Artists are always influenced by their environment. The world is rich with visual stimulation and artists draw inspiration from interactions with the world around them. Parts of Philadelphia are sprinkled with decaying remnants of factory buildings waiting to be reborn as apartments and gentrified buildings. An artist’s vision can help us to see these buildings’ dignity by rejoicing in their formal geometry and imagining their almost forgotten spirit. Can these abandoned factories be colorful forms that enrich the urban landscape with texture, line, mass and shape that please the eye and grant dignity to the neighborhood? Is it possible to find both formal purity and noble spirit in these decaying structures?
For five years Charlotte Schatz has maintained a studio in Philadelphia near the vacant buildings of Olde City, Northern Liberties and Kensington. With the keen perception of a trained observer she has quietly painted views of her surroundings that bring together both the idealism of a social activist and the cool vision of a formalist image-maker. This productive marriage of a concern for form balanced with sensitivity to spirit has helped to produce a body of work that can be appreciated by the eye and the heart. The viewer can revel in color and form while imagining the forgotten energy and human activity that once buzzed within the buildings.
Artists who can stimulate our eyes and also touch our souls move us to action and understanding. As we come to observe and value the forgotten structures from an earlier time, we expand appreciation of our collective history and increase the dignity of man. Schatz’s paintings help us to achieve those lofty goals in the decaying neighborhoods of Philadelphia’s abandoned factories.
Bruce Katsiff, Director
James A. Michener Art Museum
Light, geometry and space have long been central to the work of Philadelphia artist Charlotte A. Schatz. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Schatz fabricated elaborate, serialized sculptures of acrylic and mirror where the refractory properties of light become a plastic medium not unlike clay or metal. Her new works are acrylic paintings that initially cite the work of the Fauve’s, or closer to home, the work of Robert Henri, John Sloan and the Ash Can School. Yet, if Schatz appears to be making a radical departure from her past interests, it is instead a new and complex engagement with time that the artist is adding to her previous investigation of light and form. On one level, the new works focus on the detritus of the 20th Century: derelict factory buildings sprouting convoluted steam pipes, deserted industrial plants awaiting demolition. However, this suite made up of dozens of paintings and drawings also reveals the way historical memory haunts the urban landscapes of the present.
It is a difficult project nonetheless, and one not without conceptual dilemmas. Over sixty years ago the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht asked what a photographic image of the Krupp factory in Germany could possibly disclose about the working conditions of the men and women inside. We might ask the same question of Schatz’s paintings. What do these moribund buildings tell us of the struggles and dreams of those who labored within them? Yet, in the time since Brecht asked his rhetorical question much has changed. Many of the factories in Europe and the United States have gone silent as the industrial base of capitalism shifts to Asia and Latin America. If Brecht’s provocation sought to reveal the human drudgery that lay behind the cool of modernism and its machine age aesthetic, then the relics making up the post-industrial metropolis can not help but reveal something about the nature of history if perceived with a careful eye. Schatz intuitively grasps this fact. By rendering the mute minutia of weathered steam fittings, archaic apparatus and obsolete machines, her images indeed uncover something profound. It is as if these works query: can certain objects and spaces carry forward a mnemonic charge, a residue of the past, that is made visible only through specific acts of creative interpretation? It is this unseen yet powerful residuum that Schatz's paintings ultimately seek to draw out of their subject matter.
Many of Schatz’s subjects are found in and around her native Philadelphia. One of these locations is known locally as the Northern Liberties area, a former industrial zone along the Delaware River not far from the artist's studio. It is the kind of urban setting where industrial labor once developed and flexed its collective muscle and anonymous immigrants toiled for a better life in a new world. Sophie Saroff, an in-law of the artist and a union organizer in Philadelphia during the 1910’s, was one of these. In her oral history Saroff recalls this period in which:
“ … we had strikes going in our own union, which meant being on the picket line in the morning before going to work… we were trying to get a well-lit, well-ventilated shop, things pretty much taken for granted now. But to make it a normal condition, we had to struggle.”
(Stealing The State: Sophie Saroff, An Oral History, Community, Documentation Workshop 1983. Series editor, Arthur Tobier. P 16.)
Northern Liberties is still inhabited by a significant working class, ethnic population of Lithuanians, Slavs, Ukrainians and African Americans. It is also home to many Philadelphia artists. Yet, the area is also being targeted for luxury apartment conversions and upscale retail chains. The process known as gentrification threatens to displace this largely working class community with upwardly mobile professionals and entrepreneurs of the post-industrial, information age. This new immigrant population has chosen to live in the frozen, industrial heart of the city. Yet it is not out of passion for ideas of social progress or utopianism, both endemic to the machine age. Rather, theirs is a compulsion to inhabit the simulacra of the last century, to own a luxury loft in an old factory with an exposed brick wall and a café on the next corner.
But the paintings of Charlotte Schatz convey neither nostalgia nor indulge in post-modern dystopia. Instead, their specificity of subject matter and joyful use of color and light focus attention on the very gap between present and past, between representation and lived history. The painting entitled Peco Pipe can serve to clarify my reading of the work.
Peco Pipe depicts a rotund, yellow pipe that stands out of doors before a saturated red wall. The pipe and wall appear to be part of a larger, archaic factory complex. The yellow pipe is joined by a second, smaller pipe that is wrapped (most likely) in asbestos cloth. However, something else is really central to the painting. Dividing the picture vertically in half is a thin strut or crutch that is topped by a thin shelf to form a T-shape. Both crutch and shelf appear made of some unknown metal parts that might have been left over from another construction job. Meanwhile, the entire makeshift ensemble serves as an improbable brace for the juncture where the massive yellow and the wrapped pipes meet. The result of this invention is an unexpected, whimsical improvisation devised by some anonymous laborer and Schatz’s painting has transformed the scene into something at once ludicrous and marvelous. It is here that her series of “Urban Ruins” reveal an unexpected secret.
My initial take on this work led me to Charles Sheeler’s precise, industrial paintings.. Yet, the surface handling of the paintings more accurately invoked the Ash Can School. Now, with equal insistence, it is the so-called metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico that are called to mind. The lonely, haunted spaces that de Chirico painted after the turn of the last century also worked against easily transforming history into one more commodity, something to be mass produced, genericized, and consumed. The cynical rehabilitation of urban living in cities such as Philadelphia is one example of this process. Like de Chirico, the paintings of Charlotte Schatz reveal a masterful knowledge of light and geometry. They also provoke incongruities involving time and memory. Ultimately, in these important works, Schatz makes history manifest, if only as a marker of something profoundly absent that continues to ripple across the amnesia we call the present.
Gregory Sholette 7/11/01
Gregory Sholette is an artist, writer,
activist and founding member of the
REPO history artist's collective
and Political Art Documentation and
Distribution as well as Associate Professor
and the Chair of the Master of Arts
in Arts Administration Program at the
School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Charlotte A. Schatz calls a collection of acrylic paintings..... "Urban Ruins." But her affection for the subjects she paints — whether abandoned industrial sites, factories or smokestacks — is undeniable. It’s like a Charles Sheeler painting collided with a Fauvist’s palette when Schatz renders Ortlieb’s Brewery hopper and PECO pipes in rich reds, greens and golds.
Laurie Hill, Philadelphia City Paper