Thomas Scheibitz

Writing about Thomas Scheibitz nearly a decade ago, my thought was that he was quintessentially a painter. His recent exhibition in London, “About 90 Elements/TOD IM DSCHUNGEL (Death in the Jungle),” a version of which was originally staged at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, seems to suggest I was wrong: Along with a dozen works on canvas and nine paintings on paper, it contained nine sculptures (including a tabletop grouping titled 20 Models, 2007) and a suite of color photographs, as well as a silk-screen print—making it clear that this tightly woven oeuvre is nonetheless the product of a dialogue among media.

This dialogue becomes especially evident in the photographs Precious Basics, 2007, a set of quasi-abstract images shot in the artist’s studio: Partial views of paintings and sculptures as well as the walls and floor on which they lean or sit combine to construct new compositions with only partly legible space. It’s not just that elements in the paintings can be transposed directly to the photographs—though always taking on a different function—but that the photographs give a clue as to how the paintings are put together: They allow us to understand the image-space of the paintings precisely by avoiding the full presentation of any particular example. Like the photographs, the canvases are concatenations of repurposed fragments. This accounts for the ambiguities that have long characterized Scheibitz’s two-dimensional work, in which representational and abstract elements combine in a fluid but unstable manner, just as the space that contains these separable elements can itself be either abstract or representational.

Painting flows into sculpture as well, and not just because the sculptures typically have painted surfaces. Die Schlacht um Saint Hippolyte (The Battle of Saint Hippolyte), 2007, is a painting rolled up to form a sort of polychrome column, nearly ten feet tall and displayed on a low pedestal. The interplay of rectilinear and curved shapes with which it has been painted reveals itself in counterpoint to the work’s tubular display. Whether intentionally or not, the work recalls a famous dispute between Michael Fried—who saw in a sculpture by Jules Olitski “something far more than an attempt simply to make or ‘translate’ his paintings into sculptures, namely, an attempt to establish surface . . . as a medium of sculpture” by making it possible to see the surface as paradoxically “flat . . . but rolled”—and Robert Smithson, for whom such considerations amounted to a merely “manneristic modernism.” In this contest of wills, Scheibitz seems to come down firmly on both sides, manifesting Smithson’s “skepticism” rather than Fried’s “belief” but recognizing that if, in Smithson’s words, “all becomes ephemeral and in a sense unreal,” an enjoyment of the malleable surfaces of things—and a malleable conception of them, to the point where one can understand the same item as “flat, but rolled”—could be sufficient compensation.

Elsewhere, Scheibitz does not so much turn (roll) his paintings into sculptures as monumentalize the kinds of forms that occur in his paintings—for instance the shapes that appear to derive from typography while denying the signifying role of the letter, as in Captain Amely, 2007, and Sir Louise M., 2007. But they are empty monuments, drained of ideological force. In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Scheibitz explains that his manner of painting makes it a solo task, whereas sculpture demands that he call upon others to help him—but that the sculpture then becomes something to be painted, which once again can only be done by him. It’s as if sculpture represents a collective construction of meaning, painting a private one—and for Scheibitz, the idiosyncratic moment is always the one that counts, which is why I don’t think I was wrong after all in seeing him as quintessentially a painter.

Barry Schwabsky