Material Legacy offers a diverse range of artistic voices across a range of media, from the hushed whispers of Adela Akers and Lewis Knauss’ textiles, to the vividly dramatic stained glass of Judith Schaechter and the absorbing abstractions of Warren Seelig’s textile-inspired sculpture. While at first glance the work of Schaechter and Seelig might seem radically different, the contrast between the pieces on view at the Art Alliance creates a productive visual dialogue that challenges and engages us. Both artists push the limits of technique and medium to immerse viewers in their own highly original worlds of shadow and light.
Hung at the viewer’s eye level, Seelig’s Shadowfield/Slate (2015) seems to stare darkly across the second floor of the Art Alliance at Schaechter’s monumental stained-glass window, The Battle of Carnival and Lent (2011). The colorful, action-packed window draws us in, our attention held by the complex detail of the composition. The title is a direct reference to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s famous 1559 canvas, The Battle of Carnival and Lent. Bruegel’s painting is a humorous take on the difficult transition from the free-for-all of Carnival to the abstinence of Lent, a time when Christians are supposed to refrain from the pleasures of the flesh in memory of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The carnivalesque costumes of the figures in Schaechter’s work evoke Bruegel’s battling peasants, but close examination reveals multiple layers of visual reference.
Bodies litter the foreground, small black and white skeletons arising from them like the souls of the dead, while flames loom ominously in the distant background. We are confronted not only with an allegorical battle between excess and restraint, but also the cosmic drama of the Last Judgment, when the souls of the dead are judged at the end of time. The outcome is far from clear: two large figures in the foreground are locked in a battle of tug-of-war, while in the background, two child-like figures mimic their struggles on a smaller scale. This moral ambivalence is appropriate given the original context of this work, which was made for display over the entrance to Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, which served as a jail from 1829 until 1971.
A handful of other pieces in Material Legacy were also part of the installation at Eastern State Penitentiary, including Prometheus, Noah and Mary Magdalene. The strict vertical confines of these compositions were fitted into the narrow windows in the prisoners’ cells, their Biblical and mythological figures appropriate for the larger themes of sin, punishment and redemption. Unique among Schaechter’s artistic production, the stained glass panels from Eastern State Penitentiary were created to be viewed in an architectural setting, with natural light. This is the first time that these pieces have been shown publically since 2010-11, when they were in situ at the prison. Even then, it was difficult to see the intricate details of the composition of The Battle of Carnival and Lent. Now hung at the viewer’s eye level, visitors have a unique opportunity to engage directly with Schaechter’s work and enter the complex, colorful and morally ambiguous world of her stained glass compositions.
Looking across the gallery, the carefully poised, solidly opaque materials of Seelig’s Shadowfield/Slate contrast to the bright, transparent colors and frenetic action of the stained glass. Nevertheless, Seelig’s visual world is every bit as individual and absorbing as Schaechter’s. Seelig’s work occupies a unique place in between multiple media and techniques. The great-grandson of a textile machinery designer, Seelig has been pushing the limits of fiber and textile art throughout his career. While his use of three-dimensional space has a clear sculptural quality, the geometric armature of his shadowfields resembles the warp and weft structure of woven textiles. His series of shadowfields opens up the flat surface of the textile, transforming it into a dynamic matrix in which light and shadow dissolve the distinction between object and ground.
Light is as important in Seelig’s work as it is for Schaechter, creating shadows that produce an elusive three-dimensionality that dissolves against the flat surface of the wall. Shadowfield: Slate traps natural materials found by the artist on his seaside walks within a carefully structured web, the individual pieces casting a dense thicket of shadows against the wall. In vivid counterpoint to the opaque gray slate and its dark shadows are the colorful lucite sun-catchers of Shadowfield/Colored Light (2007). Here, the transparency of the medium underscores the important role played by light to create an expanded field of color, a kind of three-dimensional stained glass.
The juxtaposition of Warren Seelig and Judith Schaechter’s pieces in Material Legacy sheds new light on the work of each artist, encouraging us to reflect on their complex visual worlds.
Text by Flora Ward, Intern