Messing with Museums and Our Desire for Order

When Sir John Soane (1753-1837), a well-known English Neoclassical architect, died he bequeathed his house and all of its contents to the British Nation through a special Act of Parliament. Soane’s philanthropic act was not purely selfless, as he deprived his son, George, of his inheritance. More than 20 years earlier, George had attacked his father’s architecture in two anonymous reviews. Eliza Soane, George’s mother and John’s beloved wife, died a month after she learned the identity of the reviewer, shocked by her discovery of her. John, who never forgave his son, framed the reviews in black and hung them on the wall with the title, “Death Blows given by George Soane.” The house, complete with its contents, is a monument to Sir John and Eliza, who was an avid art collector. As stipulated in the will, the contents of the house are not to be moved, and it is to be maintained and open to the public free of charge.

Soane’s house is the subject of the largest painting in the exhibition Gretchen Scherer: Sometimes, Light, at Monya Rowe Gallery (February 24–April 2, 2022). It is easy to see why Scherer does not do many large paintings, as her attention is focused on bringing myriad details to a state of immediate legibility. Except for the ambient dust, nothing, I am tempted to say, is too small to escape this artist’s attention. In “Sir John Soane’s Museum, Library, and Dining Room” (2021-22), which measures 48 by 48 inches, Scherer maintains the basic structure of the dining room, while making changes and additions, particularly in what lies beyond the window at the far end of the room, and through slight shifts in perspective that open up the room’s space, perceptually enlarging it. Lovingly defiant acts, such as adding a whole room—and thereby changing what is supposed to be preserved for eternity—lie at heart of Scherer’s art. She knows time cannot be made to stand still.

Gretchen Scherer, “Attingham Park, Picture Gallery” (2021-22), oil and acrylic on panel, 18 by 24 inches

By picking an art-filled room that cannot be altered as her subject, and consciously “rehanging” the works in it, Scherer’s painting becomes a joyful meditation on time passing, as well as an acknowledgment of one’s insignificance in the face of time’s indifference. If stars were once signs of infinity, resulting in a sense of consistency (which is a kind of heaven in itself), the plethora of disposable images streaming into our lives from multiple sources conveys a state of constant, agitated change and impermanence. Looking at Scherer’s reinvention of Soane’s house and museum, the multitude of books, art, and statuary within that space draws attention to the excess, and effectively diminishes the importance of them as individual pieces. By making small versions of them within her painting of her, Scherer knowingly extends that process. A poem title by William Wordsworth, who was a contemporary of Soane, comes to mind: “The World Is Too Much With Us.”

I mention this background because what the viewer might see as an eccentric pursuit on the part of the artist is hardly that at all. Scherer’s paintings speak to loss and the feelings of insignificance that have penetrated deep into our lives. This is the legacy of autocracies and neoliberalism, the privileging of the rich and dismissal of the poor and those who are struggling. We live in a world where everything is out of balance. Painted during the global pandemic, Scherer’s depictions of empty rooms share something with Judith Schalansky’s book Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will (2010). How does one travel when travel is not possible? Where do you go if you have only the Internet, books, and your imagination? In what might you find peace of mind?

Scherer chose small museums, homes open to the public, and the annual summer show at the Royal Academy in London to paint, and in which to implicate the viewer’s presence. In “Sir John Soane’s Museum, Library, and Dining Room,” it is as if we are standing behind Soane’s askew desk, looking at an open notebook with his writing by him, along with watercolor sketches and books scattered across the desk’s surface. Directly ahead we see a large window that frames another room whose pale, striped blue walls are full of paintings, most of them portraits. Several smaller paintings are clustered around the largest, most coloristically dominant portrait, depicting a man dressed in black seated in a large red chair. That red, which marks the furthest spot from the viewer, is placed in the center of the composition. While Scherer uses red sparingly elsewhere in the painting, her use of it here gives the highly detailed composition, full of distinct images and points of interest, a focal point from which one’s attention can wander, while also adding nuance and complexity to the content.

Gretchen Scherer, “Kingston Lacy, Saloon” (2021-22), oil on panel, 18 by 24 inches

Scherer juggles many formal issues in order to make this painting. The side walls angling in toward the window are mauve and the desk is brown, and the wall on which portrait is placed is pale blue. In every image of the actual room that I can find online, the window at the far end of the dining room and library faces the street; the painting-filled walls of the room that the artist has added is purely from her imagination. You could say that she has enlarged the museum. The other major change that Scherer seems to have made is with the doorway to the right of the window. Through it we see a staircase that echoes the one in Velasquez’s “Las Meninas” (1656), in which a figure has looked back before departing; Scherer’s doorway is empty.

When we die, do we become only the things we leave behind? Is the earth a necropolis in which the survivors live among the dead and their sarcophagi, which includes museums, pyramids, and monuments of all kinds? The things scattered on Soane’s desk imply that he has just left the room and ascended the stairs we see through the doorway, and that his absence from him is temporary. The tilted angle of the desk and a watercolor on the floor suggest that he was agitated.

By painting her versions of the works that exist in Soane’s museum, and by arranging them as she wishes, Scherer recognizes the human folly of trying to preserve a moment. Rather than despairing over this, her response to her is subversive and playful. Her joy de ella seems to come from being simultaneously precise and imaginative, and having done the research. Her paintings by Ella are the result of a focused exhilaration of seeing, doing, and thinking, and in that regard they are conceptual in origin but stand apart from the cold, self-satisfied truisms that I associate with artists such as Joseph Kosuth and Mel Bochner.

Gretchen Scherer, “The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 1769-1915” (2021-22), oil on panel, 24 by 30 inches

There are deeper truths than the literal ones that Kosuth and Bochner arrived at, and that is what Scherer is after. This becomes evident in “The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 1769-1915” (2021-22), in which Scherer depicts a room with paintings displayed salon style from floor to ceiling on three green walls. (According to a catalog I found online, it is one of many galleries in the Royal Academy used for the exhibition.) We are standing at the far end of this room. Directly ahead is a hall and red-carpeted stairs. To the left of the doorway is an open stepladder, along with a small round table, on which paintbrushes have been left. A paint palette has been left on a nearby chair. These and other details hints that the works in the exhibition need some touching up and minor restoration, because art is not impervious to time or the environment.

As with all the paintings in Scherer’s exhibition, this one is devoid of human presence. Things left behind suggest unfinished tasks. Are the works we see on the walls all by artists who became Royal Academicians? How many do you recognize? What is the difference between being famous and forgettable? Is art’s destiny to become an artifact left behind, something that does not speak to us, at least in any way that might hold our attention for very long? Is it meant to be a distraction, something to stand in front of for a selfie, today’s way of saying “’I was there”? Scherer seems to be interested in what happens after we are no longer here and are unable to control anything in this world. Her insurgent nature of her, full of humor and devotion to detail, is a wonderful antidote in these disheartening times.

Gretchen Scherer: Sometimes, Light continues at Monya Rowe Gallery (224 West 30th Street, #1005, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 2. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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