New York

Thomas Scheibitz

For visitors pining for another encounter with Thomas Scheibitz’s exuberant, chalky pastel canvases, this show must have been disappointing. In place of the wide, quasiabstract suburban landscapes and quirky still lifes that hung here in two previous exhibitions were a few framed works on paper, one tiny painting, and a roomful of odd sculptures arranged on an ad hoc platform. Whereas Scheibitz’s paintings reliably offer thrilling hues, jostling forms, and tensed, matte surfaces, these new sculptures looked uneven, almost unfinished. Pale beneath the gallery’s large skylight, they seemed shy and uncomfortable, like mismatched guests at a dinner party.

Sculptures have always accompanied paintings in Scheibitz’s shows, but merely as footnotes, serving as reminders of the artist’s woodworking days at the Dresden Academy and hinting that there’s more to his painting than meets the eye. Here the sculptures’ role seems clearer. The abstracted forms represent objects filtered through Scheibitz’s painterly aesthetic: a house, a star, a duck, an apple tree, all familiar from his earlier canvases. The sculptures’ strange tactility, stretched dimensions, and dreamlike scale are essentially three-dimensional extensions of the paintings’ interlocking system of flattened, distorted shapes, likewise serving as pictorial devices that coolly deny the viewer access to the objects.

Scheibitz’s sculptures seem to complete a simple conceptual process. But the project is in fact complicated, because the figurative elements in the paintings are themselves representations of representations, having been adapted from an archive of media clippings the artist keeps in overstuffed folders. Scheibitz’s archive is no Atlas, but rather a collection of meaningless blips in the cultural miasma, a cross section of our kaleidoscopic visual world. No private images are included; the content is invariably banal. The artist transforms his subjects almost beyond recognition, fragmenting and elongating them into uncanny unfamiliarity and freezing them solid amid blocks of icy color. The resulting alienating effect of the paintings and sculptures reflects an alienation from reality itself that characterizes our contemporary life within a constant blur of media saturation.

Scheibitz’s fascination with a scientific study he read about last year in the German weekly Der Spiegel hints at the depth of his project. In the article, a profile of brain researchers who were testing for “public memory” by monitoring subjects’ common neural activity when certain words were presented to them, Scheibitz recognized parallels with his own practice: His trove of images comes from, essentially, the public’s visual memory bank. (The words that apparently triggered the same reaction in the most subjects, Maus, Appetit, and Dezember, provided the title of this show and of most of the works in it.) For Scheibitz, a familiar word functions as just another found symbol to be lifted from the oblivion of commodity culture and placed out of context and revived as an object of contemplation.

While the search for public memory, or “universal consciousness,” is hardly new to art, the common ground that inspires Scheibitz is remarkable for its triviality. Yet by making use of traditional devices like perspective shift, visual push-pull, and the golden section, he may be approaching something “higher”: a universal language of painting. After all, it is the seductive colors, refreshing dynamism, and cool reserve of global signage and advertising that inform the contemporary eye—or is it the other way around?

Nell McClister