Fritz Scholder, Death Works, Arizona State University Art Museum, Nelson Fine Arts Center (1994)



 Fritz Scholder is either fascinated or terrified by death. Probably both. It pervades this retrospective exhibition at the Nelson Fine Arts Center of Arizona State University.


 When we are frightened or disturbed by something, we can either totally repress it, avoid all thought of it, any contact with it; or we can embrace it, immerse ourselves in it, seeking catharsis, transcendence, a taming of the fear through intimacy. Scholder follows the latter course.


 The main gallery is filled with essentially small, often tiny, works testifying to the artist's obsession: a four-inch coffin with a little body in it; a bronze "Casket to be Opened in 2001" topped by ten tiny skulls and one large one; a "Hanging Mystery Woman;" small demon heads, fetishes and crucifixions.


 One of the larger works, "Artist's Altar," is a kind of blackened table/cabinet/desk fronted by a crucifixion. On the table a gathering of ancient, rotted objects including what appears to be a white mummified cat and torn bits of fabric covered with the waxy residue of burned black candles. Central to all of this is a photo of Scholder topped by a brown curving artist's palette.


 Most of Scholder's work is in bronze like "Another Dream," 1983, a beautiful piece of work. Like Edvard Munch's "Kiss," it depicts a powerful embrace, the faces of the man and woman fuse, her body and full gown, simplified to massive form, lunge to the man who is forced back by the ardent attack, his huge, abstract elbow/back enhancing the rearward thrust. There is a rich relationship between the delicate olive-green patina of the dress and the warm brown of the woman's hips and back.


 There are suggestions of other artists in some of Scholder's work...Leonard Baskin in the crude but forceful, life-sized "Another Carnival (Man and Lion)," 1988. The lion climbs the massive, Baskinesque male like a cliff or a pole, its devouring head embedded in his chest with as much sexual magnetism as violent attack.


 In the large Marino Marini-like "Last Ride #2," 1989, an armless, faceless man tries not to be thrown by a blind and blindly-rearing horse, nicely compact and barrel-bodied. A very apt metaphor for humanity trying to stay on board a misdirected, plunging, tottering world.


 Fritz Scholder, at his best, has something to say. This exhibition is about a regurgitational search for primitive essences and connections. It is a vast memento mori for a coldly technological civilization that tries to forget the monsters it has created. The foundational realities of life -- among them the monsters and horrors of fear, death and mystery that are one aspect of humanness -- are magnified by the sterility of our lives to even more terrible proportions by our repression and lack of acknowledgment.


 But who's to say which is the greater terror, the monsters that surfaced in the mind of primitive man alone in the trackless wastes of the world 100,000 years ago, or those confronting us today in the terrifying loneliness and isolation of our TV-watching lives?




Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms