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Joseph Schneider: Lawnmower Lady and the Whisper of Truth

September 5 - October 15, 2006

In 2001, Joseph Schneider, a native of Spokane, Washington, returned to the Northwest after pursuing his career in New York City for 16 years. The move was driven by the quadrupling rent on his East Village studio and apartment. It was also due in part to the lure of a home, five acres and two barns in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. The Art Gym has curator Beth Sellars to thank for encouraging a visit to Schneider's studio near Corbett. Sellars met the artist as he began his career in Spokane, showed his work at the Cheney Cowles Museum, and introduced him to important artists, including Ed Kienholz, whose "more is more" aesthetic struck a chord with Schneider.

Schneider has exhibited at P.S.1, the Drawing Center and other spaces in New York; Fundació La Caixa in Barcelona, Spain; Center for Contemporary Art in Seattle; and the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art in Ohio. While in New York, he participated in P.S.1's National Studio Program. Since moving to Oregon, Schneider has been encouraged by a 2004 Oregon Arts Commission Artist Fellowship and a 2005 Creative Capital Foundation grant. The Art Gym is fortunate to have this opportunity to share Schneider's large-scale sculpture and paintings with Oregon audiences.

"When my lawnmower broke and was deemed unfixable it became the basis for art. I thought of Ed Kienholz putting a bust of Frankenstein on a lawnmower and parading it down the streets of L.A. The original working title for my piece was Miss America is crowned Miss International Corporate Fascism, ascends into heaven and is worshiped and glorified, to judge the living and the dead. On this level she's about addiction, greed and power hoarding, the need to go ever faster, consuming more, with ever more entrenched denial about the nightmarish consequences. Fanaticism is an illness of the soul. At the same time she seems to exist beyond dualities, a sort of Shiva: the destroyer and creator of worlds. Instead of a cloud of flames she's riding her American hot rod — the irony is, it's still only a push lawnmower and someone is behind it all, with foot power. At this level I have a great deal of compassion, respect (and even fear) for the Lawnmower Lady. I want to pay my respects. She's a Mother Earth/Madonna, and we must drink. Christ is the fisher of men, and the Lawnmower Lady is fishing for us as well."

– Joseph Schneider, 2006

Curator's Notes

Joseph Schneider's work often addresses current events and persistent social concerns. Raised in a large Catholic family, he frequently combines Christian iconography — haloed figures, altarpieces and holy cards — with elements from other religious traditions and popular culture. At the same time, many of Schneider's artworks are both actual and metaphorical acts of communication. Some are letters. Some act as receivers. Many are prayers.

Last Letters, for example, is a 10-foot square assemblage of dried roses, antique optician's test lenses, an X-ray of a male torso and copies of handwritten World War II correspondence. The letters were collected in Letzte Briefe zum Tode Verurteilter, 1939-1945 (Last Letters from Men Sentenced to Death) and were written by German soldiers who had been sent to the Russian front — a virtual death sentence. Schneider was introduced to the documents by his father (a German soldier and a prisoner of war after capture by the Americans), who translated the letters into English for the book Last Letters from Stalingrad.

Prayer Flags is another piece about communication. It is a two-part work that employs the language of semaphore to articulate two Christian prayers, the Hail Mary and the Our Father. One can imagine this gestured language of shipping and war transformed into a flag dance of prayer. One cannot blame the supplicant who might feel that this form of flag waving — flag waving minus the jingoism — might stand a better chance of capturing the attention of a distant deity than mere spoken words.

The idea of exploration and the sending and receiving of messages from great distances is a theme Schneider has explored repeatedly. His work is full of images of rocket ships and space travel — even Dorothy makes a trip beyond Oz in one collage painting. The sculpture Love and the Cosmic Microwave Background Noise is a large, spacey receiver contraption that stands ready to pick up and broadcast evidence of the Big Bang to which the title refers. Should one care to register a response, it includes a microphone.

One of Schneider's best-known works is Sea of Tranquility, a five-masted schooner based on ships made in Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century, and later melted down for the Second World War. Schneider's ship flies sails made of fabric from many sources — dumpsters, fabric shops, thrift stores and the artist's closet. These swatches are combined with the flags of the member countries of the United Nations. His is a ragtag vessel, and a kind of colorful ragtag plea for the international cooperation it will take to keep this world afloat.

Many of Schneider's artworks have an optimism tinged with irony, or an innocence tempered by loss. The Song Innocence Hears is a wall-size painting begun and initially completed for an exhibition at P.S.1 in Brooklyn in 1988. After the events of September 11, 2001, Schneider reworked the painting, adding halos to the eight female figures who float among the city's skyscrapers. The artist writes:

"On September 11, 2001, I was moving into a new studio in Oregon, and during the disaster and days afterward I found myself thinking about the painting again. (The television set was in the moving box. I thought of the painting as a portrait of the psychological landscape of the city.) Much of the imagery and the words I had written on it seemed to apply, but something seemed to call for updating. I worked on the painting again over the next five years, feeling that it was a lost artifact of the city, and my relationship to it: the soul, the energy and spirit. I put halos around the human images — it was my way of participating in the suffering, and hoping for the best."

The Art Gym is also presenting the ongoing work Infinity Net: Translator Stations. The towers that make up this installation are airy wire constructions ranging in height from 8 to 15 feet. They are strung with thousands of "Holy Cards," which the artist has cut from wallpaper, letters, found photographs and other pieces of paper and strung with beads and small objects that one might pick up on the street. He liked the idea of the towers broadcasting and receiving prayers "back into the past, and out into the future..." Together the structures form a cityscape, and the strung cards remind one of the windows in tall buildings and the individual and collective lives those windows represent. The artist began Infinity Net: Translator Stations in 1997, knowing it would be a long-term project. He was motivated by the desire to "sculpt an invisible space." In his artist statement he writes, "This invisible space was something I felt existed, but visually it did not generally seem to exist for others: except maybe in the form of a forest or a city — the feeling of an enveloping system or structure with changing bits of information constantly washing over them."

The Art Gym invites viewers to immerse themselves in the works that populate, inform and create the landscape of Schneider's invisible space.

- Terri Hopkins, curator and director of The Art Gym


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