Visible Extremities: Anna Schuleit and the Art of Looking

Mark Wethli

Coleman Burke Gallery, New York

Wallace Stevens wrote that poetry should “make the visible a little hard to see,” an imperative that Anna Schuleit’s recent paintings and works on paper seem to share. While there is no mistaking that these are figure paintings, Schuleit employs few elements from the traditional lexicon of figurative representation, replacing them with her own vocabulary of shapes, marks, and gestures—some abstract, some representational—all rendered through a wide variety of painterly effects. While glimpses of arms, legs, and feet are readily discernable —represented by contour lines as faithful as a seismograph to every nuance of the model’s form and every movement of the artist’s hand—our overall impression is that of an energized field, one in which the paintings’ artistic means and representational elements are equally apparent.

Flying Chair, by Anna Schuleit Haber

Flying Chair, by Anna Schuleit Haber

Schuleit’s use of raw linen underscores this impression by foregrounding each gesture and brushstroke as an independent calligraphic element, but one that is integral to the ensemble. Not unlike the experience of viewing a Japanese dry garden, looking at Schuleit’s paintings makes us simultaneously aware of the literal nature of their materials and the multiple ways in which each canvas might be read and understood. What we also notice, as the eye ranges across their unprimed and largely untouched surfaces, is that these paintings leave little room for erasure or correction. It’s a daring approach in which Schuleit runs the risk of losing the entire canvas at any moment, but it yields more than a tour-de-force. As we examine the sequence of marks and gestures across the canvas, this process—the time it takes us to register their effect and, implicitly, the time it took the artist to produce—supplants the role of spatial illusion: time, rather than the appearance of depth or volume, becomes, in effect, the paintings’ third dimension. In this respect—as well as in their use of raw supports and grafitto-like markings—Schuleit’s approach has more in common with that of an artist like Cy Twombly, for instance, than it does with that of most figurative artists who come to mind—an essential aspect of what sets her work apart within this tradition.

Two People Ago, by Anna Schuleit Haber

Two People Ago, Anna Schuleit

Looking at the work from this point of view, what mightstrike us at first glance as a tumultuous field of brushwork gradually comes into focus in new ways, recalling what Schuleit’s work shares with Stevens’ conviction about poetry: that the visible should be only “a little hard to see.”The longer we look, the more visible—and more revealing—the figures become. The bodies in these paintings might be clothed or they might not be (it’s sometimes hard to say), but one thing is certain: the paintings themselves are as naked as can be, exposing both themselves and the viewer to important questions about what a painting is, what it can show us, and how.

To help achieve this effect, Schuleit works in series, using a reduced palette—black, white, grey, red, and orange, for the most part—and a wide variety of recurring marks, shapes, and gestures that link one painting to the next and one series to the next.By varying the assortment, quantity, tempo, and scale of these elements within each series, almost like the controls and variables in a scientific experiment (more contour lines in one group, fewer colors in the next), each group of paintings that Schuleit produces has its own distinctive look, working out a particular set of possibilities while maintaining a clear connection to her larger investigation.

The serial nature of Schuleit’s practice serves another purpose as well, each painting acting as a Rosetta stone for others in the series and for her overall body of work. While a shape or gesture in one painting doesn’t function precisely the same way as a similar shape or gesture in another painting, as we become attuned to how these marks are used, our sense of their place and purpose in the paintings deepens, reifying our instincts and making us part ofthe artist’s ongoing search.

The medium of exchange in this relationship between artist, artwork, and viewer—as well as the paintings’ means of representing form and space—is Schuleit’s extensive vocabulary of marks, gestures and painterly effects, each of which achieves a different physical and spatial relationship to the surface of the canvas. By leaving these marks fully visible and independent of one another, Schuleit’s paintings suggest three-dimensional form and space not through conventional means (blending the paint to render the effect of light and shadow on rounded forms), but through purely physical relationships within the paint surface that act as visual analogues for spatial relationships in the world outside the painting.

An area of splattered paint that asserts the literal surface of the canvas—in a painting such as Seated Man II, for instance—might serve as a foil for a nearby line that appears to float closer to the viewer. Likewise, a lighter color that is glazed or scumbled over a darker one, as in many of the paintings, creates a surprisingly cool tone and an atmospheric expanse that can float like a cloud or just as easily suggest the translucency of skin on bone. Still other shapes remind us of the way an ink blot or an oil stain might mark the canvas, in contrast with contour lines that scribe the skin of the paintings as incisively as tattoos.

Taken together like notes in a chord, these various effects evoke a wide range of embodied physical states, retaining their integrity as abstract marks while giving form to human figures whose physical bearing and dignity of spirit are, in their own way, as tangible as any in the history of figure painting.

The iconography of Schuleit’s work—a field of painterly gesturesin which a lucidly drawn pair of feet might be the only identifiable subject matter—brings to mind the eponymous artwork in Honoré de Balzac’s classic short story, “The Unknown Masterpiece.” In the climactic episode, the main character in the story, the master painter Frenhofer, after working on a painting of a human figure for over ten years, enthusiastically unveils it to two younger artists. What he sees as his masterpiece—a triumph of form, space, illusion, and expression—they can only see as “confused masses of color and a multitude of fantastical lines.” Upon closer inspection, however, they discover “a bare foot emerging from the chaos of color, half-tints and vague shadows,” but one whose “living delicate beauty held them spellbound.”

“The Unknown Masterpiece,” written in 1837 but set in the early 1600’s, has been a touchstone for generations of painters. Frenhofer’s story was significant to Cezanne, one he is said to have identified with as he struggled with his own final masterpiece, The Great Bathers. Picasso was equally fascinated by the story and no doubt took some delight (with an equal measure of gravitas) in painting Guernica in the same studio in the Rue des Grands-Augustins that Balzac identified as Frenhofer’s. DeKooning is also known to have admired the story, and the image of recognizable human forms emerging from a sea of swirling paint readily brings to mind his Woman paintings of the early 1950’s.

Balzac’s narrative also points toward one of modern art’s defining and most enduring characteristics: the fitful relationship between artists and their audience. Whether we see Frenhofer as a failed genius (as he comes to see himself), or as a true genius too far ahead of his time to be appreciated and understood (as the title of the story implies), his dilemma has become emblematic of the gap between artists and their public in the modern era, from the first Impressionist exhibition to the latest art fair. The enduring vitality of Balzac’s story for today’s viewers resides in the question of how willing we are to take an artist’s work at face value—especially work that challenges us to break with the familiar and shift toward new ideas and forms of expression that might be difficult to apprehend.

This idea is also recalled, in a different way, in an intriguing passage in the opening pages of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The story’s narrator, Ishmael, on a visit to a tavern just before he sets out to sea on the Pequod, encounters a painting that—not unlike Frenhofer’s—is ambiguous and hard to make out. He notes how the painting is rendered even more cryptic by the “unequal cross lights” of the tavern (one imagines the effect of gas lamps and the dim winter light on the dark, “besmoked” surface of the shiny oil painting), which compound its paradoxical visibility as a physical object and obscurity as an image. Another fictional account of a painting that is highly resistant to interpretation, much less perception, this interlude in the narrative also establishes Ishmael’s role in the text to follow as someone not afraid of but compelled by ambiguity: someone searching for meaning where others find little or none.

In the age of Twitter and web-surfing, this kind of sustained curiosity, scrutiny, and investigation into the deeper nature of things has long since gone out of fashion, as have popular myths about the artist’s tragic role as a prophetic but unrecognized figure in his or her own time. Against this backdrop, the paintings of Anna Schuleit reassert the value of contemplative experience, but with a straightforward, demystified, unsentimental approach that makes them as timely as they are timeless. Suggesting a synthesis of old and new ways of looking, thinking, and feeling, Schuleit’s paintings generate complex visual experiences for the contemplative viewer each of us.

In his short story “The Circular Ruins,” Jorge Luis Borges conducts a thought experiment about a wizard who dreams of creating another human being. After his attempts to dream the figure in its entirety prove fruitless, the wizard decides to conjure his creation by imagining him one painstaking piece at a time. A similar process seems to be at work in Schuleit’s paintings. Each coalesces before the viewer like a body as it might appear in a dream, or in the half-light between dreaming and waking, lucid one moment and ambiguous the next.

By focusing our attention on the purely physical attributes of the work, Schuleit’s paintings and drawings are an invitation to delve more deeply into their nature through the act of seeing alone. Made with no motive beyond Schuleit’s deep commitment to painting and her ongoing inquiry into its potential, these works call upon the imaginative powers in each of us, amply rewarding the imperiled art of looking.

© Mark Wethli and Coleman Burke Gallery, New York, 2009. Mark Wethli is an artist who lives and works in Maine. He is the A. LeRoy Greason Professor of Art at Bowdoin College and chairs the Art Department.