Lincoln Schatz has a lifelong relationship with the sea. But as a native Chicagoan, the artist’s concept of a vast body of water is of the inland variety, one of a series of great wells carved by glaciers, filled in with icy fresh-water melt. Defining the city’s Eastern border, Lake Michigan’s lengthy reflection can cast a winter twilight in a glow of cerulean blue, extending over the urban skyline of glass and steel towers and to the Midwestern landscape beyond. Even urbanites ensconced in a frenzied, 21st-century pace, often blithely content to acknowledge the shore as a mere recreational asset or property enhancement, are soothed by the lake’s steadiness, unable to escape its magnetic pull. “Look east and you see the lake, only the lake,” says Schatz. “Turn around and you see Chicago.”
So drawn, in September 2015, Schatz, as artists do, created an entirely new project for himself: Set a camera on a tripod at the water’s edge, for five to six day a week, and capture an image. The original plan was to proceed for 30 days. “In the beginning,” says the artist, “I was concerned I would succumb to boredom with my subject or worse that it quickly devolve into a banal exercise.” Thousands of images later, the project continues.
The notion of ritual can conjure thoughts of solemnity and discipline, veering on intransigence. Yet, a daily practice often results in the sort of meditation that focuses and calms the mind, enhancing powers of observation, analysis, even strategy. Finding the axis where an object can evoke the personal experience of visceral transcendence is the artist’s challenge. Traditional landscape (and still life) aims for this goal, and its most successful manifestations find fixation in the viewer’s gaze as captured by painterly acuity.
The burden on transparent media, however, rolls into the realm of the conceptual, as seen in On Kawara’s iconic “Today” series of paintings, for which the artist rendered the date in acrylic block letters on 18-by-24-inch canvases every day for 48 years. The impetus for the series being, “to fix his attention on the movement and interactions of time and space, and the mindfulness required to achieve the sense of an eternal present,” as I wrote in an essay on the occasion of the artist’s 2015 retrospective at the Guggenheim New York. Despite his use of paint, Kawara’s straightforward compositions seek the directness of the photographed image, the challenge to the viewer being to contemplate only the artist’s endeavor as transformative exercise.
In creating the “Lake” series, Schatz offers viewers not a single conceptual contemplation, but still another when viewed through the lens of artistic production. As the current exhibition, “Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again,” examines, the iconic Pop artist initiated the investigation into art as product and precious object, mechanized modes of production offset by the artist’s hand, the studio as factory. For Warhol banality was key to the art project’s success. Warhol’s trick, however, was to imbue that which seems mechanized with effects of the artist’s hand. If you look hard enough, no two Campbell’s soup cans are painted exactly the same way—which keeps the viewer looking to the point of fixation, the ultimate success of classical landscape. Such is the effect of Schatz’s lake compositions in the democratic distribution outlet of new media. View one image on his daily blog and it might be easy to dismiss as something you’ve already seen. But take in another and another and another; then do it in real time, one day, the next day, the day after that. Eventually the viewer sees the subject through not merely the artist’s lens, but a close simulation to his actual eye—to the proverbial click of the camera shutter.
Perhaps here Schatz has advanced Warhol’s concept of artist as machine and landscape’s mission of object as transcendent channel to image as transformative mechanism. Ironically, Schatz’s choice to focus these conceptual, theoretical, conjectural investigations on an ever shifting, natural landscape provides staunch ground from which to scrutinize such exquisite complexity. Or in another moment, it’s a place to still the mind. That’s a point of reflection to which one willingly returns again and again.
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