Edwin Schlossberg: Once Upon a Time When Everyone Was Conscious: 251 & 259 W 19th St
Whether he was crafting art books or books imagining discourse between a top physicist and a leading literary thinker such as the one between Einstein and Beckett, he endeavored to express the process as much as the product, the stream of words or images as much as the intrinsic mental scaffolding that upholds their meaning.
Ethan Cohen Gallery is pleased to present Once Upon A Time When Everyone Was Conscious, its first solo exhibition of Edwin Schlossberg’s work. Edwin Schlossberg is an artist and poet whose art practice carries the written word into the realm of visual art. This exhibition showcases recent paintings and works on paper made during the pandemic. Created in the past two years, the body of work reflects on different forms of interdependency between human beings in this fraught time of political conflict and physical separation. The show is both a deep sounding of our collective state as shaped by the Trump-Covid era and a continuation of the artist's sustained themes over many decades.
As if conscious of Aristotle's definition of the divine as 'mind thinking on itself' Schlossberg's preoccupation throughout his multifarious genre changes has been to probe the zones where the practical shades into the philosophical and back again. Whether he was crafting art books or books imagining discourse between a top physicist and a leading literary thinker such as the one between Einstein and Beckett, he endeavored to express the process as much as the product, the stream of words or images as much as the intrinsic mental scaffolding that upholds their meaning. As such he has always worked to simultaneously deconstruct and construct his medium of the moment. In his paintings especially, the viewer is constantly aware of several strands of consciousness in unison: what the artist made, the making process itself, and the observer's own process while viewing. We are aware of the object and of ourselves participating through the act of comprehending it. He lures us to take part in the artist's hermeneutics. We become, in effect, complicit with the inscrutable creator and the forces of creation working through the artist. Hence the metaphysical and even teleological dimension in Schlossberg's work. He traps us in the existential no-man's-land (a Beckett-esque zone) of forging our own reality with only tantalizing clues from the artist-Godot who always invites us to enter the void and to defy it.
These elements are all in play throughout the Ethan Cohen Gallery exhibition, Once Upon A Time When Everyone Was Conscious. The title suggests a hypothetical time, perhaps illusory and prelapsarian, when consciousness prevailed (or not). A political implication might be intimated, of a time before the Trump era perhaps. It certainly drives home Schlossberg's focus on consciousness itself. As usual with the written panels we struggle on the pivot of whether to look at or read the words. The eye goes back and forth, into the words' meanings and out at their visuality. Which is the right perspective? Caught in the transverse, self-consciousness overtakes us, that is awareness of ourselves thinking. Panels with blacked out horizontal swaths suggest classified documents with censored sections or pure black-on-white abstraction. One such entitled With Proof Truth is, according to Schlossberg, about 'what we had, what we want, what we lost – empirical truth', no doubt also referring to the Trump era and all the official inquiries failing to arrive at certainty. And when we see the works that resemble traditional Chinese literati landscapes, mindful of Schlossberg's erudition, we realize he might be quoting from the 'floating landscape' convention of China's ancient artists who deliberately conjured the elusive and ineluctable. They prompted onlookers to realize that what they saw in the work came out of their own imagining.
Uncertainty as an existential state is a recurrent theme. Ever the experimentalist, Schlossberg often deploys his customized paint ingredients: sometimes using Scotchlite that incorporates reflecting glass beads, sometimes Japanese paint with tiny ground crystals of diamonds, rubies, semiprecious stones. And sometimes both, as he does in the show's title work. The effect is to distort the diffusion of light through the material, toying with our sense of perspective, evanescing and changing depth as we move from side to side. In the Diaries series, the words are clearly written but the sentences meander so diffusely that we float weightless through the multiple possible meanings. The panel, As You Mean Something, offers a kind of calligraphic trompe l'oeil where the written letters never become fully discernible whatever the angle or distance the eye assays. The calligraphy constantly sinks or fails to quite emerge, a lost language or one struggling to articulate. “There's an overall message about interdependence” the artist has said about the show. Here, we begin to apprehend his meaning. If we do not agree on shared parameters, in our values, our aesthetics or even our perceptual criteria, there can be no truth and even less understanding. As Schlossberg's physicist side might deem it: We must forever replicate the first steps of creation, imposing order or filtering meaning out of chaos, forever caught in the first moments of the Big Bang where the infinite expansion of possibilities can arc either towards coherence or eternal disarray.
Schlossberg’s work has appeared in solo and group exhibitions in the United States and internationally. It is featured in private collections and museums, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. In 2004, he won the National Arts Club Medal of Honor, and in 2011, was appointed by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts. Schlossberg is the author of fifteen books and is also the principal and founder of ESI Design, an experience design studio in New York City.