Two large paintings hang against a stark white wall directly opposite the gallery entrance. They are large enough not only to draw the viewer into the room, but to envelope them, and to absorb them into the bizarre painterly perspectives they play with. Both are painted with bright red, pink and translucent purple hues, and the gestural strokes move and dance along the canvas quickly. The movement of the artist’s brush across the canvas combined with the translucency of the paint allows for long drip marks to fall down the canvas, as though the paintings are slowly bleeding out.
It is a bizarre predicament to write about an exhibition no one can visit, especially since the exhibition is appropriate to the exact moment we are collectively facing and taking precaution from. While the COVID-19 pandemic was certainly not a part of the conceptual planning for Elizabeth Schwaiger’s solo exhibition Darkening Warmth at Co-Lab Projects in Austin, it has become a major protagonist in the unsettling timeliness of the exhibition itself.
This show is Schwaiger’s return to Austin, and she has composed thirteen paintings of varying sizes, and three sculptures that sit in the center of the space. While Co-Lab’s Springdale location is a modest-size space, and most of the work hangs on the walls, Darkening Warmth fills the gallery in interesting ways. Color palettes range from bright pinks and purples to darker blues and grays, adding a range of contrast and contradiction. It is the gestural lightness of Schwaiger’s hand, however, that creates a sense of movement in the room and between the works themselves; then the variety of sizes adds more subtle moments of movement. Things are contained even as they stretch the limitations of the white cube, both intentionally and surprisingly. Canvases are pulled across the stretchers so the images bleed into the edges, and paintings are hung butted up directly against corners, challenging the container of the space and containment in general.
Schwaiger’s painterly gestures and varied foreshortening make the perspective of each painting wildly different, as though you’re looking at each from a different point in the room even though you’re standing in one spot. The work itself offers an eerie look into the possibilities of catastrophe or disaster — a blurry reminder of our own shifting fallibility and contrary search for permanence. The artist’s choice to shift perspectives and fluctuate between interior and exterior scenes in the works lends a sense of constant movement in the gallery space, and potentially emotional vertigo. The interior scenes are devoid of people, as though they were painted just after a major event took place, and the view is of the suffocating silence left behind.
The interior of the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907 — often referenced in Schwaiger’s work — shows the violent history paintings hanging in the conference space, with the stark irony of pervasive images of brutality and conquest decorating the very space where talks of peace were carried out during the conferences themselves. Schwaiger’s domestic interiors are treated with a looming sense of doom; a dark palette and sweeping brush strokes carry a sense of abandonment. A backyard pool sits empty and forgotten. Paintings of exterior images reference nuclear aftermaths and tear gas through toxic, bulbous cumulus clouds.
Indeed, Darkening Warmth is apropos to the bizarre time we find ourselves in currently, and while her show was painted to reference natural disasters such as rising sea levels and floods, Schwaiger’s references have shifted to a new relevance — of the spread of a viral sickness causing an international lockdown. Darkening Warmth is the balance of both beauty and tragedy taking place simultaneously.