Ward Schumaker: Sacred Texts

Jarrett Earnest – February 16,2008

“So saying, I wept, my heart crushed with very bitterness. And behold, suddenly I heard a voice from the house next door; the sound, as it might be, of a boy or a girl, repeating in a sing-song voice a refrain unknown to me: ‘Pick it up and read it, pick it up and read it.’”

- Augustine, Confessions

Augustine, the early father of the Christian church, describes his revelatory conversion as hearing a command to read. As he read the Gospel of Paul he describes that “the light of steadfast trust” poured onto his heart and he at that moment shed his lustful former life. This participates in and strengthens the very rich tradition in Western theology of the deep importance of words as spiritual acts. The gospel of John begins by stating: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). In fact to look at the Biblical creation as detailed in Genesis, God speaks all creation into existence with the sheer force of words.

In an age more saturated by words than ever, from advertisements, magazines, and the ever-present Internet the sort of power words wield in this Biblical context is never present if even conceivable. What is at stake is the idea of a sacred text and whether or not that can even exist in contemporary life in any meaningful way.

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Ward Schumaker, Elixir Refused (detail)

Ward Schumaker’s exhibition of books and drawings at Meridian Gallery profoundly explores these issues. With some seventeen large drawings on display the intimate and architectural unconventional rooms of Meridian’s second floor are transformed into grottos of spiritual import. The images of these drawings are often difficult to decipher, with many veils of paint, renegade lines, and half masticated text all swirling across the plane of the image and around the room. Each Plexiglas sheet covering the drawings reflects and distorts the image of the viewer and other works as one walks through the space in a manner that recalls primordial existence; the spirit of God moving across the face of the heterogeneous muck before it is divided into water and land. This is the desire of total union with the divine, the pre-fall from grace state, or the articulation of such a desire. The written words that surface and sink in the fertile plane of paint are aestheticized spiritual contemplation. To read these texts is to work through them. Visually the drawings are the colors of the delta soil after the flooding river retreats, ash rising on smoke into the grey sky, and every stage of the life cycle of serious bruises. They are populated with willowy lines of controlled drips, carving out an elegant system of veins and proto-pictograms. These drips speak to the orientation of the image plane; the paper must have been not only vertical and horizontal but also rotated in gyrations of all 360 degrees to achieve the appropriate runs. Thus these frozen rivulets reinforce the flatness and material surface of the paper but open up mentally an illusionistic space of deeper, three-dimensional implications.

As grave and sincere as the intentions of the work are it is not without the loveliest sense of play, as evidenced by the range of text dealt with, from St. Augustine to Rumplestiltskin, Leibniz to the Three Penny Opera. The key work to the show is the large diptych Saved (2007) at the entrance. The grey expanse of the two panels are marked by smudged approaching storms of darkness and accented by black marks, a diagramed lineage of a spiritual family tree. Twenty-one times “saved” blossoms about the image in the rusting color of drying blood. Beneath all this, almost unperceivable but ever palpable, is the text of the penultimate song of Brecht’s Three Penny Opera in which the scoundrel Mack the Knife is delivered the news of his pardon by the Queen’s riding messenger. Imbedded in Brecht and Weill’s expressionist satire is, for Schumaker, a most potent allegory of salvation and divine grace, one that it is irrational, total, and unplanned for. This text is repeated several times throughout the exhibition in various materials and levels of concealment.

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Ward Schumaker, “Respite (Markandeya) ((detail))”

The true heart and soul of the exhibition are the hand painted books, displayed on long planks in the center of the main gallery. One is free to touch them, each page a tactile skin. Almost geologic layers of cut paper, paste, and paint accumulate and mark the descent into their weighty world. The process of turning becomes the very ritual of meditation. This is reinforced by the repetition of the often-obliterated text, page after page becoming a mantra, with phrases like “Everything that seems to happen to me I ask for, and I receive as I have asked.”

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Ward Schumaker, example of book scale

Today the book format in general is no longer a utilitarian necessity for conveying information or concepts as the proliferation of digital formats make evident. Schumaker’s books are about what texts can do. They can be difficult, unwieldy, and won’t relinquish their meaning so easily. To read a book is not just to transfer quantifiable words as the ever-buzzing computer monitor is apt to, but instead allows a transmission of a spiritual experience. The galleries are transformed into altars of self-exploration, and the experience of working through the materiality of Schumaker’s tomes is the space of the contemporary sacred text. One that is active, open, associative, complex, and profoundly personal. This work hails us, just as does Augustine’s divine vision, to “pick it up and read it,” and in the process provides the possibility for ones own ecstatic conversion.

(written by Jarrett Earnest)(all pictures are from Meridian Gallery www.meridiangallery.org)

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