Koo Schadler’s December exhibition at J. Cacciola Gallery in New York City, titled “Illuminated,” revealed a deep appreciation for Italian and Northern early Renaissance art. She achieves jewel-like effects using the traditional medium of egg tempera and mimics historical formats, such as the manuscript page and the altarpiece. Her approach is intimate and idiosyncratic. Heroic subjects—saints, gods and kings—are ignored in favor of still-life elements and contemporary figures. The loveliest of these small-scale works are nature studies, often incorporating texts. In the devotional-size (81⁄2-by-127⁄8-inch) framed triptych Smallest Parts (2008), the central panel presents two apples—one vibrant red with glossy leaves, the other spotted and sallow—along with a sinuous orange lizard. The flanking wings depict, respectively, a clear vase of wild flowers and a butterfly atop a pile of three stones. Everything rests on a stone shelf, running continuously across the three panels, with a text: “If you wish the whole to refresh your heart, you must be whole in the smallest parts.” It takes a moment to decipher the subtly chiseled letters, which adds to the trompe l’oeil illusion; the shadow of the lizard crawling across the stone face is a nice touch. Schadler uses two kinds of text in her framed diptych Love Conquers All (2007). The name of Virgil, the author of the quotation, the painter’s initials, KS, and the date in Roman numerals are incised on a marble block. Gold letters spelling out the Latin text, “Omnia vincit amor,” provide a flat backdrop. The featured players are two bright-eyed birds with gracefully delineated plumage.
Schadler is at her best with animal subjects. The soulful-eyed, grey-and-white rabbit, resting on a blue marble ledge, in Beauty (2008) has an intensity that keeps this very decorative composition from slipping over into mere prettiness. The text, laid out in gilt letters against the flat, dark background, reads in part “Beauty will save the world.” The other painted exemplars of this sentiment are a small butterfly and a golden-yellow daisy rising in the foreground. Schadler’s human subjects do not have the numinous power of her birds, rabbits and lizards. In the picture-within-a-picture of Illuminated Self-Portrait (2008), the artist depicts herself in the familiar half-length profile of Renaissance portrait convention, but wearing contemporary dress. The bland self-portrait is easily upstaged, however, by the objects in the miniature’s surrounding mat: a paintbrush leaning against a small stone, delicate flowers, acorns hanging from strings, a spider and a fluttering robin. All these elements cast fine shadows in the shallow space, as Schadler deftly replicates the great illuminators’ marvelous manipulation of pictorial flatness and illusionistic depth. The artist needs a spark of life to animate her formally elegant and mimetically skillful compositions. Her human subjects do not seem psychologically strong enough to counter the decorativeness of their presentation. But in non-human nature, she finds a dangerous innocence, without resorting to the allegorical meanings of medieval bestiaries and vanitas-themed still lifes. She remarks: “Animals, particularly the quiet and inconspicuous varieties…are visually interesting and beautifully patterned, mysterious and unknowable.”
Schadler demonstrates her fervent naturalism, interest in language and technical skill in two works featuring birds in flight and chiseled texts. Flicker and Virgil (2007) captures the play of feathers on fluttering wings, as the bird hovers beside a column of text reading “Tempus fugit.” The work—in graphite, egg tempura and gold on toned blue paper—is refined and intriguing. Rock Dove and Milton (2007) has a similar composition, with the dove in flight next to a yellow marble panel with the text “Peace hath its victories no less renowned than war.” The color is almost startlingly vibrant in the blue sky and especially in the bird’s feathers, grey and white on the body and wings, turquoise and plum on the head. The luminosity of egg tempera, built up from scores of layers of thin, transparent coats of pure color, comes through. Schadler teaches tempera, gesso and design workshops around the country. J. Cacciola Gallery, 531 West 25th Street, New York, New York 10001. Telephone (212) 462-4646. On the web at www.jcacciolagallery.com