At first appearance, David Schutter’s paintings appear almost blank, somewhere between painterly gray monochromes, awfully dry and dead, and overwrought images obliterated into neutral tones. Closer up, the grays separate into more grays—a brighter golden, a deeper charcoal, a greenish dead-moss, and so on—while the seemingly uniform surface opens into a surprising depth of layered brushwork. Like his drawings, Schutter’s paintings are intense accumulations of curling touches, brushy attacks, and bits and clips of painting’s language of flourish. Describing only space, these expressive marks convey meaning abstractly, like gray and black nods without context.
Appreciating these somber works requires a little knowledge of their history. The title of this exhibition, What Is Not Clear Is Not French, is drawn from an essay written by the royalist writer Antoine de Rivarol (1753–1801). His famous essay, The Universality of the French Language, proudly presented French as a language epitomizing Enlightenment values while avoiding the pitfalls of other European languages: It lacked the hardness of German, the weakness of a polluted Italian, and the baseness and superfluity of English. The infallible French, meanwhile, embodied clarity, structure, and order, while yet preserving a lyrical grace. Typically of the time, and parallel to developments in French academic painting, de Rivarol was anxious to rationalize the beauty and effect of the French language, to measure and describe the logic of its romance, and to celebrate it within the charged arena of competing nationalisms.
This impossible desire to codify expressive qualities, situated both conceptually and historically between Enlightenment’s ambition to know and a still-inchoate notion of romantic experience, has attracted Schutter’s attention before in the form of Charles Le Brun’s famous treatise, Conférence sur L’Expression. A landmark document in the French academy, Le Brun’s investigation into the psychology and aesthetic effect of human expressions led to an engineered guide for painters, complete with figures and diagrams for every conceivable emotion. For years afterward, a certain upturned brow and narrowed eyelid (for example) meant suspicion for the artists who deployed it in their works. In addition to speaking on the subject in 2011 at the University of Chicago (where Schutter also teaches)*, his work incorporates these elements of expression in a loose weave, interrupted and blended to create an uncertain insinuation of meaning.
The strongest tension in David Schutter’s paintings is between their historical referents and their contemporary interpretation. While the abstract drawings wear their history plainly in academic marks and moves, it is impossible to see Schutter’s paintings without the deep-set history and theory of monochrome abstraction—our own academy, perhaps, in which the flattened, negotiated space of Agnes Martin or the emotional deadness of Mark Rothko’s later works both feel nearer than anything in the salons of 18th-century Paris. Yet Schutter’s paintings insist on their history. Each is painted in memory of a specific art-historical work, and even made to the same scale, though the specifics are only suggested. We are asked to trust that the warm blacks of AIC G (2014) come from some work—a Corbet? a Corot?—as it was seen by the artist at the Art Institute of Chicago faithfully interpreted through his desaturating memory; likewise, we can assume that NGS C 3 (2009) originated at a different point of contemplation, perhaps in the National Gallery of Scotland. Unlike many other artists’ abstractions, our interpretations here are not entirely free.
Despite this play of abstraction and specificity, whether and to what degree the artist’s process of specific recollection manifests in the works themselves is a subject for debate. Clearer is Schutter’s insistence on painting’s evidentiary role in the history of western thought. His fusion of academic modes and devices prompts questions about today’s contemporary art: If painting is still a place where a culture’s ideals can manifest as values and theories, what might we learn from how we discuss painting today?
David Schutter: What Is Not Clear Is Not French is on view at Rhona Hoffman Gallery through May 31, 2014.
*Full disclosure: The author studied at the University of Chicago from 2011 to 2013 and was a former student of the artist.