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Essay by David M. Wilkes, Ph.D.
Chair of English and Modern Languages, Professor of English
Mount Vernon Nazarene University, Mount Vernon, Ohio

Piecing Together George Schroeder
by David M. Wilkes, Ph.D.

Stories permeate everything. We encounter them serendipitously in the grocery store when lovers fight on their cell phones in the fruit aisle. We spend weeks living inside of our novels. We follow cinematic heroes through anemic sequels. We playfully dissect the Chinese zodiac chart on our restaurant placemats and wonder if we’re really like Genghis Khan or William Shakespeare. Stand in front of a favorite painting or catch a blistering guitar riff while waiting at a summer stoplight and the stories come rushing in from all quadrants of the distant past and the hopeful future. It can’t be helped. Life is full of intersecting storylines.

And what better way to gather perspective on ourselves than through the stories of others?

I found myself in such a swirl of partially told tales while recently studying George Schroeder’s collages. Never mind that the accomplished artist looks (and sounds) like Clint Eastwood. Initially driven by his love of pure design and by his deliberate eschewing of storyline, each collage is an active amalgam of cut, torn, layered, locked, flipped, and refocused fragments that reveal and conceal a host of tales—always told in part, always promising more but never disclosing any of the journeys in full. This is but one of the compelling elements in Schroeder’s work. Like brief video clips of bustling train stations or busy airports, his collages swim with lines, shapes, colors and images, all flowing in various directions on their way to unseen destinations, and each with a unique point of origin. Some of Schroeder’s titles add to this creative kinesis. Untitled (claim check), for example, speaks of concealed baggage in transit (will it be dirty or clean laundry that we find?) while Untitled (Fairhaven) sounds like the next stop on the commuter rail. In a painting titled The One-Ten, Schroeder actually gives us the real-life route number for the rectangles that run horizontally on that abstract highway - taxicab yellows, cop car blacks, and pavement grays, all seen from directly above. Another collage, Untitled (Sole Distributor), makes homonymic reference to metaphysical movement, as in soul distributor, with the collage applying “electric current in proper sequence to the spark plugs” of the imagination. Untitled (burial ship) takes us on a fantastic voyage to Valhalla, Odin’s warrior paradise, while Untitled (“The Jolly Ride”) includes a train trip to the countryside, followed by a quiet and secluded horseback ride. (There’s a forelock and hoof in the lower left corner.) The dominant image in this piece is the silver-stenciled figure-8, which serves as both the engine ID number and a synecdoche for the locomotive’s power train with the wheel/axel assembly OO kicked up almost 90 degrees.

Wonderfully enough, Schroeder’s titles can also be denotatively detached from their storylines. Take Untitled (Sole Distributor), for example. The title literally refers to W.A. Taylor & Company, New York, NY, a beverage distribution business, which appears on a partially obscured label in the collage. Little else in the work relates to distributing an actual product. Yet the collage contains a developing storyline nonetheless, a Houdini-like performance that involves the motif of breaking free: there are three snapped links of figurative chain (n-u-u = “new”), the word “bond” partially eclipsed (ending with a reversed D as if a ‘turning around’ has occurred), and a capital “N” in the background that’s been extracted from the final act of brokeN bonds—all of which stands on a white thrust stage framed by a red proscenium arch. On the apron of the thrust stage is a small black scrim partially draped over a folded olive curtain, behind which is our “sole distributor” or at least the tip of his/her dull black shoe. There’s a long dark wedge in the collage that also functions as a theatrical wing for this imaginative stage. Perhaps the performer’s courage has failed him/her. Or maybe being released from bond(age) goes hand-in-hand with public declaration; we must declare our chains before others in order to be truly free. The narrative could also be saying just the opposite—that such an act of self-declaration is nothing more than a staged illusion, a trumped-up exhibitionism meant to hide who we really are. Given the abundance of blush pinks and embarrassment reds in the collage, I’ll go with the genuine confession.

Equally fascinating is the circular movement in Schroeder’s Untitled (Fairhaven), which starts in the lower right-hand corner of the collage. The visual climb upward occurs along the backs and legs of letters forming the phrase “TA-A-A-dA”. The very top of the word chain is capped with a light bulb, i.e., the symbol of epiphany. Enlightenment then reverberates back toward the left side of the frame where we find a series of descending symbolic structures: a blueprint, an upside-down Jenga block diagram, a grayscale skyscraper, a light blue pointillism warehouse, and another blueprint with Fairhaven “B written on it, upside-down and in cursive letters.

The voilà moment in Untitled (Fairhaven) is arguably the essential inspiration behind all things architectonic, whether it’s an avant-garde building, a work of art, or a mathematical equation. While the right side of the collage is colorful, imaginative, and ascendant like new ideas that change the world, the left side, the descending side, is made up of blues and grays and creams that bring us back down to the practical realities of making great ideas come to life. Models, structures, builders, and blueprints are all necessary for translating creativity into praxis. That a chimerical fish swims out of Fairhaven with its mouth open suggests a general hunger for new ideas. Or perhaps the enchanted fish actually speaks the transformative “TA-A-A-dA” into being as other famous fish have done, like Grimms’ flounder in The Fisherman and His Wife or Rushdie’s shark-like angelfish in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Whether envisioning new possibilities or turning them into tangible realities, the collage suggests that the creative process is always in motion.

Another collage with strong internal movement is Untitled (burial ship). The dominant baseball moon in the lower left-hand corner grabs our attention and launches us diagonally toward two pink orbs on the right edge of the frame. The large pink “6” then slings the eye back toward the center of the collage where two gray moons grab the orbit and push it toward the upper right-hand corner. Caught in the gravitational pull of a third moon, we’re whipped back toward the lower left corner of the collage. And so the orbit begins again, moving like infinity through time and space.

The storyline in Untitled (burial ship) belongs to the broader category of night games, given the collage’s abundance of spheres, orbs, and balls. The boxes and rectangles serve as geometrical equivalents for category and expectation. Who’s playing tonight? Where are they in the standings? Will there be any greatness, any failures, any injuries? The strong nighttime colors with their chiaroscuro contrasts and hints of warm humanity - seen in the blotchy reds, sexy pinks, and spotlight yellows - fill the night air with anticipation and excitement.

One “buried” memory shipped from my boyhood into the present occurred during a summer evening in the Bay Area, back when Willie Mays still played for the San Francisco Giants. Standing in Candlestick Park, I marveled at the banks of artificial lights stuck like electric waffles on metal poles. Seeing the field for the first time, smelling the salted peanuts, crushing the empty shells underneath my high-tops, I was equally mesmerized by what I thought was an incredible number of people in one big space and by the unbelievable smallness of the players down on the field. I wanted to see Willie Mays and hear him talk. The imagined conversation with a baseball legend comes to life in Schroeder’s work.

Untitled (burial ship) depicts another kind of night-game, albeit abstractly rendered: the universal story of moral, emotional, and social development known as the bildungsroman. Turn the baseball moon into an artificial streetlight in Every Town, U.S.A., and a fluttering summer romance emerges with all the jumbled excitement, naiveté, and delightful ineptitude that belong to this adolescent rite of passage, symbolically registered in Schroeder’s collage via the interplay of circles, rectangles, colors, textures, and lines.

In Untitled (2 settembre), we move from summer infatuation to chivalric romance, depicted here in the language of dreamscape. Like the disinherited knight in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Schroeder’s armored horseman is both mysterious and alone. The shield-like disk to his right, the bluish parapet above, and the shrouded figure to his upper left further reinforce his chivalric calling. The collage’s Italian title then redirects our attention to the religious significance of hoods: these purple cowls represent saved souls in Good Friday processions all over the Catholic world. Like their knighted counterparts, these hooded figures symbolize truth’s transformational power. They are not religious deviants—Klansmen with burning crosses who distort the truth—but strict adherents to an elevated code, however vulnerable it may be to the human condition.

The collage contains courtly images as well. An ornate (and expensive) silver vase, a winged Viking helmet whose cobalt blue background lies somewhere between the heraldic tinctures of bleu celeste and pure azure, two black and white terriers signifying Scots aristocracy, and two half-concealed structures located at the top of the collage—in a privileged position—where the ruling class symbolically resides. While the blues, grays, blacks, and whites have a cold, distancing effect thus reinforcing the idea of unattainable privilege, the five opaque screens pull us back into the work via the promise of disclosure. In short, we’re given a glimpse of the upper echelon while being barred from its secrets.

But not for long since Schroeder spills one unmentionable onto Untitled (Jasper). Cascading china, a draped gold chain, a headless bosom, and a dark rectangle all tumble out of an upside-down Wedgwood urn, shattering into a thousand figurative pieces. To the left of the falling aristocracy is a very different set of images. A translucent bowl in the middle of the collage cleverly connects the two sections together using a proper/improper binary. The plate’s tight concentric circles not only denote its literal base but they also connote the female areola, a geometric pattern that appears many times on the left side of the collage. Most of Schroeder’s newer pieces in fact contain curvaceous lines, suggestive shapes, bits and pieces of literal legs-hips-breasts-tongues, patches and strands of hair, flesh tones, and skin textures. These salacious elements are regularly combined with natural objects and cultural symbols. In Untitled (Jasper), for example, leg parts and hip fragments are pieced together with wooden planks and upholstered furniture; in Untitled (vessel) aloe spikes, a teapot and an ironstone jar are interspersed with lips, legs, and a nubile tongue; and in Untitled (handset), a partially exposed inner thigh and a bare wrist are coupled with a doily, an ornamental sugar bowl, and a shadowy thistle. More often than not, the desires of the life-instinct (eros) clash with the self-destructive impulses of the death drive (thanatos).

It is significant that two-thirds of the imagery in Untitled (Jasper) is associated with Freudian thanatos. Moreover, almost every shape is psychologically female: the cold glass plates, brittle ceramic dishes, dark spaces, oblong urn, oval bowl, and circular bosom. The light tans and beiges add a tinge of sentimentality to the left side of the collage but the primary effect of color scheme is to separate the two worlds—forbidden sensuality on the left and cold legitimacy on the right. Mix passion with privilege/power and reification results, leaving behind what T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land calls “fragments . . . shored against . . . ruins.”

One final and fascinating aspect of Schroeder’s work is his consistent use of reveal/conceal imagery. Usually human and sometimes anthropomorphic, these images are embedded in almost every collage. They’re turned sideways or placed upside-down as part of their open concealment. Veils and opaque screens are used to deflect the reader’s gaze. These narrative fragments not only point off-screen to their own vectoring storylines but invariably compel us to reread the entire collage, again and again, to make sense out of these enigmatic slices of life.

The female hairline in Untitled (claim check), for example, has the look and feel of a high school yearbook portrait with all the future promise and present-day fear that comes with graduation. “Top of the head” fragments like this one appear in several of Schroeder’s collages and ask a similar set of questions: Who is this young woman, and who will she become? What stories will she tell? Has life been a disappointment or a joy? The tintype reality of her torn world connects up with a partial image found in Untitled (Fairhaven) where another woman’s eclipsed chin, Honey West mole, powdered skin, and ruby red lips all suggest the metamorphic intrigue of a beautiful spy whose identity is known to some but concealed from others. The jagged outline of the inverted fragment adds to her femme fatale allure: she is mysterious, aloof, audacious and deadly.

Mystique surrounds a similar reveal/conceal image found in Schroeder’s Untitled (contest). The glamour shot captures the fading beauty of a Hollywood star whose face was meant to sell a wide range of products, including anti-aging cosmeceuticals by Estee Lauder, Olay, and Chanel—all of which hover outside the frame. But eternal youthfulness is ironically counter pointed by the photograph’s tint and orientation. Moreover, fairytale rolls toward farce when a second reveal/conceal image is coupled with the first: the cartoon skirt and high-button boots make the sumptuous lips read more like Olive Oil in a Popeye short than Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen. But perhaps the truth does reside in the combined images since glamour and its parody are separated by only the thinnest of timelines. Find a star hawking mattresses, rose fertilizer or power scooters and the line has been irrevocably crossed.

Glamorous concealment gives way to open theatricality in Schroeder’s Untitled (Sole Distributor) where the creased skirt re-emerges as a folded curtain while the figure’s face and gender are entirely omitted. Is it stage fright or stealth that informs the shoe tip? Are we seeing the high school senior or the lethal spy? Perhaps the foot is male suggesting the hegemonic surveillance of Foucault’s panoptic schema where power is always visible but unverifiable. Or perhaps the foot leads us back to Schroeder himself who is present in every one of his collages just as a playwright or director is present in the dramas and films that they produce. (Alfred Hitchcock literally inserted himself into his movies.) Initially drawn to the active design of each piece, we soon find ourselves wrapped up in the stories they tell and refuse to tell.

Untitled (“The Valentine”) provides us with a final example of Schroeder’s design and de-tale. The hollow number 6 frames and separates the honeymoon couple from yet another headless female dressed in sumptuous attire. The lines run vertically in this piece, with cascading water on the left (perhaps a sunny visit to Niagara Falls?) and flowing fabric on the right. The swirling center of the 6 provides a binding vortex, visually. In terms of the storyline, one wonders if the happiness on the left is related to isolation on the right as the celebratory couple faces away from the viewer, enrapt in their own joy, while the lone female looks forward as if waiting for someone. Are there two vignettes or one? Have the lovers been triangulated or are they simply a study in contrast, i.e., two frames separated by an impersonal gutter? Like her lacy counterpart in Untitled (Jasper), the bifurcated torso in Untitled (“The Valentine”) suggests that the woman is deeply divided by any number of reasons. Merciless coquetry, unrequited love, unattainable perfectionism, and debilitating self-effacement only begin to scratch the semantic surface.

Without question, Schroeder’s collages are rich visual experiences. His designs have all the grace, complexity, and intelligence of a professional athlete in motion. And his “unintended” storylines are well worth the time it takes to unearth them. In fact, the deeper we dig, the greater the reward. It was Charles Dickens who declared through his rustic blacksmith, Joe Gargery, that “life is made of ever so many partings welded together.” Schroeder’s collages clearly testify to such a truth. Torn and cut from the record of this life, his art reminds us of where we have been and where we wish to go.

David M. Wilkes, Ph.D.
Chair of English and Modern Languages, Professor of English
Mount Vernon Nazarene University, Mount Vernon, Ohio
February 2010

Piecing Together George Schroeder
February 2010