(Un)Sacred Geometries: Pete Schulte’s “The Lamplighter” at Whitespace

Grisalle abstraction with black edges, a drawing by Pete Schulte.
Grisalle abstraction with black edges, a drawing by Pete Schulte.
Pete Schulte, untitled; gouache on paper, 12 by 12 inches.

Pete Schulte’s “The Lamplighter” is a shockingly diverse exhibition that, at a casual glance, appears to be anything but. Even though it fills the three separate venues of  the Whitespace/Whitespec/Shedspace complex and includes a sound art installation, the dominant medium is graphite on paper, and the dominant style is geometric.

Thee main gallery space indicates that more is afoot than a random exhibition of recent work. The room is startlingly sparse, with only one work each on two white walls and a dark gray wall. This isolation of each work forces a consecutive response to the installation as a whole and to close inspection of each piece in succession, and under the right circumstances (solo viewing is best) the effect is slightly mind-bending. That this is the desired impact is suggested by the resonant title of one of the drawings, Cosmic American Music II, in which the dominant element is a black X on a light gray background. .Even though the untitled drawing in the center of the white wall to its left may remind some viewers of Agnes Martin, the overall plan is an expansion of the range of consciousness without benefit of psychotropic chemicals. 

grisaille abstract drawing by Pete Schulte with a black X in the middle
Pete Schulte, Cosmic American Music II, 2017; graphite and gouache on paper.

This is not at all what we would expect from work so seemingly reason-based, but there are more ways of being rational than restricting one’s work to computational measurement. Simply filling the adjacent gallery with small works in which each one pursues a different visual strategy is such a dramatic shift from the initial experience that the viewer has no choice but to adjust subconscious expectations accordingly. In more anachronistic terms, if it all works right, your mind is blown.

On the other hand, the shift in perception is meant to elicit more than an uncomprehending “Oh, wow.” These are still geometry-centered artworks, with the geometric principles underlying them slightly or extremely different from one work to another. After the first impression of disorienting multiplicity, the viewer is left to study each work on an up-close-and-personal basis, perhaps noticing a few small, possibly jokey mysteries, such as the title Collapsing New Buildings II, presumably an allusion to the German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten, since there is nothing about the drawing itself to suggest that the multiple enclosed rectangles are collapsing. (Or is there? To quote my often-cited Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Don’t think, but look!”)

Grisaille abstract drawing by Pete Schulte with bands of white, and column of black bands in the center
Pete Schulte, untitled, 33 by 33.5 inches, graphite on paper.

After deciding that the visual pleasure of such a variety of approaches may be worth more than solving intellectual puzzles, the viewer should cross the courtyard to the Whitespec space to “The Lamplighter pt. II: An Experiment in Drawing and Sound.” There they will encounter a single drawing accompanying a 70-minute electronic composition by Andrew Raffo Dewar, based on measurement of Schulte’s biochemical reactions during the creation of the drawing, plus bits off the sound made by Schulte’s pencil, recorded by a microphone mounted on his drawing pad. The effect on the visitor is immediate—at least for those who respond positively to subtly meditative electronic music—but once again, extended contemplation is best in terms of maximum impact. Since the drawing is mounted at the far end of the small windowless gallery, the immersive piece of sound-art is the primary experience until the visitor sits down facing Schulte’s artwork. The work is neither an icon nor a mandala—if the is parallel to anything, it would be that of a prayer rug—but it reproduces the functions of both, in a secular register. Once again, Schulte proves that it is possible to make use of the contemplative methods found in several different religions, without making “sacred art” as such. 

A trek through the lush garden surrounding the two galleries, to the converted gardenhouse called Shedspace, allows the viewer to examine seven intimate abstract drawings, in nature-surrounded viewing circumstances that change, however slightly, the experience of basically geometric compositions of parallel lines. Schulte has thought out this succession, and it illustrates why he chose “The Lamplighter” as the exhibition title: he conceives of the artist as a creator of successive pools of light, or opportunities for enlightenment, whether that enlightenment is of the Buddhist or the 18th-century rationalist sort, or, best of all, both at once.

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