‘Christopher Schade: Islands’

When a painting can make you seasick – as the ones in Christopher Schade's Islands series can – you have a work that's worth a look and a look again

Arts Review

"Christopher Schade: Islands"

D Berman Gallery, through Feb. 17

It's not often that my initial response to a painting is a feeling of seasickness, but that's exactly how I felt standing in front of Christopher Schade's Colossus Island (2005). Fields of choppy sea, night sky, and pure pattern appear to converge in a vortex that is just beginning to spin out of control. In the foreground of the 6-foot-by-6-foot canvas looms a surreal creature that could be a robot, an alien, or a landmass come to life. It lunges, weightless, through a strange landscape made up of the stuff of this world – ocean, earth – or else a parallel universe that actually consists of paint. If we suspend our disbelief while standing in a gallery, we could arguably make this observation about any painting. In Schade's case, however, the impression seems particularly apt, as the works included in "Islands" are, above all else, paintings about painting.

"Islands" is Schade's first solo show at D Berman Gallery and a homecoming for the New York-based artist, who was a fixture on the Austin art scene in the years following his graduation from Yale University with an M.F.A. in painting and printmaking in 1997. (Schade received a B.A.A. from UT-Austin in 1995.) The seven large paintings, along with some smaller works on paper, bring us up to date as they span the years since Schade moved away. The paintings also indicate an accelerating spatial fragmentation in the "Islands" series, from the spindly figure that dominates the reddish-peach ground in Shifting Island (2003) to the multiple, curved horizon lines and patterned planes of Colossus Island.

Schade plays with illusion in unexpected ways, jolting the viewer out of her absorption into the scene depicted in the painting and returning her back to the surface of the canvas, to the paint. In Shifting Island, what appears to be a straightforward figure-ground relationship between creature and landscape is interrupted by an incline in the ocean horizon, which jogs up a bit behind the creature's three-pronged foot and then completely changes color at the edge of the canvas. The creature in Colossus Island plunges one leg into a roiling gray sea while appearing to perch another just on the water's surface. The disorientation caused by this inconsistency is further heightened with the appearance of a creaturely arm behind another field of sea, this one a muddy green. Once such details become apparent, each painting must be viewed again, this time with an eye toward their artificiality. The complete break in the sliver of seascape at the bottom of Spinning Island (2004) tells us that this long, thin rectangle may look like the sea, but it is also a shape made by paint on a canvas.

Charting these developments is one of the pleasures of the show, although I question the inclusion of a few canvases like Open Island (2005) and Sun Island (2005), which seem much less resolved. The space in Open Island is so jumbled that the fun of picking up on small details I found in other paintings is totally lost. If Open Island and Sun Island are transitional works, perhaps their omission would have made for a much tighter exhibition. Still, there is much to be found in "Islands" that will delight. I say look, and then look again.

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