Robert Schefman’s new work opened at the Robert Kidd Gallery on May 12, 2012 featuring large illusionistic figure paintings that explore a variety of themes. With early beginnings in non-objective sculpture, Schefman continued on a twenty-year journey producing illusionistic painting and drawing. He paced himself with themes that can engage and intrigue viewers, while alienating others.
A series of large charcoal drawings with a figure or two in the foreground, and an oil fire on the horizon, has a surreal feeling. The immense amount of charcoal strokes in compelling compositions impresses one technically but leave the viewer wondering about the editorial statement. Dream like images carry with them content that seems to foreshadow an inevitable event. The bound figure enclosed in a block wall window suggests a kind of self inflicted torture or a Robert Mapplethorpe fetish, and the smaller paintings that reference board game clues feel less serious. Out of this journey come recent paintings that feel more personal by presenting the viewer with a narrative that can go in different directions based on one’s own experience.
Schefman may run the risk of limiting his story to a generation of people his own age but in the painting Collected Knowledge, a more compelling narrative unfolds. Multiple characters and older childhood toys leave the viewer left to wonder what exactly is going on. Without seeing the eyes of the barefoot figures it feels like a mystery. Perhaps he suggests living our society, moving at such a rapid pace of change, we all would like to figure out a way to preserve the nostalgic toy objects from our youth.
About two weeks before the opening I sat down with Bob Schefman and interviewed him about his work.
Ron Scott: Where did your interest in art come from?
Robert Schefman: I have always been interested in art. I first got introduced to art by my brother but I did not have training until I went to college, where I was a pre-med student. Any artwork I did then, I was doing on my own.
I see that you did your undergraduate work at Michigan State University, what drew you to the University Iowa for graduate school?
Iowa was the first to grant an advanced graduate degree in the country and what attracted me was the man who ran the sculpture program was very well known, Julius Schmidt, who also taught at Cranbrook. Julius was in an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in the late 1950’s called “The Sixteen” with Youngerman, Kelly, Warhol, and Rauschenberg, so he was in very good company. They have a great tradition at Iowa. I went to Michigan State for my undergraduate work because they had a complete sculpture facility where I could make work that was sixteen feet long, rather than just working on a tabletop.
I know from your resume, you started out in sculpture. How did you move from these large minimalist sculptures to illusionistic figure painting?
The large non-objective pieces where taking me beyond the minimal pieces to these modular pieces where the form became a language. The forms themselves became a visual language. The language gave way to a concept and I wanted to be more specific, rather than metaphorical. To do that I wanted to expand the vocabulary of the form beyond these sheets of metal from a steelyard and I decided to invest in the figure. Some of the work was successful, and some was not. I did a sculpture for the Ancient Gates of Troy in Turkey, which was a phenomenal experience, so I moved to making figurative pieces, and then realized I wanted to connect more readily. The piece in Turkey was incredible but I wanted something more from it, so I tried it in illusionistic painting. Immediately, my work went in a new direction. I was able to go through that imaginary window to a space that was defined by me.
Are there any artists making illusionistic paintings that you particularly like?
If anything, I had always appreciated Philip Pearlstein. He was the closest thing to the abstraction of the figure, in the way things are placed on the page, or chopped off – the way he uses shape and form – it seems as though the figure and objects are incidental to the shapes and color is incidental but there is not a heavy content in Pearlstein and I was looking for more content.
From your resume and your work, it would appear that you have an interest in theater. Can you talk about that?
At the time I was doing sculpture, these were non-objective sculptures, I was working with dance companies in New York. Working in the dance theater did affect me. Also when I did these sculptures, there were dancers that would choreograph dance pieces around the sculpture’s concept. It became a norm working around the dance performers and lead to the influence of the figure. It was a kind of backdoor that made up a piece of the overall puzzle.
You seem to work on a series of paintings that are designed around themes? Can you talk about that?
I do not set out to do a series. It is more like taking an idea and exploring where you can go with it. It is not like I start out to do a certain number in a series. It is more about trying to see what kind of possibilities you can get from that – right? It is taking an idea and seeing where it goes. There is overlap from one to another. I head off in one direction, and then something opens up a new area. The focus is not on the material or the physical technique. I am not talking so much about painting, rather I am using paint for my purpose. It is manipulated by my own hand and it will do whatever I ask it to do. The paintings do travel and they go where they go. But, yes, I do develop a subject and then go on to another.
How would you describe your process?
People, photography, fantasy, research – everything in the work has invested personal meaning. It is not randomly put together. In any of these paintings, I am trying to get to something specific. The viewer will bring to the work their own information, which goes without saying, but for me, to assemble these images, there is a long process. The process starts with an initial idea, and it could be a character, or a stack of letters. It is very personal. I started to think about letters from my father, and asked myself will letters exist in the future. In the new painting, Collected Knowledge, these documents are personal history. I have used early photos from the late 1800’s. It makes me think about the format of information and how it has changed. I am seeing dropouts in my digital information and when I look at slides from the 1960’s that still exist, and actually they have more information than my digital information. If it all ends up in some shoebox, are they going to be able to read that? The formats keep changing. So personal history is history and I do not think the future will be the same. That brings up other things that are disappearing, like the mechanical world. It is disappearing from the American manufacturing scene, and so I choose the Robot – which are not Robots at all but rather pressed tin mechanicals from the 1950’s. They are just a mechanical fantasy. My research took me to places where I could find these objects from collectors. There are precious letters, precious photographs, and precious objects that I use in the work. When it comes to the process of developing the figurative images, for that I turn to my sketchbook, and there is no filter. After many drawings, I start to put pieces together. I use models, but the process is assembling in a traditional way, like Manet, who would take the models in the studio and then use the open air on the lawn and combined them. That is my process.
A local art critic, Vince Carducci, described your work as prosaic allegory. Does that work for you?
It is a fair description. Why not? Sometimes they are allegory, as for prosaic, I will leave that to someone else. The images that I choose mean something to me. It is easy to dismiss illusionistic work because it is traditional. I went out of my way to choose illusionistic figure painting to see if there is something that I can reinvest in it. So if you want to say prosaic because it is common, then maybe that is right, sight is what we all have in common. Inventing an allegorical figure representing a modern condition is hardly prosaic. Using the images out of magazines and newspapers for source material defines prosaic. That is now common response and practice. I hope viewers give as much consideration and time to works done in illusion as they do to works coming out of the academic modernist tradition.
In some of your earlier work, you seem to want to address contradiction. There is a nude woman holding a cloth covering a male, or there is a nude male hiding female genitalia? What is that about?
Sure, and if you look into a lot of my earlier work, you will find that kind of black humor. That series that you mention is a series on censorship. Having been censored a number of times and having work covered, or pulled down, it was something I was thinking about. So, I was looking double standards in America and homophobia and how you can do anything you want with a female body and you can not do anything you want with a male body. If you have an image of a penis in the work, you are going to get some push back from a very homophobic America. For me the worse part of this is when you start to second-guess yourself. That is not good.
Do you consider yourself a Detroit artist?
I have lived in Detroit, I have lived in New York, and I have lived in Iowa. Am I a Detroit artist? Yeah, I am at the moment. I have been here twenty years. It is relatively meaningless. When I am asked, I say I am a Detroit artist and I am proud of that.
Do you know where the work is going?
Do I have it planned out? No more than what is in my sketchbook but in these paintings there is a new direction, in part because I have taken a leave from college teaching and have been able to work full time in the studio.
The Robert Schefman exhibition runs May 12 – June 23, 2012.
Robert Kidd Gallery is located at 107 Townsend Street, Birmingham, MI 48009.
Ron Scott is a pseudonym for a writer based in the Detroit area. View more articles by Ron Scott.