Gary Schafter in the studio. Photo by David S. Rubin.
Gary Schafter in the studio. Photo by David S. Rubin.

Gary Schafter is a San Antonio-based artist whose paintings are deeper and more complex than they appear at first sight. Audiences can experience this in his Pictures exhibit until Dec.13, inside the newly opened Gallery 20/20 in Suite #108 at 1010 South Flores St.

A representational painter who has exhibited work since the 1980s, Schafter is known primarily for still life paintings that could be mistaken for having been made in some earlier century, a perception he encourages through his frequent use of antique frames.

When we begin to scrutinize everything that we see in a Schafter painting, we quickly begin to realize that the representational images are punctuated with stylistic elements such as abstract geometry or stenciled text, which ties them to the present.

Such visual contradictions, in fact, are actually what Schafter is after. A practitioner of what he calls “mediated representation,” which allows for multiple options in understanding the relationship between an image and what it represents, the artist is fond of painting perceptual puzzles that don’t necessarily add up.

Schafter earned his BFA in 1979 at the University of Wisconsin, where the curriculum was steeped in East Coast Minimalism, a movement preoccupied with formal and aesthetic considerations. By 1981, he was eager to try something different, so he moved to San Antonio and enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Texas, where he earned his degree in 1985. UTSA’s strong emphasis on conceptual art encouraged Schafter to abandon minimalism and shift his attention to problems of meaning and semantics.

In his thesis exhibition, Schafter demonstrated his skill at mastering the kind of figurative painting that was prevalent both locally and nationally at the time, where representational images are presented as juxtaposed vignettes and rendered with expressive brushwork or bold colors.  

Schafter’s “High Noon” features a jarring palette and implied narrative about the transition from childhood innocence to adult awakening, characteristics shared with contemporaneous paintings by Texas artists like Melissa Miller, or high profile New York figures like Eric Fischl and David Salle. Unlike these artists, Schafter stenciled words into the painting to offer clues to potential meaning.

"High Noon," 1984, oil on canvas, 72 x 96 in. By Gary Schafter.
“High Noon,” 1984, oil on canvas, 72 x 96 in. By Gary Schafter.

After graduate school, Schafter found himself becoming more interested in the interpretation of images, but opted to eliminate the gestural quality of his paint application, a move that would downplay the emotional impact of his previous work and keep the paintings more objective.

Schafter also found an opportunity to explore ideas from Buddhism and Skepticism, two seemingly unrelated fields of philosophical study. In Zen Buddhism, meditation seeks to liberate the mind from emotions by concentrating on paradoxical statements and riddles known as koans, where no single answer exists in response to a question.

Skepticism, which was advocated by one of Schafter’s favorite artists, the conceptual art pioneer Marcel Duchamp, both sides of an argument are considered equally valid, hence there can never be a definitive resolution to a problem.

As a way to explore these ideas, Schafter turned to a diptych format in paintings such as “Hygiene/Clean Mouth,” where the paint has become thinner and two side-by-side images provide viewers with the opportunity to partake in a kind of visual detective work, asking the viewer, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Hygiene/Clean Mouth, 1985, oil on panel diptych, 35 x 29 in. each panel. By Gary Schafter.
“Hygiene/Clean Mouth,” 1985, oil on panel diptych, 35 x 29 in. each panel. By Gary Schafter.

When viewed quickly or from a distance, it is easy to misconstrue what we are seeing as being two identical images of a boy brushing his teeth. However, careful study reveals the numerous differences between the two panels, such as the position of the toothbrush, the text along the bottom, the circle circumscribing the boy’s eye in the left panel and the rectangular layer superimposed over his mouth in the right. The latter device is particularly interesting, as it foreshadows the pictorial effect of using the layering tool found in today’s common digital imaging programs.

Schafter’s paintings have also been informed by the Buddhist concept known as yin-yang,which proposes that opposite forces are in fact complementary and compatible. In his 1988 painting “Word,” Schafter addresses a duality that was a hot art world topic at the time, the distinction between “high art” and “low art,” which became the subject of a landmark exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1990.

In “Word,” Schafter performs a visual balancing act between images derived from the high art academy, represented by a Buddha sculpture and Modernist geometric circles, and low art references from everyday life that include a white line applied graffiti-style from an aerosol spray can. He creates a yin-yang relationship in “Car” by juxtaposing a blue car on a red field with a red car on a blue field, forcing our eyes to move back and forth, with neither side winning our full attention. Both paintings, of course, are filled with other enigmatic details that make it impossible to come to a conclusion as to each work’s meaning.

"Word," 1988, oil on canvas, 70 x 70 in. By Gary Schafter.
“Word,” 1988, oil on canvas, 70 x 70 in. By Gary Schafter.

Our understanding of “Word” is confounded by the illogical curvature of the Buddha sculpture’s base, the target over the center of its body suggesting chakras, the presence of a seemingly random numerical sequence, and the words “image” and “word” presented as a textual equivalent of a yin-yang symbol. The usage of these two words is also the most important clue to the game that Schafter is inviting us to play, that is, to investigate the potential relationships between images and words. Consider, for example, the inclusion of the exclamation “expression!” under the red and blue cars in “Car.” Using the color dichotomy of black and white, they may be viewed as a textual signifier for the idea of the car as a status symbol, and a flashy “expression” of our personalities.

In the 1990s, Schafter turned his attention to issues raised by another philosopher, the late Jean Baudrillard, who believed that the proliferation of media has led us to become more familiar with the simulation of something than with the thing itself.

This idea seems increasingly relevant today, as the world population continues to encounter virtual realities on a daily basis using handheld devices. In works such as “Ship,” Schafter explores of the ambiguities that underlie our understanding of visual images, when we encounter them as replications or in generations.

To produce this “faux history painting,” as he calls it, he used oil paint to depict a photograph of an historical image of a ship juxtaposed with painted image of a Xerox reproduction of the photograph.He references the subject matter by including Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous ‘water, water’ line from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner with a computer bar code for bottled water, and used a red background to represent thirst.

In subsequent paintings such as “Bunny” and “Cut Flowers,” he focused entirely on the process of reproduction. In the former, he adhered a photocopy of a rabbit picture to wood and varnished it to look like it was painted. In the latter, he convincingly replicated the appearance of the Old Master’s floral still lifes, painting it entirely by hand. Intentionally deceptive, both paintings function beautifully as visual puns, since a reproduction of a bunny is a picture of something known for reproducing at a rapid rate, and the still life is a painting of an aging vintage photograph of a painting.

"Bunny," 1993, color copy on wood, 24 x 24 x 4 in. By Gary Schafter.
“Bunny,” 1993, color copy on wood, 24 x 24 x 4 in. By Gary Schafter.

Schafter has kept a rather low profile over the past 20 years, but he has continued to produce paintings that tend to confound our perceptions while using greater subtlety. In “Still,” the lush palette of a bowl of fruit coupled with the antique frame work convinces us that we are looking at an Old Master still life painting, yet such an identification is thwarted by the presence of three evenly spaced abstract circles, one which is similar to a grape, and the small strip of text painted into the background of the composition that states the work’s title. The two apples in the foreground are virtually identical, which raises questions about cloning, a topic that has become prominent among many 21st-century artists and which is further explored in Schafter’s “Buddha with Cloned Lovebird.” The latter work includes nearly identical imagery on left and right, but the the positioning and content of the small text passages at the bottom (“clones and other reproductions” at left and “cloned Buddha” at right) shows that they are actually different.

In “Pictures,” emotion, narrative, and commentary — all qualities that he initially sought to eradicate from his visual conversation— have found their way back in. This is particularly evident in paintings like “Large Cinderella Pumpkin” and “Snow Dome – Nature.” In the painting of two pumpkins Schafter has liberated his brushwork for the first time in years with vigorous brush strokes, giving so much life and energy to the pumpkins that they appear to be voluptuous, genetically altered mutants. At the same time, the mere mention of Cinderella in the title evokes narrative associations with the fairytale, and the heroine’s transformation from peon to princess, which in turn becomes a metaphor for the transformed pumpkins (or vice versa).

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“Snow Dome – Nature” is from a new series of paintings of familiar images encased in glass containers such as parlor domes, snow globes, and bottles. We are still confronted by subtle visual contradictions such as the red dot painted over the upper left of the dome, but Schafter now challenges us to begin thinking about a paradise lost, disappearing species, pollution, mutation and all the other consequences of climate change and human mismanagement of the environment. Contained under the dome, the deer in the painting is nothing more than a museum artifact, a relic of the past.

In tapping into our emotions through the presentation of such poetic nostalgic imagery, Schafter has come full circle from where he began as an artist, creating works that are both visually stimulating while being socially relevant to our time.

*Top Image: Gary Schafter in the studio. Photo by David S. Rubin.

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David S. Rubin is an independent curator, writer, and artist. He has been active in contemporary art for 40 years and has held curatorial posts at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans; MOCA Cleveland;...