Whether remembered as cautionary tale or cataclysmic event, the COVID-19 outbreak from which we are reeling, has the potential to do lasting damage to our lives, including changing how we relate to our public surroundings and how we value our interior settings.
The day before the first round of temporary shutdown announcements, I made it by Co-Lab Projects to see the somewhat ominously titled exhibition “Darkening Warmth,” featuring work by Austin expat and now Brooklyn-based, Elizabeth Schwaiger. In its own way, Schwaiger’s work suggests disaster on the heels of societal indulgence, and our illusory grasp of order.
The bests of the show are arguably the large paintings. “Enough Warmth” (2020) is a 66” x 76” acrylic, ink and watercolor on canvas that reminded me of Velazquez’s “Las Meninas,” mainly in the paintings-of-paintings part, and resonant in the loose and expressionistic brushstroke. Schwaiger’s images relate in a roundabout way to photographs; this one inspired by Gertrude Stein’s apartment. “Enough Warmth” conjures the comfortable and bookish Parisian salon, although empty of its inhabitants, the avant-garde elite or any other notable guests.
Typically, warm and rosy colors are associated with the hearth and domesticity; here the fleshy putty hues evoking the meaty human body shape a remarkably bourgeois setting. Exhibition text states Schwaiger’s paintings, full of “decadent interior trappings,” are “a call to action to a great reprioritization of our aims as individuals and as a society with the chance yet of holding back the tide.” A scarcity of societal connection, absence of moral authority, and general distrust in government is not lost on today’s artists, who try to take up the slack.
The source for the spectacular red and pink, “Turning Tide,” (2019) was an image of the 1899 Peace Convention at The Hague, although, Schwaiger is reluctant to connect the two. She stresses: “I’m not actually looking to depict the source material in any of the paintings. (I come from a rigorous portraiture background, and if that was the goal, I’d just duplicate the photo.) Instead, I’m making work that represents new archetypes of places and subjects rather than specific ones. The painting becomes a stand in for all political theaters and places of accord and treaty crafting instead of just the Hague.”
Yet at this moment, a disarmament meeting that sought to forbid the destruction or seizure of an enemy’s property, unless demanded by the necessities of war and — one that made the attack on undefended towns, or buildings, especially those dedicated to religion, art, and science, along with charities, hospitals and places needed by the sick, unlawful seem especially prescient.
Schwaiger notes that the event image is a symbol, “more visceral, and far from a simple historical reflection. I’d rather leave that possibility to the viewer, the possibility that this is a now-place or a future-place as much as a past-place.”
Like “Enough Warmth,” the “Turning Tide” composition appears to overlay a grid with paintings, and décor arranged formally throughout, here in a dramatically high-ceilinged room with a tall curtain as a backdrop. Instead of a portrait posed of male dignitaries within some opulently appointed ballroom or hall, figures are abstracted and depicted through bunches of roughly executed fuchsia marks. From them paint drips trickle towards the bottom of the canvas.
Exuberant display? Yes. Anxiety inducing? Perhaps. The exhibition’s text refers to Schwaiger’s subjects as “purpose-driven societies that are in raucous collision with their potential demise: flooding, decrepitude, overgrowth, and abandonment.”
While the “raucous collision” of the exhibition only consists of 16 paintings, they range in scale from 6” x 8” to 66” x 88.” Notably, some of the medium sized paintings of interiors are installed on top, under or adjacent to very small ones depicting clouds and storm imagery.
The ironically intimate paintings of smoldering clouds and huge weather events complicate art historical approaches to the sublime — the 18th/19th century concept which highlights nature’s simultaneous ability to seduce and destroy, possessing qualities of awe tinged with fear. These once Romantic notions still summon emotion. Co-Lab’s hanging of the small works butted up against or adjacent to the large ones creates tension between order and chaos, big and small, possessable and unattainable.
Paintings of composed man-made interiors now dwarf ones of nature’s big sky? Forces strain against one another making Schwaiger’s lush and layered painting both alluring and disturbing.
I would encourage folks to see this show at Co-Lab’s spot at Springdale General. Through April 25, the gallery is opening by appointment only to no more than two visitors at time. Contact Sean Gaulager at to set up an appointment.
As we surround ourselves with material goods and amass provisions trying to control our environment, this moment, and these paintings, confirm that nature’s effects on our health and safety are real.
“Darkening Warmth” will be on view through April 25 by appointment only to no more than two people at a time. Contact Sean Gaulager at . Co-Lab Projects, 1023 Springdale Road. co-labprojects.org