The word bricolage doesn’t get a lot of burn outside of postmodern academic circles, seeing as how it’s often associated with postmodern forerunner (and father of modern anthropology) Claude Levi-Strauss. That’s a shame, because the word — which refers to a work constructed from any random materials on hand — makes for a malleable, functional term.
Take, for instance, A Letter Edged in Black, a profoundly affecting and involving installation at the UAB Visual Arts Gallery. Though it isn’t a bricolage in technical art terms — it mainly consists of, as artist Pete Schulte says, “graphite, pencils and paper” in addition to painting the walls of the gallery gray and black — it functions on that level because of how it invites the viewer’s experiences and emotions into a dialogue that reshapes the exhibit.
The normally off-white walls of the gallery have been painted a soothing gray and black, creating a somber and serene space that seems at once larger and more intimate than the gallery itself. Schulte’s extremely detailed use of lighting and touches of color — take, for instance, the red vinyl bands he’s placed in the windows, which “echo the red berries and the green trees” — warm the installation into something like a Modernist chapel.
That effect isn’t accidental, as Schulte was inspired by a months-long trip to Italy to recreate the utter contentment of its artistic and religious shrines. Of the Pantheon, Rome’s vast domed temple to “all gods” and the tomb of Raphael, Schulte says, “You’re suspended in this amazing state of presence, of just being there. … I tried to maybe hold on to a small element of that, to try and bring that into contemporary context.”
It’s a key element of the bricolage that Schulte has assembled, because a calming influence can also be an invitation. “You’re bringing your luggage, and your history, and everything to it, and somehow, even though we’ve never met, there’s that moment of communion, where we’re having a conversation,” he muses.
That bid for emotional connection rips Schulte’s work out of the realm of intellectual abstraction and into personal immediacy. The effect is compounded by his studious desire to have everything fit together so that they feel like parts of a whole, like the songs on a favorite album.
In his interview with Weld, Schulte drew parallels to sampling culture, paraphrasing producer Hank Shocklee’s description of the origin story for Public Enemy collaborators the Bomb Squad: “Each of them would be in a room with turntables going and lots of different noisemakers, and mostly it was just a big mess. And then you would get to a point, or a second, where everything would start to hum. That’s the moment we were looking for.”
The installation is broken down into several sections divided by figures like archways or by colors of paint, or by space, or by type of art. Each section functions like a chapter of a subconscious narrative or a song on an album, so carefully aligned by Schulte that it feels like “it actually couldn’t be another way.” In short, it hums.
The individual sections with groups of drawings are often fundamentally peaceful, augmented by soft lighting and the abstract imagery, typically representing geometric figures that would, ironically, make for great LP covers. The painted figures on the walls, often appearing like arches or portals, seem like lunettes in classical architecture.
“I’m really interested in the way those function as both presences and voids,” Schulte says of the manipulation of space he saw and was inspired by in Italy. “They’re reminiscent of something that’s not there as much as something that is.” In this case, it’s provided another way of inviting the viewer by playing games with the gallery’s space.
The emotional narrative of the exhibit can be easy to miss until you reach a black panel leaning on a wall in the corner of the back room, which has an utterly heartbreaking quote on loss from Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis attached to it on a wrinkled piece of white paper. Wilde was writing to his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas, whose relationship with Wilde spurred on the trial for “gross indecency” — read: homosexuality — that ruined his life. This is the quote, which Schulte found in an obit in an art magazine:
For my own sake there was nothing for me to do but to love you. I knew, if I allowed myself to hate you, that in the dry desert of existence over which I had to travel, and am travelling still, every rock would lose its shadow, every palm tree be withered, every well of water prove poisoned at its source.
Once you’ve read that, your dialogue with the exhibit changes completely. “It’s like a moment that contains something else,” Schulte says. “A moment of heartbreak in this formalist experience. … Just by the act of reading it, you think about who that person is in your life. And we all have one. [Laughs.] That person that you have to make a decision about, that you have to let go of. What does that look like after you’ve let go?”
It’s perhaps the most direct connection made in the entire exhibit, as well as being the most lasting and profound. The resultant walk out of the back room has the effect of leaving a Romantic sanctuary of the mind and the heart and stepping back into the mundane real world.
You may read the exhibit differently. However, what makes A Letter Edged in Black special, beyond the craft in its design and the obsessive detail in its drawings, is the emotional invitation it extends to the viewer to interpret and participate in and shape the art.
“Where art actually happens is that space where you’re there with one another,” Schulte says of his work and philosophy on art. “Making room [for other people]…that’s the absolute magic and wonder of what art is and can be.”
There will be a closing reception from 5 to 9 p.m. on Friday, February 22 for Schulte that will also feature a live music installation from accomplished musicians Brad Davis and Andrew Raffo Dewar — the latter has played with Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, and other titans of avant-garde jazz — who will improvise throughout the evening, adding their two cents to the bricolage.
A Letter Edged in Black, an art exhibit by Pete Schulte, is on display at the UAB Visual Arts Gallery until February 23. The gallery is located at 900 13th St. S., and has hours 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. To contact the gallery, call (205) 934-4941. For a really great Nina Simone performance that Schulte was inspired by, click here.