Elizabeth Schoyer

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Essay on Elizabeth Schoyer

Dictionary of Imaginary Places

The scenes in Elizabeth Schoyer's paintings bear little resemblance to the real places visited by the authors of the 18th- and 19th-century natural histories, travel accounts, and scientific compendia that stirred her imagination. There are no individual demonstrations of fact, crisp illustrations, or specimens gathered for arrangement and classification. Instead, these painted voyages of discovery enact elusive propositions about human vulnerability, futility, natural menace, inadvertent depredation, process, decay, and memory. Archaic contraptions mine the seas for imprecisely drawn little creatures suggesting coral, shells, and seaweed. A ship's slow progress into uncharted southern waters and an arctic ice storm are conveyed more by spatial metaphor than by narrative. For example, we look down on Bartram's Florida where the shadow of a ship writ small becomes an insect on a veiny leaf, or, back in focus from above, the whole becomes a heart-shaped swamp whose rich vegetation is concocted from thin washes, drips, and smudges of oil paint in earth tones with an overlay of stringy pencil line. Elsewhere the fictitious Narwhal's polar encampment leaves fragile net-like traces on a precipitously inclined plane of cracked ice, or the hard geometry of tents and implements is swallowed in a dappled maelstrom.

Schoyer can speak of the objects in her paintings as if they were real and functional. About Tools for Removing Ambergris, for example, she tells us, "the main object in the painting is a house, Asian in influence, floating on ice. At the end of the gangplank is a net-trap used for fishing. There are also large cauldrons used for boiling whale oil and various other tools and small hand-held nets." In her painting, however, these are rendered as whimsical structures and fragile accoutrements deployed without purpose in an unreal flattened seascape. Schoyer acknowledges that her compositions owe something to Japanese prints and Indian miniatures, though their sense of displacement is all her own. We are asked to ponder the strangeness of a house whose transparent walls are linked by taut cords to a pleated roof, as stiff and unnatural as gessoed drapery, a house hovering above an oily surface of rusty black bearing cottony patches of ice. We are left to wonder if this is an oblique commentary on the purposive activity to which the title refers.

In a series of works inspired by glass conservatories, fragile architecture suggests human futility in the face of natural process and change. Letting Off Steam offers a wonderful example of how Schoyer uses her technical means-crude yet delicate drawing in graphite and white pencil on a ground of richly modulated color-to convey the qualities of the places she imagines and evokes. Imprecise, atmospheric space is conjured in veils of yellow, red and orange, wiped and layered and then laced with a pearly pink. Glass towers are spun out of bundles of lines in thwarted grids, the boundaries of misty spaces pulled tight with a control that belies the hothouse impossibility of it all.

Linnaeus's Theory is another instance of brilliant color, primitive drawing and perspective, and a serious theme combining to create an effect that is both humorous and grim. The title refers to the 18th-century naturalist's contention that, rather than migrate in winter, birds hibernate underwater. Imagining the implications of this view, as debunked fictionally in a recent short story by Andrea Barrett, Schoyer drew in pencil three diminutive dying birds fluttering at the juncture of two broad planes of color. One plane is a cross-sectional view underwater, its color the tonic, salty red of fresh blood; the other represents the water's surface, incongruously seen from above, a serene blue threaded with chalky ice floes.

Schoyer's works are a record of process, both natural and artistic. Suspending, plumbing, extracting, probing, mining, rubbing, brushing, wiping away, daubing and scribbling-these investigations arrive at images that are neither representational nor symbolic but suggestive of meanings that are fluid, evanescent, and mysteriously singular. -JoAnne C. Paradise


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