New York

Claudette Schreuders

Deceptively simple, Claudette Schreuders’s painted wooden sculptures have the gravity of a serious child. But their plainness is chosen and careful, arising not out of innocence or ignorance but out of an effort, apt for the reductive process of wood carving, to pare down the complexities of experience to undeniable forms, solid and condensed. Born in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1973, Schreuders grew up under apartheid but was surely protected from its true brutalities by being white. (She is of Dutch and Afrikaner descent.) She has lived through its overthrow and through the creation of the new state. Her work reflects a sensitivity to inequalities of power and to the politics of belonging, or not, and though she always addresses these problems symbolically and personally—her concerns appear more in relationships between individuals than in social analysis—it is easy to pick up her objects’ responsiveness to vibrations in the larger nation. At the same time, exactly because they are personal, they may resonate with the feelings of viewers who need not know that Schreuders is South African.

This recent show was called “The Fall,” and the pieces related to the story of the Garden of Eden. Like Stephan Balkenhol, who also works in painted wood, if with a rougher facture, Schreuders likes to put vernacular contemporary figures in the ancient roles of myth and on the elevated daises of sculpture: Her Adam and Eve in The Fall, 2006, are an everyman and -woman for a warm-weather climate, he in checked pants, perhaps seersucker or gingham, she in a white tank top, pink shorts, and sandals. The figure of the naked woman in Departure, 2006, recalls the genre of images of the Expulsion, from Masaccio and Cranach to Michelangelo, but sports a rather more modern hairstyle than Eve usually does. Other works have a more oneiric quality than I remember in Schreuders’s earlier art, as when Eve emerges from the sleeping Adam’s stomach in The Beginning, 2006. She puts her hands on his shoulders and gazes down at his face; his eyes are closed, as if she were his dream.

With their outsize heads, blunt features, and chunky, clunky bodies, these sturdy figures have a presence, a density, despite their small size—most of them are under three feet high. Yet the work’s strongest quality is its subtle anxiety, both emotional and corporal. Schreuders finds ways to make the body register the strangeness of its own being. The biblical tale of the Fall, about difficult knowledge of the body, makes that idea literal and grand, despite the works’ modest scale, but a group of lithographs in the show, all of them remaking the images of earlier sculptures, explore the same theme through a certain physical awkwardness. In Owner of Two Swimsuits, 2006, the hips, chest, and shoulders of a woman in a swimsuit show the tan lines left by another, slightly larger one. Folk everywhere will probably sympathize, in Coney Island as in Capetown, but Schreuders makes this cosmetic gaffe the sign for something more troubling: the alienness of white-skinned people in the land beneath the African sun. But then, I think, the question becomes broader still: whether or not we are at home in the world.

David Frankel