Pieter Schoolwerth Model as Painting

Abstraction, digital or painterly

By Rachel Wetzler

'Model as Painting', Miguel Abreu Gallery, 2017, Installation view. Image: Charles Benton Pieter Schoolwerth, Mailbox #2, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York

Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York, 21 May – 30 June

Pieter Schoolwerth’s most recent body of work riffs on the title of art historian Yve-Alain Bois’s influential 1990 book Painting as Model. The latter is ostensibly a collection of essays on modernist abstraction, but it also serves as something of a manifesto for formalist criticism – not of the dogmatic Greenbergian variety, but a formalism that treats painting as ‘a theoretical model in itself’ rather than a screen onto which theory might be projected.

Schoolwerth is also preoccupied by abstraction, albeit of a different kind: the works in this exhibition, split between Miguel Abreu’s two Lower East Side locations, attempt to register what the artist has described in the press release to this show and elsewhere as ‘forces of abstraction in the world’, particularly one in which everyday life is increasingly colonised by digitisation. Drawing an analogy between the virtual spaces of the screen and the canvas, Schoolwerth’s paintings compress layers of information into jigsawlike depictions of generic nonplaces – waiting rooms, student centres, suburban housing tracts – populated by the blank silhouettes of equally generic figures.

To create these works, Schoolwerth employs an elaborate iterative process, moving between analogue and digital modes of production. He begins with photographs of shadows cast by live models; these photographs then form the basis of drawings and photocollages. After working out the basic composition, he creates three-dimensional models in hand-carved foamcore, which are assembled into wall-mounted reliefs and then photographed. Schoolwerth digitally edits the resulting image, often filling the compositional template with fragments of photographs found online. The edited image file is printed onto the canvas, at which point paint finally enters the equation, with Schoolwerth adding dramatically textured, gestural brushstrokes as ornamental flourishes atop the surface. Using this multimedia substrate or ‘painting’ as a ‘model’, Schoolwerth produces a new version in wood relief through the use of a computer-controlled router.

Though the works are playful in appearance, they are also profoundly disorienting in their impossible, multidimensional illusionism, and unsettling in their portrayal of atomised social relations via affectless avatars. In Break Up #5 (2017), the ghostly form of a male figure sulking on a couch interlocks with that of a woman heading for the door; in Student Center #1 (2017), overlapping figures adopt conversational poses, literally talking past each other. Their material presence is equally confounding: on the canvases, areas of thick impasto sit alongside the simulated texture of pixelated jpegs, while the enamel paint coating the wood reliefs gives them the look of plastic.

At the gallery’s larger Eldridge Street space, the paintings, sculptures and collages are set within an installation based on the set for the film The Casting Agent (2017), a collaboration between Schoolwerth and Alexandra Lerman. Screened in a small side-room near the start of the exhibition, the film features animated shadows – a bit of green-screen trickery – representing the titular casting agent, described as a stand-in for the artist, and his aspiring model. The two move in and out of painted wood sets, speaking in a garbled approximation of human language. It’s weird and fun to watch, but seems to miss what makes the paintings successful: the way in which they crystallise the experience of the digital space, embedding theory within their form. 

From the September 2017 issue of ArtReview