Installation view “In a house, Tinted and Patterned”: John Schacht and Queer Ornament at Iceberg Projects

Flowers do look like genitals. The flower’s form, involute and rodlike, is familiar enough to summon the thought of sex, and still ambiguous enough to carry an alien whiff of the erotic. The petal enfolds the stigma; the pistil mounts on the receptacle. In the right light and right color and at the right distance (extreme close-up), the flower’s form is amorphous and sexy. This observation though doesn’t do a whole lot other than set up some not very interesting questions about Georgia O’Keeffe’s later paintings or maybe Robert Mapplethorpe’s studio shots of flowers. The modernist flower looks like the modernist genital: radiant, extended, temptingly interior.

But thankfully, our genitals have never been modern; or at least not all of them. Nor our flowers. The largest population of flowers and genitals in the world other than those produced by nature must be those produced by doodling. (And really there might easily be more doodled than fleshy dicks in the world.) While a doodle too can easily enough evince a visual slippage between floral and phallic forms, the function of the doodle suggests a kinship between flowers and genitals that is not based on morphology: the flower sketched in the page’s margin, the cock on the bathroom’s stall (and vice versa, though it would be great to see more floral graffiti in bathrooms) are both essentially decorative.

John Schacht, Untitled n.d., Marker on Paper 17 7/8” x 12”

A decoration goes beside something, over something, around something. In other words, decoration never exists on its own. A decoration is a type of relationship, not a type of form. That there is a recognizable vocabulary of decoration—which definitely does number flowers and genitals as prominent members—doesn’t indicate that there is anything essentially “decorative” about these objects; rather, it just suggests something about which sorts of objects are deemed marginal, which sort of objects we’ve primed for ornamental work.

The doodled flower and genitals aren’t seductive for their subtlety or extension, but for their presence and play around the borders of something else. Hence the initial wink of familiarity in John Schacht’s works on view at Iceberg Projects: not the slow dawning awareness of a form’s luridness but the flashed recognition of, if not this rose or this cock, certainly this type of blossom. The exhibition, curated by C.C. McKee, surveys works produced by the artist mainly in the 1970s and 1980s: drawings, paintings, a painted wooden door frame with a mirror, and pages from a sketchbook journal. Schacht was born in Chicago in 1938, and throughout his life maintained a loose orbit around the city, moving in and out several times before his death in 2009. The press materials describe an infrequent exhibition history and a peripheral relation to Chicago’s art scene, “neither fully ‘inside’ nor ‘outside’ of its institutions.” This marginal swerve is the same movement recorded in Schacht’s artwork.

Things aren’t erotic for how they look, but how they move. Unlike the doodle done absent-mindedly in the page’s margin, there is no central object around which the forms in these works orbit (and of course it’s not all florals and phalluses—hearts, vases, chains, faces, eyes, lips, leafs, and nips all are basic elements of the work’s vocabulary). It’s ornament on top of the ornament. Or, ornament beside ornament, through ornament, around: a grammar that is entirely prepositional. This logic extends into the construction of forms as well – there is practically no body that is drawn as complete or entirely bounded. Instead, forms morph and play double roles: in one typical drawing, the head of a cock is also a head with eyes and mouth, while across the page the bridge of a nose veers at one end into a vined bouquet. The effect is a picture of sympathetic resonances of the objects of fantasy. Or in other words, a picture of the way fantasy moves.

John Schacht, Untitled n.d., Pencil on Paper 14” x 17”

This movement is figured variously – from the adjacency of shaded forms that render their singularity ambiguous to the rippling lines that correlate separate objects to the links of chains that are strung throughout the drawings. At local levels, the chains serve to constrain, wrapped around a penis, over a torso, strung from nipple to nipple. But the chains are also links: followed from each terminus, the chains work as lines of association that link discrete and distant moments in the drawings. In one of the more complex drawings, also untitled, a chain rises vertically from a headless torso’s shoulder to join a bud-like form that is itself linked via chain to a single breast and a set of full lips. And from these stations a further network. The picture then is not simply of bondage or openness, but of a rhythm that tracks the terms’ modulations. Some of the longer chains in the drawings periodically ground their transit by linking up with disembodied nipple rings. Bondage and association: both nipple and node.  

This logic of ornament and extension also plays out in Schacht’s paintings, which form another significant portion of the exhibition. In two untitled paintings, flattened perspectives and unevenly mirrored objects overlay a nearness onto a scene of spatial arrangement. Here the object choices aren’t perhaps as anatomical as those in the drawings, but the preoccupation with forms of relating and relating forms is held. A blue teapot is reflected on the surface of what looks like a chest—only its orientation has flipped as if the movement involved in reflection had altered the object itself. The adjacent painting plots a pattern of overlapping tusked forms that rest ornamentally on the painting’s border while in the central portion of the painting, the same horns make up a structural component of an armchair. Like the drawings, there is no central point in these paintings and no distinction maintained between structure and ornament. Or in slightly different words, whatever passes as interior decoration on design blogs doesn’t really deserve the name.

John Schacht, both works Untitled n.d. Watercolor on Paper 10 ¼” x 10¼”

Apart from a painted wooden window frame with mirror and a projected documentary video, all of the works in the exhibition are done on paper. This flatness is important to the works’ associational rhythm, but it also points to the exhibition’s historical/biographical function. The torn spiral punches on the upper margins of the drawings and paintings have faintly yellowed, but overall the works are in remarkable shape. This is in spite of the age of the works, which were mostly produced in the 1970s and 1980s. The exhibition certainly doesn’t proclaim the presentation of these works with any sort of triumphant revisionism, but the figure of John Schacht does hover off-center in the small gallery. The artifact of the notebook is an index of the personal — the torn edge suggests a proximity to a private language that nevertheless can only really be traced rather than translated. But this is how Schacht’s works shown here operate as well: not an image of fantasy but an image of fantasy’s movement. There’s no inside, no function the forms adorn other than their own elaboration. Schacht’s work is generative rather than reproductive. A stemless flower rings a shaftless cock.