This very large and ambitious exhibition takes up two floors of the Baltic. The scale alone is enough to convey the cultural importance of Thomas Scheibitz, and implicitly reproach those viewers and critics who, like myself, had never heard of him. At first it looks like a show of painting and sculpture, but turns out to consist solely of paintings, some two, some three-dimensional, and a couple in between.
Two-dimensional paintings dominate the lower gallery, varying in size but all employing the same basic vocabulary. They aim for high visibility, an almost toxic opticality, sustained by un-relativised fluorescent pigments, criss-crossed, underscored and outlined by intense, radioactive black. They are strikingly non-negotiable. They are also ugly, in the way Picasso paintings are ugly. Confusingly, they look beautiful in photographs, but they’re not, and when you are in front of them this is a problem.
Three of the largest works are multi-element compositions or ‘tableaux’, in which a number of heterogeneous components are combined within a spatial schema. In Studio 2012, much effort is expended on constructing a hinged series of trapezia, housing inscribed figures and shapes, some of which might be recognisable. ONE- Time Pad 2012 is organised as a lateral parade of diagrammatic visual devices, and the gaps between them, supported by a horizontal platform, while Le Matin 2012 (in the upper gallery) proposes a generalised space of a large interior to accommodate yet more graphic silhouettes of items captured in various intermediate stages of ambiguity.
The underlying convention of most of the paintings however is not the large-scale tableaux, but the portrait. Several works are titled with the subject’s name: John Tennil, Henry Strang, Charles Christadovo, Tracy Berglund and can be understood as attempts to get what is an unsympathetic pictorial vocabulary to engage with something like the identity of the sitter. The situation is reminiscent of Picasso’s semi-cubist pictures of his various models or his Bathers series of the thirties where ugliness becomes stylised, instigating a monstrous yet disinterested sort of abstraction visited upon the human anatomy.
I say ugliness, but it might be more accurate to argue that Scheibitz’s paintings are aesthetically dysfunctional. The colour, shapes, formal relationships, structures, surfaces, space and paint handling deliberately reject the viewers’ need of an aesthetic experience, but do not replace it with the pleasures of bad taste. Only one work, Via Appia Antica 2012, uses the unpromising possibilities of fluorescents to establish a ground of unified chromatic coherence. More coloured pigment has been used and, instead of putting it inside closed outlines or zones, open graphic structures are preferred, giving colour relationships more room to work effectively, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
In the ‘portraits’ it is the dysfunction of shape that is most noticeable. There is a particular curve that looks disturbingly overextended, the ‘leg’ of Tracy Berglund for example. More significant perhaps is a recurring prong-like form, long, narrow and tapering but ending in a rounded protuberance, like a teardrop. It’s in John Tennil and there are two straight versions in Figur Staedler 2012, roughly where the implied subject’s arms and hands would be. I think the extreme plasticity of these shapes, and some of the curves, runs counter to the formal fabric of the work, producing something similar to the effect of anamorphosis. They do not integrate with a consistent scheme of abstraction. Instead they seem like anamorphic projections where forms, when encountered head on, appear stretched into illegibility and only become intelligible if viewed from an imagined line of sight.
It’s easy to see how willing Picasso was to push formal plasticity well beyond the more temperate, perception based limits that Matisse observed. One suspects this was to increase the libidinous power of works depicting the female body. In the portraits Scheibitz does it, I think, in order to deal, not entirely successfully, with the question of identity or character, which are abstractions not accessible to perception. Instead of a monstrous, erotically motivated distortion of the sitter’s body he changes it into a form that looks like a capital letter, which is of course also a ‘character’. This explains the over extension of the ‘arms’ and ‘legs’ in terms of typographical design, as if he is using a slightly grotesque font where the diagonals of ‘R’ or ‘K’ are gleefully elongated for stylistic reasons.
But as well as the paintings, there are the other ‘things’ and in front of these works the viewer needs to take a relaxed view of the categories. It doesn’t cost much to see the three-dimensional structures ‘as painting’ and the rewards of doing so seem to me to be reasonable. First of all these 3-D paintings, unlike their flatter counterparts, are highly functional in aesthetic and formal terms. They have clear profiles, active internal relationships, striking shape, formal variety, modulated colour, interesting and contrasting surfaces, even ‘presentness’, due to their defeat of objecthood. They are also sympathetic platforms for painterly activity, for atmospheric scumbling, glazing, impasto, brushing, stippling, washing, faking, as well as taking opaque pigment, all of which augments rather than confuses what they have to offer.
The majority of these pieces are displayed on two large low plinths in the top gallery and can be viewed from a high mezzanine. This presentation may enhance their similarity to painting as from that angle the plinths appear like horizontal walls. But, because they are grouped they are also more difficult to caption and so should be harder to identify. However, the opposite is the case, simply because each example has a specific character, like the cast of Monsters Inc., clearly stamped out, and markedly different from its neighbour, they can be instantly recognised from distance.
The identity and character they achieve is not of course exactly the same as that with which the portraits grapple but points to a common theme. The three-dimensional paintings derive their mode of identity from a cultural precedent, the world of designed products, logos covered by copyright, of patented typography, where the measurable unlikeness of each item to every other in the global inventory is a prime requirement.
The best work on view was Relief 972 2012, made from three layers of MDF, painted blue, with a slight quiff of darker blue around the top edge. The main critical challenge posed by the Baltic exhibition however is to make sense of Scheibitz’s practice as a whole rather than singling out specific items. The problem is that relying on the evidence of eyesight, rather than website, emphasises the visual limitations of the two dimensional paintings. Probably everything would look great, certainly more even in quality and stylistic coherence, through an I-Pad. Adequately theorising the unevenness of the viewer’s un-digitised experience in the gallery however leads to an odd conclusion, very likely at variance with the artist’s intentions: The two dimensional paintings are not actually meant to be looked at. They function as backgrounds, or as a control group, to the three dimensional paintings. Of course, you feel you have to give the flat paintings your full attention but they don’t reward scrutiny. However one then wonders if their aesthetic dysfunction inflates the visual and formal appeal of the other works. The threat to the connoisseur, under these circumstances, is that these other works may then appear to be a lot better than they actually are.