New York

Peter Schuyff

Nicole Klagsbrun

In “Go easy around the eyes,” an essay published in the booklet accompanying Peter Schuyff’s recent exhibition at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery (his first there, and his first New York solo show in six years), Terry R. Myers situates the Dutch painter’s oeuvre in a framework defined by post-endgame geometric abstraction on the one hand—he cites Mary Heilmann and Philip Taaffe as co-conspirators—and East Village “Neo-Surrealism” (another mini-movement of the late 1980s) on the other. Schuyff combines the two strands in his recent work by painting rings, grids, stylized clouds, and other shapes on found portrait, still-life, and landscape paintings and drawings. The resultant palimpsests are mordantly funny exercises in compelling the immovable object of conventional representation to meet the irresistible force of postmodern gamesmanship.

On the surface of his found canvases, which most often suggest the amateur (and often eccentric) renderings collected by Jim Shaw for his 1991 “Thrift Store Paintings” exhibition, Schuyff paints, in oils, a range of curious trompe l’oeil additions that obscure some parts of each image and emphasize or exaggerate others. Suggestive of not-quite-flat pieces of plastic or rubber laid out on the surface of the work (no attempt is made to integrate them into the composition more deeply), these unnameable interruptions are rendered in sometimes muted, sometimes brighter, but always slightly dirty-looking colors that jibe with, without actually matching, those of the pictures beneath. When applied to portraits in particular, Schuyff’s additions have the simultaneously comic and disturbing effect of a Halloween mask, leaving enough of the face visible for us to be able to recognize it—if not by name, then by type—but making alien the overall impression it gives.

Anita (all works 2007) is typical: a small, undistinguished oil study of a woman in a deep red coat to which Schuyff has added a button-like gray-and-orange disk pierced by three round holes that frame the subject’s eyes and grinning mouth. Once we are acclimatized to the incongruity of the disguise itself, our attention is drawn to isolated details like the woman’s slightly decayed (or are they just badly painted?) teeth. But as Myers points out, such interventions are not purely mocking, either of unknown artists or their anonymous subjects; rather, they demonstrate a subtle empathy by highlighting the parallel absurdities of both artistic enterprises, reminding us of their equivalent unreality.

When the ground is provided by a still life or landscape, the oddities of Schuyff’s artificial additives are even more pronounced. In storm, for example, a gray-and-blue rectangle inset with five blue rings hovers in front of the cloudy sky above a rural scene like the ominous floating monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In lambs and little house in the country, the artist has introduced stencil-like overlays to filter each idyllic base image into a cluster of partial views, pushing the already puzzle-like aspect of looking, and of attempting to understand what one is looking at, to a vertiginous extreme.

In Schuyff’s works on paper, twenty-three of which were grouped together in the smaller of the gallery’s two rooms, the artist restricts his palette to black and white and leaves aside the illusionistic lighting effects applied to his canvases. The results—perhaps because of the generally superior quality of the mostly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century drawings with which he begins, perhaps because of their too-tasteful achromatic scheme—are not quite as affecting as the paintings, but display the same sense of counterintuitive design. In God2, for example, a target blots out the head and shoulders of a robe-clad figure. In both bodies of work, however, Schuyff demonstrates a hard-won but lightly worn ability to impose his artistic will on others’ work without appearing either cynical or, as was the case with Jake and Dinos Chapman’s “improvements” to Francisco de Goya’s Disasters of War, superfluous.

Michael Wilson