Visitors squirm and maneuver through the bottlenecked interior of Dam Stuhltrager’s cavernous, irregular galleries. It’s cold outside, crowded and stuffy inside. You can smell the person next to you and see the places they missed shaving. In the back room among the crowd is a suite of graphite on paper drawings by Brooklyn-based artist Mike Schall, which look at first to simply facilitate a demonstration of the artist’s technical virtuosity. My initial prejudice is that these odd landscapes are pulled off with the help of complex maquettes or computer-generated images, but, as it turns out, Schall’s environments aren’t so easy to peg. After most of the crowd dispersed and I saw the work unobstructed, something else occurred to me. Mike Schall’s drawn world, like this social setting, has much more interior than exterior logic.
Schall’s graphite-based landscapes float like ghostly, industrial castles in a forlorn, post-apocalyptic sky. Intricate networks of ladders, piping, and footbridges populate the surfaces of dense geological masses that hover forebodingly in boundless space. The large “Laurel Creek Country Refinery” evokes the false sense of an active and productive industrial network. Any traces of what might have been a socially useful environment soon read as a derelict and tangled system of useless cogs, tubes, and passageways. The avenues and paths that could have supported human interaction lead to nowhere and the machines that at first seemed to have stopped working appear never to have worked at all.
The inclination to interpret these structures within the context of a post-industrial wasteland as a social commentary about the effect of industry on the environment proves untenable as the internal logic of Schall’s environment assumes control. The plangent, Roanoke-like sense of abandonment yields to a more whimsical and improvisational experience. Schall’s machinery functions like so many Legos in a child’s linear, frolicking construction spree, where purpose and verbal significance matter far less than the creation of a self-enclosed personalized environment.
This imaginative spirit is underscored by its imperfection. “Scenic Collection Facility” depicts a series of wood-framed towers supporting massive rock forms. In high contrast, the directional light sculpts the stark geometry of the eccentric structures. Angles are slightly cock-eyed and shadows run astray. The fugitive shadows compete with a somewhat distorted perspective with disorienting results. These intentional, or rather, incidental blemishes conspire to subvert any illusionism or objective reference that could potentially deactivate the work.
There are drawings in the show that are more precious and labored than others. Two smaller-scale works, “Twine Bridge” and “Baker’s Field,” feel too complete and careful next to the other drawings. The more Byzantine, sprawling compositions such as “Red’s Quarry” and “Laurel Creek Country Refinery,” by comparison, have a to-be-concluded irresolution that serves them well. Specific regions of the larger compositions, too, feel perfunctory. The darker areas of Scenic Collection Facility go flat and have a colored-in feel—only a speed bump, though, in an otherwise imaginative, stream of conscious creation.
As synthetic, self-contained universes, Schall’s drawings keep company with an emerging class of notable contemporaries. Paul Noble, Robyn O’Neil, and David Thorpe come to mind. In an artistic landscape that is still preoccupied with notions of frontier and originality, this kind of exploration is safely quarantined from such concerns. Schall’s worlds, like others in this realm, have the luxury of finding frontiers and describing cosmologies within a self-defined dimension that is immune from extra-worldly exigencies, and this along with Schall’s individual sensibility makes his illogical world one worth visiting.