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Weapons of Mass Destruction
 

PATRICIA SCHAEFER

 

 

Pleasant 9, 5’ x 6’ (oil on canvas), 2003
 

JL:  What inspired your "Post war domestic" series and who are the people in "Pleasant 9"

PS: To answer this question, I have to go back to the past, when I was a graduate student in photography at the San Francisco Art Institute. I was fascinated with the domestic photography being  done.  I was entranced, visually, with the way suburban landscapes captured some essence of a lost utopia.  I came to art with a literary and American culture studies background.   Now, for the first time, in a purely visual way, I  saw how  gender  and  suburban housing shaped and reimaged family life.  How suburban life was a restoration of  the American dream.  I was drawn to this type of work probably for unconscious reasons too.  For many of us growing up in the 1970's, the suburban world was our first world, the house with the lawn and the little backyard was our first experience of intimacy.  This world achieved a primal, mythic power in our imagination.  I think it became almost sacred -- that little house, next to all the other similar houses, the nearby playground, the carefully planted trees and gardens -- this was our first and only safe and insulated little garden of Eden.  Whether it was false, or  broken -- and competing ideas as to whether it can be somehow reborn -- like a Phoenix rising from the ashes --  these are the issues we struggle with for the rest of our lives.

The most sacred thing to a child is the house.  Think of it -- it is the first thing almost any child draws with her crayons.  As an artist, this to  me had many implications.  That primitive connection, the symbolism.

You ask about the people in "Pleasant 9."  I think it is important in my process that I generally work within a somewhat populated landscape. It is important to identify with  a figure in the paintings, and then riff off strange places in the landscape.   So the figures, or characters, in these works are important.  There is a story there -- a topic inside those pieces. Those particular people in the painting called "Pleasant 9" are the family of a good friend.  One day he happened to show me Kodachromes of his family that his dad had taken years before -- a vast storehouse of wonderful images.  I immediately felt a huge kinship with the way this family looked and interacted in the photographs, and I have used them a source for my paintings frequently over the years.

 

Evergreen,  5’ x 6’ (oil on canvas), 2006
 

JL: Drifters and Evergreen both look like something out of the bunker building 50s or sixties. Also brings to mind David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock films for some reason. Something idyllic about them, but also sinister at the same time.  What do you think?

PS: Well, I'm not sure what you mean exactly.  "Evergreen" has no building in it -- it is a garden with two people. That said, I do think there is something equally sinister and idealistic and naive in the paintings.   

I do think that the images convey a sense of some unnamed threat -- something nuclear and vague at the same time.  The paintings pose  bits of Americana against vacant land and an even deeper and more generalized vacancy.  This indicates or suggests something nuclear,
as well as some social themes and political issues.  It is not just the images but how they are painted.  With "Evergreen" the way the garden appears so hyper-detailed in paint becomes disturbing, I think. 

 

Drifters, 5’ x 7’ (oil on canvas), 2006
 

JL: I also pick up on an environmental factor. What about politics?  Do you see this work as addressing political issues

PS: I do see this work as political. The first reaction from viewers is sometimes deceptive -- they see the work as strangely mysterious, but they also tend to comment on the sweet sense of nostalgia imbedded in it. That element lives in the work, but it is significant that I began this series in earnest in the winter/early spring of 2003, when I was fortunate to  enjoy an artist residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, California, during the first days of the invasion of Iraq.  The utter wrongfulness of this act stunned me -- as did the fact that most Americans were quietly wiling to go along with the war and the status quo at the time.  As you
notice, much of the series involves visual representation of the 1960's and 1970's. 

The Bush administration's efforts have been aimed at dismantling the social and democratic achievements of the 1960's and 70's to the greatest extent possible. In this series, we are "looking back" at a time that is many ways was much more liberal,forward-thinking, free of prejudice. optimistic and invigorated than the society will live in now in 2006.  That irony was not lost on me in painting these pieces.  

It truly gives one a respect for all the meanings of "revolution," including that of going in a circle.   There is something sad in looking back at this time in history.  There is also something immensely relevant.

I also would say this work is political because it is involved in a dialogue about democracy and the family.  It is involved in exploring "Americanness" and what that means.  It also looks at certain elements of American life and the mythology of the "American Dream" -- that is, significant leisure, one's own house and garden to set up as an individual, personal paradise, prosperity, kids and family
relationships as the most meaningful and relevant ones to have.  These are not the icons of every society, certainly.  Even in such a turbulent time as the 1960's and 70's, one sees these elements held up again and again for veneration and for acquisition.
 

 

 Rocket, 24" x 36" (oil on canvas), 2003.
 

JL: What about these archetypes and psychology behind this work?


PS: Each painting takes place in a setting -- a generating image.  There is a broad sense of a story, and in it, for me, are particular images of people who demonstrate  certain universal qualities of human experience. These are the figures I draw on to convey the universal. 

There is the young innocent -- and the the protector .... But more than that, I think that I often draw on a gateway figure, poised between domesticity and wilderness or vast incandescent landscape.  A real "Errand into the Wilderness."  That is a particularly American motif, as Perry Miller's book demonstrated, but in these particular paintings, both options seem threatening.  There is subtle menace in the enclosing family as well as  the empty, vast meaningless  landscape, each one communicating with the other.  What I am working with is a psychology of fear. A mass psychosis of fear that may drive the American character.

 

Cat's Cradle, 4' x 4' (oil on canvas), 2003
 

JL: Who are the two people in Cats Cradle?  Is that a Forma scientific book by the way?

PS: Cat's Cradle -- Think Kurt Vonnegut.  Ditto re: "Forma." It does not matter who the people are; they are archetypes.  My work is not autobiographical. Cat's cradle is about counter culture.


 

Chalet, 5' x 6' (oil on canvas), 2006
 

JL: What is going on now in American painting right now as opposed to what is happening in Europe?  Do you sense some kind of a major shift in painting and art in general?. Towards something other than post modernism?
 

PS: Overall I think there is a cultural divide, reflected in world-views, between art in America and art made elsewhere, including Europe.  You take your political imprint with you. In the U.S, a lot of art decisions are driven by money -- who to show, who will sell, what to make based upon what will sell -- a lot of art in America is about recouping investments -- on all sides.

Moreover, simply in subject matter, there is a dichotomy between the Old World and the New. Americans are escapees of rigid class culture and crave constant change.  Art has to change and change and change, and the constant emphasis on something new means that exploration is not, by consequence, very deep. It also means that no artist wants to stick to enduring themes. In Europe, I think, centuries of experience has shown that change is not always the answer, and that transformations can bring chaos or worse.  Change can also be deceptive and lead quickly back to restoration of a prior destructive order.

My paintings want to have a conversation about American culture and society, while most new American art from the last ten  years does not really seem engaged in having any such  public conversation.  The very idea seems antiquated. A great deal of contemporary art is about the internal experience of the artist. When it isn't, it does seem to focus on trends and subcultures -- skateboard culture, street art,  queer experience, goth and so on.  There is always a big emphasis on whatever is currently out there and  in fashion. In fact, art has been very intermingled with fashion publications and fashion trendsetters in the last decade. 

Overall, the consequence is a loss of seriousness in art that bothers me, a loss of scope and ambition, of big questions, and disturbingly, a growing agreement that art is just one more commodity for mass consumption with its target audiences.  The focus for young artists is on selling, not arriving at the level of some profound thinking.  Intellectual curiosity seems to have been supplanted by the desire for  celebrity and money.   But art can and until now has been  used to make people think in very large terms about serious issues, and artists made work, at one time, for people in generations they would never meet, for posterity.

Is it different in Europe?  Maybe.  A little bit. I think you can see in some European art, particularly German art, a  focus on deep cultural questions, an exploration of broad and serious themes.  This tradition in Germany goes back to Joseph Beuys, and his influence as an art teacher and philosopher at the Dusseldorf Academy.  German artists, in particular, have been engaged in a profound dialogue with their heritage. Germans have had to deal with the Nazi past in their work, and that has created a generation of self-consciously, deliberately "German" artists: Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, even a newer painter like Neo Rauch -- who seem to be mining the mythologies of their cultural heritage.  But in the very newest artists, even in Europe, you see a growing emphasis in art on a new interiority and separate , fragmented, spheres of experience.

I think this shift goes beyond the leap from Modernism to Post-Modernism.  I think it goes to a real loss of paradigm in art-making right now.

 


Just Born Peeps, 5’ x 5’ (oil on canvas), 2003
 

JL:  Can you please tell me about your creative process. How you make a painting. Do you always work from photographs?

PS: In terms of my creative process, I guess I need a certain  milieu (a suburban lawn, a row of roadside restaurants, 1970's macramι, a dreamy desert landscape with a certain philistine group of children out front).  Usually I find types of images in old photographs -- but not always.  Heartrendingly American scenes are all around us -- containing  what Nabokov once described as " a quality of wide-eyed, unsung, innocent surrender."   I work pretty intuitively.  Something catches me, and then I am interested in the image -- and how to paint the image.  I think my paintings start to get interesting when the paint is added -- because the paint is adding something new to the sense of an old picture, or a scene of Americana.  A feeling emerges, a sense of danger and emptiness often comes through -- and if it doesn't, the painting probably doesn't work.  I often change the composition around.  Sometimes I work over or cannibalize old canvases and an unplanned element or image emerges that can be  evocative and useful.  I am a very literary person, and I think a lot of American literature runs through these pieces, but hardly in obvious ways.  I like to think the paintings have a subtle mystery, because they are distillations of so many pieces of American literature and culture, and when I am lucky, that all resonates.


JL: What else are you working on?

PS: I am continuing to work on this series.   I am also making new work around the themes of technology, isolation and identity. And, because I am still a writer, I am finishing up a novel that has been in the works for a long time.
 

 

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