Layers of Complexity: Judith’s Schaecther’s Multifaceted Approach to Self-Expression

Abstract image

Image source: Judith Schaecther.

by Sarah Rose Sharp

posted on 06-02-2020

Evidence of multimedia artist Judith Schaechter’s decades-long relationship with computer-assisted design tools might be hard to pinpoint. Her stained-glass compositions are ornate, wildly imaginative, and intricately hand-detailed. Where the physical ends and the digital begins only adds to the dreamlike, ethereal quality of her work.

For some artists, self-expression may manifest as a one-to-one act of self-portraiture, but for Judith, there is a desire to express the deeply personal by way of the universal.

Image source: Judith Schaechter.

“You need to figure out what it is about yourself that is completely unique,” Judith said, in a phone interview, “and the other thing you need to figure out is what makes your work incredibly universal.” What makes Judith’s work stand out in particular is her continual experimentation within a medium that has its roots in centuries-old Medieval and Renaissance art. She also draws upon her lifelong relationship with specific paintings made throughout art history — the influence of which is evident, even through the layers of abstraction she weaves into her compelling, contemporary glassworks.

“I don’t want people to know anything about my personal life, necessarily,” she said. “Art is a form of social interaction or communication. And I don’t feel like I have a firm personality, sometimes — or I don’t know what it is until I express it.”

The personalities Judith renders in her glasswork are a series of beautiful, gripping, and complicated figures in equally complicated situations. Lone subjects are almost always women caught in acts of self-awareness, private reflection, or obscure ritual. Her larger works are often Boschian scenarios of revelry and chaos, with a wide spectrum of characters, activities, and attitudes.

Image source: Judith Schaechter.

For example, her 2004 three-panel work, “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” portrays a woman with streaming hair clothed in a gauzily transparent dress, standing at the edge of the strand as a wave crests toward the seashore. In the top exterior corners of the picture plane, a massive, orange octopus floats divided between the two panels. The title of the work refers directly to a woodblock print created c. 1814 by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusaij however, the central figure in Schaechter’s tableau alludes instead, subtly but unmistakably, to Boticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” (c. 1484-1486). Judith’s self-expression manifests in the synthesis of her references, but also in the fearlessness with which she centralizes female characters that are messily human — equal parts beautiful and grotesque, and sexual without being performative. These works seem to rescue women from art history’s male gaze and re-illuminate them as the extraordinarily layered characters they are.

It seems counterintuitive to imagine that Judith’s process, which begins with hand-drawn sketches and ends in hours of meticulous etching and filing of colored glass, would have anything to do with contemporary technology — and for many years, it didn’t. But in 2000, already a couple of decades into her art career, she revolutionized her compositional process as her relationship to technology began to change.

Image source: Judith Schaechter.

“There used to be a Xerox place not far from where I lived at the time, called “Can-Do” and I would haul my drawings to Can-Do, and I would Xerox them in all different sizes,” Judith said. “My Xerox bill was getting to be like hundreds of dollars a month, or something insane like that.” She had previously tried her hand at tech tools via a second-hand Apple 2, which required hand coding in order to operate basic programs. It did not go as planned.

“I threw it out the window,” Judith said. “I did not get the memo about operating systems becoming user-friendly — I just wasn’t paying attention — but I had decided that I needed to buy a Xerox machine, because this was crazy. So, my little pea brain was sort of grinding around, and I thought, maybe if I get a computer, I can organize my mailing list on it. And, basically, a computer — it was the same price as buying a Xerox machine, so I thought, all right, I’ll get the computer, and I got a scanner.”

Around that time, she read an article by illustrator Mark Ryden, in which he discussed the benefits of scanning in his sketches. Mark was then able to “try out umpteen million layouts in one afternoon by essentially just moving elements around in a Photoshop document,” said Judith. “And I was like, ‘Ah! Yes! That’s what I want to do!’ And that’s now what I do.”

She started with the abbreviated version of Photoshop that came with her scanner, and the program provided an immediate revelation.

“I felt like Photoshop was an old friend,” Judith said. “I am the person who pushes every button — so first I destroyed everything, and then I had to fix everything.” She quickly incorporated Photoshop into her artistic workflow.

“I’ll tell you what, I really love Adobe Photoshop — it changed my whole way of thinking about art in a very, very positive way,” she said. “I always feel bad for people who are intimidated by it. It’s incredibly user-friendly if you’re an artist. I feel like it must have been made by artists for artists.”

The balance between specificity and universality in Judith’s work strikes at the core of the vulnerability surrounding the visibility — or invisibility — of the female form, especially as flawed or aging.

“I’ve struggled with my body image, as have many, many, many people before me,” she said, “and I think that comes out in my work.” Her figures often have visible veins beneath the skin or exaggerated features — an emphasis on natural aspects of the body that women are often pressured to conceal — and she describes them as an effort to express the discrepancy between “what we see and what we think about human bodies.”

Image source: Judith Schaechter.

Child Bride” (2001) features one of Judith’s many lone, supine figures, in this case a young woman regurgitating a stream of flowers into a puddle of bile — a kind of visceral retake on the concept of the “deflowering” that would follow the marriage alluded to in the title. Her eyes are rolled up, and a network of delicate blue veins are visible through the translucent skin of her face and neck. Judith’s subjects often seem caught in a struggle between their own sanctity of self and the demands of greater, outside forces acting upon them.

“They’re not me,” she says of her figures, “they’re like the proxy, doll version of me, and I want them to be better than me, and more beautiful than me, to compensate for my body and face dysmorphia.”

“But I can’t make them too pretty,” she laughs, “because then I can’t identify with them anymore!”

Topics: Creativity

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