"People are what we remember about them. What we call life is
in the end a patchwork of someone else's recollections. With death, it gets
unstitched, and one ends up with random disjointcd fragments."--Joseph
(Mount St. Mary's College, Jose Drudis-Biada Gallery, West Los Angeles) Although this exhibition of Norman Schwab's work from 1990 to 1995 is a memoriam, it is neither morbid, angst-ridden, nor sentimental. With sensitivity, Schwab communicates a respect for the dead. The quality of memory seems to say, "There was a life here then, and there is life now." As the mother in Death of a Salesman declared, "Attention must be paid." Each one of the assemblage paintings here has a presence, a personality of its own. Schwab's poetic handling of materials captures an essence rarely experienced when dealing with such difficult subject matter. Too often we see artists go over the edge into hand-wringing helplessness when addressing loss. Not Schwab. He approaches his canvas with both strength and delicacy, exhibiting a confidence as well as a vulnerability. He uses materials not to lighten the darkness but to disclose it. Flesh turns into a worn tennis shoe, a pair of eyeglasses, a smashed empty can of beer, faded photographs, a doctor's medicine bag, a tattered nightgown, scribbled notes, or a few dried roses.
On entering the main gallery, you are confronted with huge photographs, one of a young man, another of an empty landscape, and still another of an overturned automobile, its parts strewn along a stretch of deserted highway. At first one is taken aback by the size of the pieces, but they draw the spectator in to investigate bits of rusted metal, smashed debris, a tennis shoe imbedded in gravel, or some barely decipherable notes collaged and interspersed with the photos. tho enormity of personal tragedy is reinforced by the size of the work.
These assemblages are a specific reference to a friend, a nineteen-year-old killed in an auto accident. The young man's mother collected some of his belongings, detritus gathered at the accident, and notes she jotted down and brought to Schwab, asking him to use the bits and pieces in his work.
At the far end of the gallery is a separate installation entitled Trilogy which consists of a stack of books topped by a blackened eagle, a charred canvas and a rumpled overstuffed, tar-blackened chair. Scribbled names of classic authors appear on torn pieces of cloth attached to the canvas, like pages ripped from a favorite novel. The weathered chair rests nearby, an old scarf strewn over one arm. The chair almost becomes a favorite teacher, an old professor who conveyed a love of literature. The detail of the scarf adds that human presence that is always a significant element in Schwab's esthetic.
There are no faceless crowds in Schwab's abstractions. Each piece evokes an image of an individual, real or imaginary. Also, although some of the pieces are freestanding, they are not sculptures in terms of investigating volume or mass. They are paintings that have come off the wall. Like paintings, they are illusionistic narratives, a continued story. The story could be the end of a love affair, the loss of a parernt or friend, the loss of innocence, an homage to a heroic figure, or the recognition of a national tragedy. Schwab is a natural storyteller who creates an experience. He poetically reinforces the content with process, using the very shape of the work to add another level of meaning.
The form of the cross that he uses may symbolize sacrifice or healing. Coincidentally, the cross is the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet, signifying the end. When he uses the unobtrusive rectangle shape, as in White on White (a Portrait of Michael), the piece requires the kind of quiet, meditative space that doesn't interrupt the moment . The piece has an inner strength contained in its own image.
Schwab values memory, no matter how painful, in a way that paradoxically communicates the importance of the present and a belief in the future. If each of us were to be remembered with the tenderness expressed in Schwab's art, we could feel our lives were more worthwhile.