The Beauty of Ugly | Art Review | Chicago Reader

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The Beauty of Ugly

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Mathias Schauwecker

When Through 12/29

Where Zhou B. Art Center, 1029 W. 35th

Info 773-523-0200

The powerful figures in Mathias Schauwecker's large paintings on paper at the Zhou B. Art Center disconcertingly blur the line between man and beast. They're also humorous, as in Lazy as a... and Brave as a..., where the human figures look froglike. Schauwecker says that some viewers have said the creature with its back to us in Stubborn as a... resembles a gorilla. Croak Like a... depicts a gorilla but gives it the stature and grandeur usually reserved for portraits of people. Some of the paintings--there are also smaller ones and two sets of drawings--have vibrant backgrounds of squiggly wormlike shapes as animistic as the figures, enlivening them.

"My preference for the grotesque is my German side," says Schauwecker, who's Swiss-German by heritage and grew up in Zurich. "I've always found the 'ugly' more intriguing than the 'beautiful.'" He began copying from books on Leonardo and Michelangelo when he was ten; three years later he enrolled in a drawing class, where the teacher "was very surprised and very happy that somebody was so interested in Renaissance art." For five years Schauwecker attended classes, where he drew from live models; he also copied the Frans Hals in the Zurich museum and painted his father and mother at home. In 1986 he moved to Paris, where he lives today, to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. "My first year was fantastic," he says. "I met all my best friends then, and they are still my best friends." One was British art historian Iain Watson, who provided the texts Schauwecker has scattered throughout the show.

In Paris Schauwecker continued to depict the figure even though his professor, Leonardo Cremonini, advocated against it. Still, he told his student that it would make him very happy if Schauwecker could prove him wrong. Within a year Schauwecker began to feel that his work merely reflected the influence of the old masters. "I wanted to change," he says, "but I didn't know how. I had a big crisis, and it was also physical--I couldn't stand on one foot anymore. The doctors diagnosed an ankle inflammation, but I think the causes were psychological. I had to walk with canes for a year." The summer before he returned to school he did only nude self-portraits, whose twisted poses were influenced by Egon Schiele; he also erased parts of his body. Cremonini loved these works. Schauwecker went on to make "walking" paintings showing parts of human figures in different positions and drew parts of the anatomy on transparent paper, superimposing the sheets to create dense clusters of lines and a sense of the body being fragmented.

Schauwecker likes to incorporate his "intellectual preoccupations" in his art, he says, but sometimes it takes years to figure out how. In 1993 he moved into the apartment of a friend, Despina Chronopoulos, who'd gone off to study gorillas in Africa for two years. He'd long been intrigued that she rejected the hierarchical view that humans are better than animals, and while living in her place he looked through the books she had on animals. He also read Freud's Totem and Taboo, which made him question "why there was a shift over the years from cave paintings which show animals to magazines today which show only us." Three years ago, when he was feeling "a little trapped" in figurative work, Schauwecker did some small watercolors of gorillas. "Despina pointed out that they didn't work anatomically," he says. "But I didn't care about that. I didn't want to just paint animals--I was searching for the ambiguous, the intriguing."

Two years ago Schauwecker started sketching figures without heads. "Suddenly, and I don't know where it came from, I had the idea I could draw these heads like colorful explosions or tribal masks. I thought it was a good idea to work on the contrast between this elaborate academic drawing of a man in a suit and his head being totally loose." In these sketches and drawings, titled Savagery N1-8, the heads resemble jagged rainbows. Schauwecker believes they express the early drama of his career--the conflict between his love of classical figurative work and his urge to create something new.

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