In Conversation: Peter Schenck's Comedy Cellar

Jun 07, 2018 - Jul 08, 2018Freight and Volume Gallery, New York

Freight+Volume in NY is once again welcoming Peter Schenck to their space, showcasing his newest solo exhibition, titled Comedy Cellar. For his second showing with the gallery, the Brooklyn-based artist prepared a new body of paintings and drawings which explore deep and complex emotions through vibrant and intricate images. 

Dynamic and spirited at first glance, Schenck images reveal a series of influences upon closer inspection. Using cubism aesthetics as a base construction concept, the artist composes his images by developing new series of "characters," portrayed through their complex inner and outer forms. Imbued with humour and self-reflection, we were intrigued to find out more about these captivating compositions so we talked with the artist about this particular body of work, as well as the influences and the thought process that lead to its creation. His solo show is on view through July 8, 2018.

Sasha Bogojev: How did you arrive at the title for your show? 
Peter Schenck: I took the title from the legendary comedy club, in New York City’s Greenwich Village, called the Comedy Cellar. I’ve always liked the name and it reminds me of my brief stint as a stand-up comedian while living in Philadelphia. The word comedy lends itself to the humour in my work. Cellar calls to mind things that are not easily seen and addresses darker themes. I look for what’s funny in the darkest of situations often incorporating gallows humour into my work. I’ve recently been placing figures into environments that bring about fear or hostility, such as a dramatically lit stage or dark cellar.

How do you translate stand-up comedy into your paintings?
The translation between the two makes sense to me, stand-up comedy and painting are both performative acts. They both require repetitive action, self-examination and ruthlessness in development of an original voice. You’re completely alone in these practices, pulling your subject matter from your instincts and history. Comedy and painting share humour and storytelling to express personal narratives. 

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Your works are evoking the aesthetics of prominent 20th-century art movements. Are these references intentional and is there a meaning behind them? 
20th century art has had a huge impact on me. There is a painting in my show, Strengths and Weaknesses, where I’m borrowing from movements like cubism and pop art. In that painting, I’ve mashed up the styles and forms of Kippenburger, Guston, and Picasso to build the figure. Implementing the styles and formal attributes of artists like these has been my way to synthesize my own aesthetic. I don’t try to hide the fact that I’m taking from other artists. While those references occupy the foreground, they’re there to obscure the more personal narratives in my work. 

When did you develop your appreciation for these 20th century artists? 
Until my junior year in college I was more interested by realism, focusing on artists such as John Singer Sergeant and Thomas Eakins. When I saw Farefield Porter things changed. I was awed by Porter’s flattened sense of space and color. My painting changed significantly senior year. I started painstakingly painting product logos that were part of my everyday use (Elmer’s glue, Mountain dew, Pabst Blue Ribbon, etc). The rawness of Lichtenstein and Warhol was a revelation to me because of their reverence for the flatness of form. The year I spent preparing for graduate school, I was fortunate to see two memorable shows in Boston. There was a fantastic abstract expressionist show at the Rose Art Museum, which fueled my growing interest in Guston and de Kooning. What really blew me away was Frank Stella’s early black and striped paintings at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. Heading into graduate school these two exhibitions exposed me to a new sense of scale and ambition. 

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Light is an element you evidently like playing with. Are you using any image or references to create the desired setting? 
As far as light goes with this recent work, I was remembering my grandparent’s basement. It was a place of mystery and fascination: musty old books and boxes stacked up, old maps and posters from past vacations. Burned into my memory is how the light passed through these small windows that ran along the top of the walls right above ground level. The light they would throw dramatically cut through the dust particles in the air and would fall onto old abandoned things. Certain art historical uses of dramatic light have recently influenced me too, Rembrandt’s raking light, Guston’s graphic light bulb, Josef Albers transparent color experiments. While I think about these sources, I will routinely make a smaller color sketch in pencil or crayon. I’ll then base my large-scale paintings on these small studies. 

What other elements are you particularly fond of lately?
I became interested in vanitas paintings and the pathos behind them. I like the challenge of inserting dark symbols like skulls, into the existing humorous cast of characters and objects. 

The re-use of the pencil as a symbol makes me think the images are autobiographical, am I far off? 
The pencil is autobiographical. I have been incorporating other studio elements, such as open containers, paintbrushes, and the comically large pencil. Including the pencil is a self referential joke. 

The new body of work shows larger scale and greater complexity. How do you explain this progression? 
With my newer body of work, I wanted the figures and objects to have a larger environment to engage with. I also began to think about the scale of George Baselitz’s work, how the size of his paintings and the size of his imagery seem to be wed together. 

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How did the grid compositions develop and what do they represent? 
Melding the scale of Baselitz with the methodical grid layouts of LeWitt, I had my template. Whereas in my first grid painting, Clear Skies Ahead, I collaged two drawings together and then applied a grid on top to transpose onto a canvas. Inadvertently the grid became an important compositional device. With Good Intentions I decided to push the grid further. I wanted the fragmentary imagery to remain neatly within each tile of the grid, but that the drama and energy of the painting would occur through subtle scale shifts of similar forms. The grid compositions came out as a need to break up my pre-existing formula for how I imagined and constructed my paintings. I wanted my figures and objects to literally be cut up, fragmented and then realigned to form new connections and associations. I believed it would pack a lot of content into a large area, but also capture remnants of my current iconography with a new sense of spontaneity and complexity. I love the formal, democratic nature of what a grid does, how it can level the playing field so to speak, but you can bring elements forward or push them back depending on the juxtaposition of one tile next to another. Connections with my work just prior to these large grids are clear to me. While the grid paintings are a new territory, I regard them as a continuation of both exposure and concealment, which has been the main concern of my previous work.