Currently on at Petzel in New York City, painter Pieter Schoolwerth brings a collection of new canvases to bear, exploring a series of psychoactive tableaus and surreal depictions of humanity, a body of work that feels particularly apt in the strange landscape of a post-lockdown COVID-19 world. Drawing on a range of signifiers and image sets for his works, the artist swirls his illusory, dream-like landscapes through the halls of the gallery.
Mining a range of media systems for his work, Schoolwerth’s depicts CGI avatars let loose in a mess of digital material, moving from scenes of bikini-clad figures to fashion models on to screenshots from The Sims 4, the strategic life-simulation computer game where anything goes. Trailing every avatar is an estranged silhouetted double, snapped into existence by the “shift” of the show title, Shifted Sims. Each composition has been superimposed, askew, over the photograph of a handmade 3D relief sculpture of the image. What appears is a shadow realm of vestigial matter, yanked into view on inkjet-printed canvases and parceled in paint.
The work Schoolwerth presents hits in particular on notions of being “remote” and retreating into masks—from the N95 to the quarantine selfie, pressuring his paintings to catch up to the surge of online profiles, the identities without bodies, that teem at the surface of this “once-removed” existence. It is a taut thread of formal practice and allegory, one that questions painting’s viability in the age of the internet. In the 2019 monograph Model as Painting, for instance, he delineates how these “forces of abstraction” conceal labor and infrastructure under a late-capitalist mirage of frictionless, disembodied connectivity. This schism plunges down to the scale of the individual, pitting avatar protagonist against human iconography.
Addressing the malaise of social distance, and the expressions of the body suspended in a surreal modernity, the show’s works emphasize a particularly resonant note in the landscape of 2020.
The show closes October 31st.
– D. Creahan
Pieter Schoolwerth: Shifted Sims [Exhibition Site]