Tanya Bonakdar Gallery February 27 – April 18, 2009
Painter and sculptor Thomas Scheibitz is sharp, smart, and funny without devolving into parody or citation. With a vengeful glee that I find utterly delightful, he turns formalist geometric abstraction and minimalist sculpture on their heads and glues a dunce cap to their feet. It seems to me that Scheibitz has taken a vow not to be boring, ponderous, or jokey. While Frank Stella’s oversized protractor paintings are about as cheery as a greeter at a second-tier Las Vegas casino, Scheibitz’s paintings and sculptures are sinisterly gleeful, an unlikely synthesis of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory and Dr. Frankenstein’s castle.
In his paintings and large works on paper, the artist develops a highly stylized, artificial world in which nature is completely absent, but where allusions to manmade things abound. Scheibitz signals this absence through a lexicon of flat, interlocking, and abutting geometric planes, which dance deftly between abstraction and schematic representation, two- and three-dimensionality. The dance, however, is not the point because that would become, as he knows, too easy and habitual a thing to do. His sense of play blurs the boundaries between architectural model and representation. “GP 126” (2009) is either a box or a room in which a plane (is it made of paper or foamcore?) seems to be floating diagonally, like a drunk managing to stay upright while lurching across the room.
Scheibitz’s palette collides two kinds of color: strident variations of primaries and secondaries, except for green, which he hardly ever uses, and grisaille. Largely confined to clearly articulated sections, the artificial colors and different shades of gray interrupt each other, like narcissists talking about themselves at a party for someone else. The internal scale of Schebitz’s paintings and sculpture, and the way he reconfigures the relationship of things, is the clearest barometer of this artist’s visual acuity. If he were a filmmaker, the camera would constantly be establishing different points of view, with each capable of evoking an open-ended narrative. In the sectioned tondo, “Keramik II” (2008), you might get the idea that you are looking through curtains at something round, that you are a voyeur who hasn’t quite figured out what’s going on, though clearly something is. The painting “GP 130” (2009) suggests an alarm clock sitting on a hotel nightstand, while the notched blue door in “GP 127” (2009) mysteriously occupies an open space next to a nondescript building whose function is not clear (is it a house with a peaked roof or an imitation cottage?). The sculpture “Fenster” (2006-2008) recalls Venetian blinds tilting at an awkward angle or a bookcase whose shelves have slipped out of place, while “Das Auge des Wagenlankers” (2006-2008) shares something with George Sugarman’s odd concatenations as well as structures found in children’s playgrounds.
The tension between surface and depth is as grating as the colors. Even when a painting hints at depth, the space comes across as airless. There is no place in this world where one can relax. I am reminded of The Prisoner, the cult TV show popular in the 60s, at the height of the Cold War. Number Six, as the prisoner (Patrick McGoohan) was known, was trapped inside The Village, a prison disguised as a vacation resort. Week after week he failed to escape, to figure out the identity of his tormentor, or to learn why he was imprisoned. Deception, false clues, and betrayal were integral parts of his everyday life, and of Scheibitz’s paintings. Even though they aren’t recondite, we can’t fully translate either the paintings or the sculptures, and that frustration is also their pleasure. Eluding our attempts to name them, his work suggests that legibility is to be rejected if only because it posits that the viewer is stupid and needs to be told what to think and feel. He wants to undermine the authoritarian impulse underlying architecture and art.
From the paintings I get the feeling that the inability to distinguish between utopia and prison is important to Scheibitz. For him, a painting isn’t natural; it is a manmade thing that is artificial and necessary. This is why I think he upends purist thinking. You couldn’t make a pure painting or sculpture back in the 60s, and for some who grew up during the Cold War, you surely can’t do it now. It was a repressive idea to begin with, closer to a prison increasingly ruled by theorists than a utopia where freedom prevails. Although Scheibitz has developed a recognizable lexicon and palette, he has resisted easy solutions or the hardening of his vocabulary into a style. If he can extend or transform what he has already accomplished, he could become something far more significant than an artist monitored by the marketplace, which is not where the discourse is taking place. If he can reject becoming a darling of the theorists and keep his project open and unpredictable, he could unfetter the situation even more than he already has.