The last time I was in a “gallery” was when, having in my three months in Rome long exhausted all the great venues, I jumped into a cab and decided to take a look-see at the Roman Napoleonic Museum and Modern Art Gallery. How bad can be a Napoleonic Museum and Art Gallery be? Terrible. Mind-numbingly, heart-crushingly bad. So bad, it hurt my insides. The “museum” was the first floor of a house where historians think Napoleon’s mom went to have her nails done. Inside, there were twenty sketches of obscure Bonapartes, and by “obscure” I don’t mean minor aristocrats who had brief, troubled reigns over small countries; I’m talking about an assemblage of second cousins to a guy who once worked for this dude who fitted horseshoes for a man whose name rhymed with Napoleon if mispronounced in a comic French accent. As I staggered out of that museum, sweating madly, disillusioned, poorer by five euro, I vowed on the blood of the Bonapartes never to look at another piece of art again.
Well, I broke that solemn vow recently and went to see senior Maia Schweizer’s visual arts certificate show, which was up at the Lucas Gallery in 185 Nassau before spring break. Schweizer’s of the decidedly wunderkind sort: a devoted geology major and a painter and a Marshall Scholar and a part-time traditional Swiss folk dancer. Given her accomplishments, I was praying that she wouldn’t bombard my aesthetic sensibilities with yet another trite attempt at homoerotic Napoleonic triple-glazed porcelain figurines. And she did not disappoint. Her series, called “Consciousness,” demanded my attention; Schweizer’s paintings are highly ambitious and largely successful hybrids of classical figural studies over brilliant abstract backgrounds that explode with color and pop.
The artist’s mission was intriguing: can art measure the subtle change in people’s facial expressions, in the subject’s entire natural topography when he or she falls asleep? Is there a noticeable change in the expression of a face, an arm, a leg when the body is at full rest compared to when it’s alert? To coax this dichotomy into its most dramatic effect, Schweizer painted models asleep (unconscious) and then staring at themselves in a mirror (hyperconscious). The bounty of her quasi-scientific experiments is an admirably executed series of people in various states of dress and undress, asleep and awake. The abstract backgrounds range from brash, colorful fields that crackle with shadow and vitality to melancholic, watery depths infused with stray, strange shafts of light. Even the most subtle, subjugate champs provides much more than scenery and white noise to the representation hovering before it.
And, often, that’s exactly what the figural studies do: they kind of float there, sometimes quite awkwardly, like a confused specter in a brightly lit room. Only in the later paintings is there any dramatic intercourse between the representational and the abstract (such integration being a very tall order for any artist, by the bye. Imagine Lucian Freud trying to overlay one of his nudes on top of a Rothko and make it “work.”) but mostly they coexist in their cramped not-quite-shared accommodations like a weird ART 439 version of the Odd Couple. The representations themselves are vexing because, though the original intent was a highly representational, almost clinical dissection of human form, that’s not quite the finished product. This is not a celebration of seventies-style Old Skool Photorealism Funk, nor should it be. But, the figures, for all their aspirations to scrutiny and fidelity, are gently idealized. This idealization—the softening of lines, the preternatural glow of every single subject, the general well-scrubbed, exfoliated and fresh from the spa feeling of each subject—reminds me of those street portrait artists who, though they cater to legions of ugly customers, never sketch an unattractive face. The end result is panel after panel of bodies beautiful, a parade of attractive forms, but at the loss of individual character, and altogether missing that crucial visual key-shift between the conscious and the psychically adrift which had motivated Schweizer in the first place.
Yet, again, since freshmen year, I’ve monitored the Lucas Gallery near weekly en route to creative writing workshops, and this is one of the most impressive installations, if not the most impressive, I’ve seen since I’ve come to this campus. No Bonaparte tchotchkes here, friends. Not a single one.
Maia Schweizer’s show is no longer up; the rest of this year’s crop of senior certificate and thesis shows will be on display, in succession, throughout the spring in the Lucas Gallery, 185 Nassau. For a schedule of openings, see www.princeton.edu/~visarts/eve.html.