Zoe Pettijohn Schade on small-scale infinities, revitalizing the textile tradition and avoiding lengthy wall texts.
Zoe Pettijohn Schade is a bit of a rebel. Her paintings don’t yell or scream. They don’t shock, disgust, give you a quick snicker or make you sniffle. There are no amped up day-glo hues or splashy gestures festooned about her supports. No libidinal outbursts or pornographic imagery. Keep looking! See images appear and disappear, shimmering across her surfaces like a distant mirage. Find yourself asking, Is that a set of teeth, a barracuda, a snake? No it’s a shark, jaw open ready to bite, but wait—it’s gone! It faded behind the web-thin lace and a flock of lightning bolts.
The first time I viewed her work, I was mesmerized. It hinted at gender (the seemingly fragile feather versus the solid cube), religion (at gravestones and crosses), and science (cellular structures and classical botany). Disparate sources—textile-pattern imagery paired with icons of 20th-century modernism and elements clearly rendered from life—merged effortlessly into composited wholes.
When I heard that Zoe had been awarded a Fulbright Research Scholars Grant to Paris and concurrent solo exhibition at the Mona Bismarck Center for American Art and Culture in Paris to research a rare collection of 18th-century gouache pattern paintings at the Bibliothèque Forney, I reached out for an interview. Our exchange unfolded by email between New Jersey and Paris over the course of many weeks, through a collaging of many layers of information, which seems a fitting approach to a discussion of Pettijohn Schade’s work and practice.
Alyssa E. Fanning Your work is very different from a lot of contemporary art on display in New York. How did you arrive at your interest in the textile tradition and how is this study currently informing your work?
Zoe Pettijohn Schade My curiosity in the textile tradition began twenty years ago when I was a student at Cooper Union. I became interested in how my associations with different images were connected to one another and I began to see patterns as a visual representation of those relationships. I researched the scientific, art historical, and philosophical aspects of pattern, including cellular structures, the physics that compel patterns to form, the mathematical structure of information, and the history of feminism. As my work developed, I realized that there is a very old and complex language of repetition that can be found in textile designs. My research led me to spend a lot of time at the Antonio Ratti Textile Center of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with their lace collection, and to volunteer at the De Young Museum’s conservation department in San Francisco in order to gain access to their immense collection in storage, specifically their ecclesiastic embroidery.
AEF You’ve worked very closely with these delicate collections.
ZPS Yes, this began a long practice of finding aesthetic nourishment in these historical archives. I also became proficient in the different forms of textile production. I worked as a hand weaver, learned lace making, and worked at a textile design company doing gouache paintings.
I had already begun to paint repeating imagery in gouache when I had that first job as a textile designer, but it was there that I realized that there is a tradition of gouache painting for textiles. I searched for paintings from this tradition, and found some great examples in books. It was very difficult to see any examples in person; they were almost never displayed. I saw two examples in the Met when there was a big show of Matisse and his relationship to fabric. There were two small gouache paisley paintings there that were amazing. I learned that France has been the epicenter for this tradition historically, so when my husband, Christopher Schade, started to teach painting there during the summers, I began my search for these paintings.
AEF Did this search lead you to your current work at the Forney—tell me about the collection!
ZPS The collection I am working with is entitled Dessins originaux pour impressions d’étoffes et broderies. Recueil de dessins, gouaches et empreintes. XVIIIè – XIXè and is comprised of two thousand original paintings by anonymous painters taped into a book. The paintings date from the 1700s and have a strikingly contemporary feel, moving fluidly between geometric abstraction and graphic forms, and descriptive representations of objects, creatures and even storms. There is a sense of worlds within worlds in these old paintings, and a blending of ecstatic and scientific imagery with which I feel a deep kinship, and I challenge myself to match their boldness and adventurousness. I am really trying to internalize the balance of tension and regularity in their marks, and the density and interlocking way the elements fit together. Many of the patterns have understructures that are rather hidden, which I am fascinated by.
AEF Can you talk about the drawings you are working on in Paris that address these understructures?
ZPS The research I am doing as part of my Fulbright Grant involves drawing the paintings in pencil in the same scale from observation in order to train my hand to become fluent in their language of mark-making and form. These drawings take anywhere from six hours to much longer. I just finished one that took two weeks, during which time I was able to decipher the understructures being used, and really meditate on the ramifications of these patterns. I see this collection of paintings as direct aesthetic ancestors, and I aim to make a contribution to this tradition, which I consider a painting tradition that is unjustly obscure, having been a trailblazer in abstraction, op art and many of the other important modes of painting hundreds of years before modernism. Over the next month I am really looking forward to visiting Mulhouse and Jouy-en-Josas to look at their collections!
AEF Let’s talk more about the treatment of space in your work and in the paintings at the Forney.
ZPS Well, when I speak about the depiction of space in my work specifically and pattern generally, I must mention my theories about how the language of repetition works. I believe that repetition soothes the mind or the eye of the viewer into accepting more and more information. We tend to take in patterns in a general way, without scrutinizing all the elements, which allows images to hide in plain sight. There is a long history to this in textiles and manuscripts, where monsters and transgressive forms are playing in the elaborate edging of sacred works. When I was researching lace and ecclesiastical embroidery I found some amazing examples. This sense of hiding in plain sight is something I engage in and find powerful both visually and psychologically.
–XIXè. Courtesy of Bibliothèque Forney.
AEF I think the ideas you are discussing here also ask us to consider notions of time. In your paintings and in many illuminated manuscripts, the longer we spend with a piece, the more visual information we begin to uncover. As we look, not only do we begin to understand and appreciate the way lines, colors and marks have been laid down by the maker, but we also gradually discern hidden faces, monsters and predatory animals emerging from a field that may initially appear abstract.
ZPS I really love how images come to the eye at different times when this level of density is established. I think this phenomenon is part of something broader, regarding the language of repetition, which is that it creates an additive space that can, in theory, be infinite. I have found that the presence of the repeat structure allows me to add another layer of repeating imagery. I paint layers upon layers of repeating images, and in theory there is room for all of my associations. I am pursuing a kind of maximal density. This is another area where the painting collection at the Forney is spurring me on. In this day and age when time seems so short, I have been counseled many times to scale up and simplify the detail level of my work. Looking at these paintings from the 1700s has made me double down in the opposite direction, so that every point of each brush stroke is sharp.
AEF I want to talk more about the juxtaposition of disparate languages and the role of collage in your work. There is a methodology of collage in both your physical process (of placing layer over layer of image, paint and metallic leaf onto your support) and in your conceptual process, in which you combine varied sources of images. In many of your pieces, you create a dialogue between elements rendered through perceptual observation and elements that grow out of abstraction, and you transition fluently through and between these varied modes of depicting space and form. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the relationship between languages, which you fuse so skillfully into unique wholes.
ZPS The different visual languages can result from different impulses. A good deal of the abstraction comes from the fundamental structures of repetition that are often the basis for the work. In that way they sometimes arise early in the process. For example, in the Error Cube/Infinity Box series, the isometric cube and the repeating way it is tiled made me think of a kind of small-scale infinity, and a platonic perfection. The combination of those two ideas was the seed of that work, and the cube and the isometric grid underneath it were the forms I began with. In exploring that form in a number of ways, the tension between this idea of perfection, or the aspiration of perfection and the way matter actually was behaving became the dynamic that was most active. So I made a little model cube of mirrors, and little gilded platonic forms to put inside, and I painted it from observation. I was amazed at how wild the infinity of the reflections was, how distorted they became just one or two iterations back. I almost thought I would be able to perform that kind of symmetry mentally, but when I set it up as a physical experiment it was shocking and kind of magical—it led to this murky world of distorted forms. I went to the Natural History Museum and drew some mineralogical specimens that were trying very hard to be cube-shaped. They were in varying shades of deviation from that perfect form that was still present as a crystal understructure. The isometric grid itself began to reveal its own penchant for change and deviation, as there are many patterns that are born by subtle shifts on that grid. Through layering I am able to explore the interaction of all these visual manifestations of the arc toward or away from the perfection of form.
AEF Is this true of the work you are doing at the Forney?
ZPS There is a long history of the fluidity of visual languages in gouache pattern painting, and the collection I am working with at the Forney is an excellent example. Part of the reason here is that the repetition of form undermines the window-like approach to the picture plane; sky becomes earth becomes sky again, which encourages adventurousness with space and figure-ground relationships. The fact that images are repeating brings with it the question of how exactly they are repeating, which involves the geometric tiling of space. These all implicitly involve abstraction. Yet even when I am working with very classical geometric forms, I am not approaching them as pure forms without content, as a more canonical sense of abstraction would entail. I want these forms to retain their associations as figures, as things, and the interplay between all these associations becomes the dynamic of the work.
AEF And in what ways does this relate to the addition of imagery from observation?
ZPS The inclusion of images from perceptual observation was a very conscious decision I made some years ago. When I was much younger and first researching pattern in all its implications within the history of medicine, of feminism, and religion, I was finding many powerful associations and connections from obscure historical sources. I would make references in my work that would demand long wall texts and I felt very frustrated with that format. I began to imagine these interconnected images as a kind of web reaching out in culture and back in time. I theorized that if I was finding a manifestation of an idea or connection that was interesting to me in a distant place or time, I should also be able to find a strand of that web, a manifestation of that idea or dynamic in my immediate present as well. That is the role of the work from perceptual observation, which is inherently in my immediate space and time. It is a way of refocusing my work on the current moment. I still include many historical and pop cultural references, but the inclusion of references from the immediate present insures they are shared enough that I can do away with that extraneous wall text and let the viewer trust his or her own associations.
AEF I’m fascinated by the reoccurring motifs that appear throughout your oeuvre and wonder how you arrive at your chosen imagery. What do forms like the cube versus the feather mean to you; do they have cultural or gender implications? I’m thinking of the difference between say, the cube that you depict in repetition in your Error Cube and Infinity Box paintings, versus the feathers that appear in your Angel Feathers, Feathers and Decapitated Kings paintings, which you exhibited at Mona Bismarck.
ZPS The imagery tends to accumulate. For me the image is always equal in importance to the way it is structured. Both images and structures carry cultural, philosophical, or historical loads. Sometimes the structure occurs to me first, as in the cube structure in Error Cube, and the other images gather through my engagement with that structure, and its weaknesses. So I already spoke a bit about my engagement with this tension or yearning between perfect form and deviation that I was exploring in that series. The relationship between form and perfection has deep historical and philosophical implications, and I have long been affected by the writings of Plato and St. Augustine, who both establish moral axes between form and formlessness.
Sometimes images come first but suggest structures, and there is a back and forth. Feathers and Angel Feathers were inspired by one of the paintings in the Forney collection that looked like it depicted feathers, but the scalloped shape reminded me of graves. I made paintings involving both of those images, feathers, and graves that were shown at the Mona. For that whole series which I am still working on in the studio, I am thinking about crowds. Graves are of course crowds, and they share the same alternating stacked structure as Feathers. Feathers also held implications of parts and wholes, of perfect union—phrases like birds of a feather—and visually that led me to Angel Feathers immediately, and the ecstatic aspiration that implies.
AEF Your description of Angel Feathers conjures images of angels and the depiction of their elaborate feathered wings in paintings from the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Just think of the attention given to the detail of individual feathers in works like Giotto’s Enthroned Madonna with Saints, Martini and Memmi’s Annunciation with Two Saints and Fra Angelico’s Annunciation and Scenes from the Life of the Virgin. The wonderful late 14th-century Sienese paintings, which are small in scale and highly detailed, like your work, present glorious depictions of religious scenes. Angel Feathers brings to mind Niccolo di Buonaccorso’s Coronation of the Virgin, which depicts a choir of angels surrounding the Virgin Mary. I see in your work a crystallization of some of these sacred elements for a contemporary audience.
ZPS Wow, you are so on target with the medieval paintings you cite! The paintings you reference here are exactly the ones I was thinking of! Also there is an incredible Cimabue entitled Maesta at the Louvre which is covered with angel feathers, one of my favorites there. In terms of crowds, I have been finding an implicit axis of conflict when exploring the understructures for crowds, for when there is total order it feels martial, and where there is not there is resistance. Being in Paris has really influenced my thoughts on this. The city is full of the remains of waves of actions by crowds whose scale and force are hard to grasp, and who have advanced and receded like tides. The images of Decapitated Kings comes from a drawing series from observation that I did of the original heads of the biblical kings that were on the facade of Notre-Dame and are now at the Cluny Museum for Medieval Art. During the French Revolution, the crowds attacked the king sculptures and decapitated them. They were lost to history until they were found in a dump in the 1970s and displayed at the Cluny. The ones currently on the facade are 19th-century restorations. I am so affected by the idea of the force and size of the crowd it took to make these massive sculptures and facade, and the force that took it down. The sculptures seem to contain all of it in their melancholy zombie-like faces. The Decapitated Kings are themselves of course another crowd.
So each group of imagery is like this: it accrues around interrelated ideas and structures. The paintings themselves take a long time to execute and during that time images lead to other images. For example, I am about to start a drawing series in the catacombs, another stacked crowd.
AEF I’m interested your language here—stack and stacked crowd. Your use of these words grows directly out of your very specific practice and your vocabulary works to expand my previous ideas about language in relation to your work.
Your use of imagery like the cube, which you paint hard-edge and in repetition, reminds me of the language of minimalism. I’ve long thought of your work as fluctuating between minimalism and maximalism. There is a stark austerity to your work, in its precise and systematic repetition of units, neutral surface, and a fairly limited palette. At the same time, your works are jam-packed with mark and detail. This is especially true in your larger paintings, such as in your Rainbow Tornado, 2008.
ZPS I can see what you are describing as minimalist and maximalist tendencies. In each individual layer there are a lot of limits, the palette is indeed limited and there is a single structure that is governing what is occurring. I design each layer separately, so the smaller works usually explore individual structures or the interaction of a few layers. The large works are where I can pursue maximal density. In spirit, that is where I am most aligned. I spoke earlier about my theory of repetition allowing for infinite information, and I really aspire to greater and greater density. Within this density, images rise to the eye at different times. This is part of the tradition of images hiding in plain sight that occurs in the history of the decorative that I mentioned earlier. I see this type of space as akin to the unconscious, where images and associations accumulate and exert a kind of force of which we are consciously aware in glimpses or to only varying degrees. To this end I never scale up imagery for a larger work, I want the minute scale of the marks to maintain their integrity, and for the piece to resist a gestalt resolution from a single vantage point.
The piece that you describe, Rainbow Tornado, is very much about good luck to me. I embedded shudders, or skips in the way the layers repeat. The deepest landscape layer is most affected, and as the floating layers ascend to the surface, the disturbance is dissipated. The final layer of x’s and o’s is perfectly stable. That to me was like a reprieve from chaos, very much like the tornado shaped rainbow I saw from the platform of the L train at Broadway Junction, which was the seed for this painting.
AEF Your treatment of these embedded shudders or skips seems very much like actions in nature. Like when a stone is thrown into a body of water, the stone sinks and causes rings to form on the surface of the liquid, which dissipate as they move away from the disturbance or area of impact. There is such poetry present in your work, which is both lyrical and firmly cemented in observations from life.
ZPS I really respond to your association with the distance from a disturbance, that is right on. Much of my work involves questions of fate and will, and good or bad luck. The fact that something is repeating means we know what is going to happen. Part of the reason that repetition is so visually soothing may be due to our desire to know. Repetition means there is a structure underneath what is happening. That is also a wish, at least for me. I am drawn more and more into the implications of both when a structure is strong and when it is compromised.
AEF If you could display your pieces anywhere, in any space in the world, where would it be? I can picture a large scale illuminated manuscript of your work in book form, which could be bound or presented behind glass page by page like you might see at the Morgan Library. . . or in some fantastic old cathedral. . .
ZPS The Morgan Library is an amazing place to show! I have to say I really enjoyed the context of the Mona Bismarck American Center for Art and Culture. Both the building and gallery are exquisite and I like having some historical traces in the architecture for the work to interact with. My show was timed to coincide with a beautiful exhibition on the history of American quilts on the ground floor. There were some great overlapping references and I am happy when the hierarchies and boundaries between textiles and painting are undermined. A fantasy of mine would be for my paintings to be exhibited along-side the paintings I am working with at the Bibliothèque Forney. I would be honored to share a wall with them and I am really striving for the tradition to gain recognition.
AEF There is an aura of exquisiteness about your pieces. A clear element of patience goes into the making of the work along with a fine attention to minute detail, which is comparable to that of illuminated manuscripts. Your use of metallic leaf further cements this tie. How did you arrive at the use of gouache on paper combined with the application of silver leaf?
ZPS I was painting in layers and wanted a paint that is very opaque and flat. I soon discovered that there was this long tradition of gouache pattern painting and I began to delve deeper and deeper into that. There are many aesthetic and technical aspects of the paint that I really love. It is highly pigmented—one can sometimes see the mineralogical qualities of the pigments in the paint surface! The fact that it is opaque and rather coarsely ground also means that I can make my own gouache much more easily than say, oil paint, which requires a lot more grinding. I really love using some rare and out-of-use pigments so that is a big benefit.
I actually started using metallics when I was making fabric pieces, sewing layers of appropriated fabric into embroidered collages. I was often drawn to fabric with metallic thread. As I focused more on painting, I used some metallic paint until it dawned on me that gold leaf was part of the tradition I was already working with. I learned technically how to gild over the years, from books and from freelance jobs gilding architectural elements. Gilding adds a dimension of light and time to the layered density I am striving for, as it changes so much when viewed from different angles. Sometimes a gilded element appears very bold and then at others it almost disappears. I love illuminated manuscripts for their intricacy of pattern, their use of codes and hidden images, and their structuring of space into liminal and sacred zones.
AEF In your Fulbright statement you suggest that the textile collection at the Forney appears to have been influenced by microscopic imagery, such as cells, crystals, and forms that fluctuate between organic and geometric in representation. What I find really exciting about this particular line of study is the conclusion you draw, that the painters of these textile patterns may have been influenced by the 1665 publication of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, the first published book of microscopic drawings made available to a wide audience. Your proposal surrounding Micrographia reflects a pivotal moment in the development of a specific visual language. I am curious to hear how your experience at the Forney has affected your thoughts on the subject. . .
ZPS In terms of the influence of microscopic imagery, the question is a bit fluid as there are long standing aesthetic affinities between the two kinds of structures—some very old pattern structures have similarities to microscopic structures. For example, there is a wandering linear pattern called a vermicular pattern. I have seen versions as old as Roman. The word vermicular refers to the pattern worms make when eating through something. There have been different versions of this structure, which has an organic root, and the morbid association of decay, for centuries. The painters of the collection at the Forney were very fond of vermiculars and did many versions, some of which I am totally in love with. I did my first versions of vermiculars before I discovered this collection, and have just completed a new version, an ode to the collection’s amazing lightening bolt vermiculars. So, patterns like this, with organic roots, can recall microscopic imagery because of formal similarities that transcend scale. There are also structural affinities. I was struck very early on when I was learning lace making and also looking at cellular structures and electron micrograph images that some of the patterns are extremely similar. I think that this may be due to the physics of pattern; the reason that there is strength in a hexagonal lace ground is also probably why stable cell structures form that way too. The way patterns form on the very small scale, when changing the position of the thread over the needle produces wide varieties in an overall pattern, this recalls the way small changes breed big varieties on a larger scale in cellular structures. In all these ways textile traditions have had affinities with microscopic imagery. The collection at the Forney has some much more explicit references, ones that really seem to recall the structures that first were made widely available by Hooke only fifty or sixty years earlier. So, it is still my theory that these adventurous painters were incorporating these new worlds into their visual language hundreds of years before such references became part of the contemporary dialogue.
For more on Zoe Pettijohn Schade, visit her website.
Alyssa E. Fanning is a writer, painter and curator based in northern New Jersey.