Islamic State in Tirkrit, Iraq. Implicit in Scheibitz’s practice is an indeterminacy of sense that lends itself to cultural associations of an unsettling kind, without these being allowed to impose themselves. Thanks to reworking the givens of composition, however, the artist leaves us with a difficulty. As spatiality involves social intensity stemming from relative geographical positions, the work induces dynamic intensities through transfigured compositions. We cannot be the facile decoders of signs.