I was intrigued, surprised and, above all, completely convinced by Pete Schulte’s first exhibition at McKenzie Fine Art, Properties of Dust and Smoke, pt. 2 (October 30 to December 21, 2019). Working with graphite and occasional traces of muted color, Schulte’s 37 drawings in the exhibition ranged from 6 by 6 inches to an eccentric 2 by 90 inch format. The vocabulary encompassed geometric forms, rounded organic forms, architectural patterns and mysterious signs. Compositionally, the works shifted from flat, anti-illusionist surfaces to elusive illusionist spaces. On closer inspection, the viewer is likely to recognize a quirky amalgamation of affections, ranging from Constantin Brâncuși and Brice Marden to Emma Kunz and Paul Feeley, from reductive modular forms to bulbous pop allusions, and from Suprematism to cartoons.
I love that Schulte combines seemingly immeasurable patterns derived from reductive geometric abstraction or decorative architectural detail, whether it can stand alone or referential or both in the same design. I love how in some drawings a light cloud of graphite dust has spread beyond the drawn shape, like an exhale. I love how each drawing brings you closer and invites you to slow your gaze and gaze at carefully arranged accumulations of black and gray dust, to notice the shifting density of form and hand pressure, to be open to contrast and tonal shifts, and the grainy surface of a worked shape.
Committing to work on a design that is larger than you and perhaps within your reach is a challenge few artists rise to, but limiting the width of that same design to two inches requires careful consideration, especially if you work by shape and not rely on gesture to help you move through the drawing. It’s the kind of attention that puts Schulte in the same company as Piet Mondrian, Myron Stout, Susan York, James Siena, Catherine Murphy, Dawn Clements, Harry Roseman and Vija Celmins.
That’s why I went to the exhibition Pete Schulte: The Train and the River, at McKenzie Fine Art (October 29-December 19, 2021). The synthesis of harshness and weirdness was most apparent in the wall sculpture “Slow Train (Tresse VIII)” (2021), which is composed of a pair of overlapping turtle shells that the artist has cast in unsealed bronze.
Schulte repeats the pair of turtle shells vertically until they become a column on the wall. (The larger shell appears to bulge out of the smaller one emerging from below.) Along the length of the gleaming bronze is a white repeating shape resembling a vertebra that the artist has painted. As the title suggests, “Slow Train (Braid VIII)” evokes a train moving through a flat landscape and a braid of hair.
“Slow Train (Braid VIII)” is also an image of a spine that has been painted over a spine-like arrangement of two joined turtle shells. It doesn’t feel like he decided to do this work, but rather that he discovered it was possible. It’s not an expression of will, but of being open to the world and the things you encounter.
That’s what I mean when I say that Schulte merges harshness and eccentricity in one work and comes up with something strange. One of the pleasures of his objects and designs is that they both invite and resist interpretation. The best are mysterious and materially sensual. Here we find Schulte’s sensitivity to light, generally subdued, diffuse and on the verge of fading.
Swollen forms resembling tongues; narrow, straight bands drawn horizontally and vertically; inverted triangles; wavy strips; and ellipses are just some of the elements of Schulte’s visual vocabulary. He uses graphite, ink and pigments. Sometimes the drawings work by contrast (black and white), sometimes by tone (different intensities of black and gray, with white and perhaps a tinted sheet of paper). Solid, transparent shapes adjoin and overlap, like shoppers at a Christmas sale.
Schulte’s shapes remind me of columns, sails, windows, archaic signs, elongated bubbles (like those in a lava lamp or a cartoon), and armorial bearings. The strangeness of works such as “Slow Train (Braid VIII)” and the tall, narrow designs he had in both his first New York exhibition and this one testify to an artist pursuing his own trajectory. , making designs that transform the rhythmic repetition of the Blues (he lives in Alabama), Brâncuși’s love of modular forms and a desire for elevation into the ether, into something all his own. While he developed a slowly expanding warehouse of forms and signs, oscillating between abstraction and figuration, purity and allusion, he did not develop a signature style. He seems both focused and restless, determined and open.
It is a radical act to make drawing an integral part of your daily practice. I thought about it when the pandemic became official in March 2020 and the lockdown started. What artists would continue to work uninterrupted because they didn’t rely on studio assistants and fabricators, and didn’t depend on the labor of others to do their job? Which artists are truly self-sufficient in this respect and do not survive from the work of others? One artist is Pete Schulte, whose second show is not to be missed.
Pete Schulte: The Train and the River continues at McKenzie Fine Art (55 Orchard Street, Manhattan) through December 19.