Jeff Schwarz creates work at the fissure separating our collective proclivity for order and newness from our individual yearnings for expression and permanence. Yet rather than build a bridge across, the Brooklyn-based ceramicist fills in this gap, or perhaps even shows us that the divide has only ever been apparent—that order is its own kind of expression and that the only thing that transcends all of history is the human desire for change.
But let’s get concrete, because these juxtapositions do not live merely in a theoretical realm. We encounter them every single day and in a myriad of forms: from the penned palimpsest of so many bar bathrooms to the painted-over graffiti on store facades and even, on a larger scale, to the rapid gentrification of neighborhoods around every city. Though inevitably everything gets covered up, in some instances through the curtain of the new we still find traces of the old. Viewing Schwarz’s work—in which a perfect pattern of small, pristine, store-bought tiles sits atop an under-layer of their larger, handmade and painted ceramic counterparts—conjures a similar sense of discovery. It feels almost archeological, as if we’re seeing the spectral depth of history within the tangible frontality of the present.
Medium and process, then, carry a great deal of conceptual weight in the work. To form and balance two layers of surface—one detached and unmarred, the other visceral and grotesque—Schwarz assumes the creative dispositions of a ceramicist, modernist, conceptualist, and pop and graffiti artist, or perhaps more precisely he renders the distinctions between these moot. To compose the under-layer, Schwarz paints a series of handmade tiles in glaze with vigorous gesture and expressionistic bravado. There’s an immediacy and vitality to this beginning process, but also a latency—the color not becoming fully manifest until after the tiles are fired in the kiln. Yet even after the tiles are fired (and in a traditional sense, finished) their image is, of course, fleeting. Schwarz then begins superimposing mass-produced tiles in regular, everyday patterns. Ironically, it is this banal surface of purchased material that feels the most aggressive element of the work. There is a trenchant force to their rigidity and sterility that makes the hand-painted under-layer seem, by comparison, supple, tranquil, and introspective.
And of course, this is where the true potency and depth of Schwarz’s work resides: in the tension between the layers rather than in either layer individually. For banality on it’s own is, by definition, unoriginal and uninteresting––flat; likewise, creativity denotes novelty—a departure from the familiar. Yet Schwarz’s creations, with roots extending through the landscape of the everyday, unveil the overlap between these two realms. In fact, they seem wholly cut out from our familiar present, or at least a not so distant past. Or maybe both: inevitably we find ourselves looking at and through each piece, seeing what’s in front as well as behind, and realizing that the distinction, like so many divisions within history, culture, and society, is only a matter of surface—a literally superficial analysis of a deeply-ingrained, universal and constantly renewing human desire for expression.