Ward Schumaker came into the gallery one day last winter and introduced himself. I have been a fan for some time of his work as an illustrator, so I was pleased to meet him. His book covers, graphic designs and illustration have won him a well-deserved international reputation. The logo he designed for the much-missed Moose's restaurant on Washington Square was always one of my favorite marks and I follow that sort of thing. However, when he told me he was also a serious painter and invited me to come by and look at his art, I was somewhat hesitant. I expected facile work from a man whose libido really went into his day job, paintings that were clever but illustrative and as such not in keeping with the focus of the gallery. Out of respect for his stature in this other field however, I did decide to set up a studio visit, anticipating a polite but noncommittal time of it. After a few false starts, we met in his Potrero Hill home and he took me downstairs to where he paints, past a room he had hung gallery-style with a series of small, framed works on paper, painting and collage on corrugated cardboard. At first glance they seemed actually quite good––each and every one. I perked up.
The next room was his work area with windows facing the down-slope of the back yard. On the floor was a stack of paintings on large sheets of paper, quite a deep stack really, a significant body of work. He explained he had been painting for years on these roughly 4 x 3 foot sheets with a medium of acrylic mixed with what amounted to library paste, the kind we used to eat as kids. Next to the stack was a studio table and Ward pulled one piece at a time from the pile on the floor up onto the table for me to see, slowly, in a kind of steady slideshow rhythm. I looked at each one and was overwhelmed at my good fortune, like an archeologist stumbling on a stash of papyrus documents buried in a cavern. There was some incredible painting buried in this pile. Here I was, in the middle of an art dealer's dream, stumbling upon a major talent no one else seemed to know about. I couldn't get to sleep that night. So what was it that made Ward Schumaker such a discovery? His vernacular was crafted from conventions of action painting I was well versed in, but his painting had an immediate, visceral impact and a freshness that belied whatever I was able to trace in their genealogy.
Most of the artists I show consciously chose to lay the foundations of their imagery on the accomplishments of the past. Art history plays a significant role. Sometimes this history may be as immediate as yesterday but provides an inherited set of references nonetheless. Like home plate, with one's feet firmly rooted on the ground before swinging a bat, the shared historical context provides a sophisticated painter with a fulcrum, a pivot, in order to heave their art out from a past that is already mapped, into an as-yet uncharted present. Often a knowing nod and a full gesture accompany such an act. Schumaker's painting has got this very springy spine––springing from an ever-evolving center of balance. His swirling scrumble recalls Cy Twombly and the deft approach to gestural painting of the French Tachist Georges Mathieu. Something in his graphic equivalent of skin grafting is reminiscent of the collage elements in Julian Schnabel's work, and the recurrent, autobiographical references in Jasper Johns' imagery. Without warning Schumaker will often introduce texts and iconic sketches into his abstract expressionist dust devils, calling on an ensemble cast of welter weight boxers, stylized fairies, abstract monkeys and kneeling sirens named Betty. The amazing thing is that he can treat painting like a garage sale and still have it come across as something pure and untainted. He does this with his touch and with his spirit and with an ingrained familiarity with the medium born of longstanding, diligent practice. He can meld these disparate elements without losing the paint in it all because the paint is already in his body. It's in his marrow. Why juggle an ironing board, a tire iron and a stray cat? Because you can.
After I got a portfolio of the paintings into the gallery it took me some time to understand what I had on my hands. The biggest challenge was how physically to present them. Schumaker's library paste medium dries to a beautifully matte armor finish, very subtle but resilient, and it seemed a shame to cover up the paint surface under glass. At first we tried hanging the sheets directly on the wall with magnets but something in this presentation felt a little tentative; the painting itself demanded a more taut interaction with the viewer. Schumaker's composition, as intuitive and spontaneous as it is, nonetheless provides an underlying structure for his surface gymnastics. After some discussion, our inclination was to bolster the support in kind to bring out the paint. My framer ran some tests and we ended up deciding to go ahead and mount the paper sheets on back-framed panels. Nervously unwrapping the finished panels together in the gallery one evening, Ward and I both breathed a sigh of relief. We found ourselves surrounded by objects as actualized as the images. The mounting had literally flattened the picture planes and, just as we had hoped, the resulting tension shifted the balance of the focus to the nuances of the paint handling.
Amidst the wrappings we sat together looking at the surround of newly birthed paintings in the gallery, as full of plucky verve as runway creations and as classic in their execution as anything in the Prado. Out of the monochrome grays emerged subtle color lights, morning yellows and afternoon mauves. Spatial volumes opened like clouds parting. The monkeys and Bettys seemed inevitable, and in their element. Recently at a reception for Ward at San Francisco's Center for the Book, I had seen a small drawing of his that juxtaposed the two words "fashion" and "logic". The oxymoron now seemed an apt title for his upcoming show: Fashion and Logic. Why, indeed, paint paintings that manage so successfully to celebrate the agility of the human spirit, at once steeped in tradition and yet full of surprises at every turn? Because you can.
The catalog is available directly from the George Lawson Gallery