Claudette Schreuders occupies an intriguing place in the contemporary art world. Born in South Africa in 1973, before the end of apartheid, but in the center of its crumbling, her work has always elegantly danced the line between the personal and the political. Mention is often made of Schreuders’s “search for her African identity,” but I’ve always found her work to be firmly grounded in a deeply personal narrative — the political content of her work sneaking in around the sides rather than hitting you full frontal.
Her most recent show at Jack Shainman Gallery entitled In the Bedroom is perhaps both her most revealing and most enigmatic body of work to date. The title hints that viewers will be privy to something intimate. It’s a little titillating, a tad seductive. Yet once you enter the gallery the first thing you see is a wall hung with five drawings, displayed closely together. Drawn in acrylic ink on paper, the five create a powerfully ominous narrative (all of them made in 2017). Entitled (in order) “Mingle” — a close-up portrait of a very intense adolescent boy staring intensely to the left, outside of the grouping. Next to him is “Note to Self” — a young woman staring blankly to her right. She is faced by “Anna in Uniform,” — a young woman with a traumatized expression staring to the left. She is next to “Loved Ones” — a young girl, topless with pre-pubescent breasts. Her body faces us, but her head turns away looking into the distance. This jovial grouping is punctuated by “The Neighbor” — a middle-aged man grimacing angrily as he stares back at the group, a bloody wound on his forehead. Everyone is avoiding meeting each other’s eyes, as well as ours. This is a portrait of intimacy of the most terrifying sort. Whatever psychodrama has happened here feels like the stuff of the morning tabloids.
This show is complex. When I first saw it I thought it looked too small for the gallery. The figures seemed isolated and even a little lost in the big, clinically lit space. But on second viewing I began to understand the almost desperate loneliness that this body of work conveys. The irony of the title is belied by the installation. We may be in the bedroom, but it is a room of emotional loneliness of a primal sort. Even the figures engaged in sex acts (there are two) seem dissociated from one another. This is sad sex. In the show’s title piece of sculpture, “In the Bedroom,” (2019) a couple lays intertwined. The man has his head buried deep in the woman’s neck. We cannot see his expression. She stares upward, her eyes blank. Not a lot of joy in this lovemaking.
Everything in the show is carefully placed to advance the mysterious narrative that Schreuders is telling. Near, but not too near the loveless couple making love, is a large girl or woman; the ambiguity of age is yet another intriguing element of these mysterious tales. Entitled “Guilty Bystander,” (2018) she is the largest figure in the show standing about 51 inches. Alert, she stands, body slightly twisted, looking at us. She seems aware of the couple behind her, but unable or unwilling to look at them, or perhaps they are her dream. She is wearing a jaunty little patterned dress and exquisite vintage shoes. Her ensemble is impeccable. Her painted hair is in a perfect coif. Yet she seems uneasy, unnerved perhaps by what is happening around her. Her eyes seem to follow you around the gallery with a haunted expression.
Schreuders carves her sculptures from Jelutong wood, a type of rubber tree found in Asia. It’s a soft wood, buttery yellow and smooth grained. The carving marks show, but softly, giving the works an air of gentility. The materiality is obvious, but the edges have been smoothed. The sculptures are painted in mellow, muted colors. Everything is just fine … which to me makes the depth of the psychological content all the more strange and powerful.
The scale of these works is also disorienting. I mentioned the dance that many of them do between ages — girl or woman? Part of this ambiguity is due to most of the pieces being the size of a large doll, or a small child. With adult faces and impassive expressions they can be seen as adults trapped in their childhood memories. Or perhaps they are about the inner “adult” dreams of children. The consistently diminished scale of the figures, with their slightly oversized heads and feet and impeccable attention to small details of dress (beautiful delicate shoes are of particular interest to Schreuders), create a universe of people that seem benign, even toy-like, and yet their dramas are huge.
Another potent relationship is between the pieces entitled “Little Table” (2018 and “School Days” (2019) “Little Table” portrays a man and woman in the act of sex, the woman bent over forward and leaning on a literal, little table as the man enters her from behind. His head lowered, his expression passive, as is hers. The vibe is one of obligation, rather than passion. The piece is set off by a very small sculpture of a crucified little boy that hangs near them on the wall. The lad in “School Days” appears to be wearing a school uniform, Catholic school perhaps? The juxtaposition of these two sculptures creates a narrative that sets up pieces of a story, but each viewer must provide their own ending.
All the figures in the show are of European origin with the exception of a large formal bust of a Black African man. Simply entitled “The President” (2019), it is, according to the gallery, a portrait of the current South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa. It is an odd intrusion of the outside world into Schreuders’s dreamscape. Perhaps this is a brash reality check about the possibility of real intimacy or privacy? (The government is always watching.) This sculpture is carved out of teak and the wood is obviously rougher and darker. The artist’s carving is bolder than in the other pieces, the deep gestural carving marks enhancing the beauty of the teak. The artist has left the sides of the bust raw, exposing that this is carved from a large block of wood. The figure sports the same passive expression that permeates this show, but her looser carving imbues the bust with a more robust energy.
There is an admirable continuity in Schreuders’s artistic vision. Whatever odd world or dream we’ve wandered into is completely consistent in its logic. I would posit that In the Bedroom is a journey into our individual psychic rooms, where memory mingles with childhood, desire and loneliness, a potent cocktail that haunts the viewer long after you’ve left.
In the Bedroom runs through June 22 at Jack Shainman Gallery (513 West 20th St, Chelsea, Manhattan).
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