New York

Barbara Schwartz

It’s inevitable that Barbara Schwartz’s new reliefs will be viewed as part of the revival of botanic abstraction which includes Nancy Graves and Gregory Amenoff and which derives from Georgia O’Keeffe and Charles Burchfield, who comes in turn out of Van Gogh’s animistic landscapes. That canalization is fairly clear. But although the individual parts of Schwartz’s works refer to nature, the way those parts are put together is cultural, artificed, which is to say decorative. As with Amenoff, each of Schwartz’s leaves has distinct vascular grooves, each variety its characteristic markings. Schwartz’s phyllotaxy is not nature’s, however; for one thing, there’s never a stem, only a centralized void. For another, she mixes genus and species—much as Graves does, but without caring to acknowledge that there is asymmetry as well as symmetry in nature. Finally, there’s the Matissean space of the works, shallow but not quite collapsed.

These reliefs suggest where the decorative went when it disappeared from the horizon. Billy Al Bengston’s floral patterns and Cynthia Carlson’s wallflowers seem to have emerged from a trip underground as this neoorganic formalism. In their layering and punctures, Schwartz’s bronzes were seeded by Bengston’s screening technique and Carlson’s stencil allusions.

Is there more to Schwartz’s schematic unnaturalness, though, than there is to, say, a dried starfish arranged with other sea wrack in an attractive wall plaque? The fact that the compositions are so centered, so radial, that the layers separate out quite easily, renders them more articulate as insignia than as representations; even the calyx, which is by definition a cavity, is flattened and so made into a sign of itself. The reliefs resemble grillwork, and seem to veil at the same time as they are fully accessible. A paranoid would apprehend a conspiracy, a cabal in nature, disguised for the uninitiated as innocent-looking cultural bibelots. There’s not exactly mysticism in Schwartz’s nature, but there’s an evocation of mystical pictograms in the repetition of circle, triangle, and star. Although nothing so specific as the masonic eye or Star of David nests in these fronds, in a way the work testifies that there is a figure in the carpet of nature, without pushing to penetrate its meaning,

Jeanne Silverthorne