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“In a house, Tinted and Patterned”: John Schacht and Queer Ornament

May 6 – June 3, 2018

Curated by C.C. McKee


“In a house, Tinted and Patterned” marks the first posthumous solo-exhibition of the self-trained, gay American artist John Schacht’s work. His drawings distill a broad range of aesthetic and political concerns that include: queer genders, esoteric spiritualism, and abstract ornamentation. This show is structured as a comprehensive, but not exhaustive, introductory survey of Schacht’s diverse production, executed primarily during the 1970s and 1980s.

This exhibition takes its title from a line of Schacht’s poetry that textually substantiates the emphasis on visual ornament that can be seen throughout the artist’s oeuvre. From this impetus, the exhibition examines ornamentation’s queer possibilities as a distinct aesthetic approach and political statement. In a 1973 sketchbook, John Schacht laid out a vocabulary of twenty-five ornamental symbols that structured his drawing practice in relation to his sexuality. Accompanying his illustrated key, Schacht meditates on the role of the penis as a symbol: “In my work,” Schacht writes, “it would be an obvious conclusion to attribute my constant use of the penis as a homosexual manifestation – That would be largely erroneous – Perhaps the penis does appear superficially for that reason. But my basic use of it [as] a symbol is…” Schacht’s elliptical conclusion leaves his symbolic attachment to the penis unstated and denies it with a later addition that exclaims, “disregard above!” Queerness, as indicated by this passage, is both ever-present and denied throughout Schacht’s oeuvre.

Born in Chicago, on 12 February 1938, John Schacht moved frequently as a child of divorced parents. He remarked that he decided to be an artist at 13 after seeing every oil painting at his disposal. Because he was never formally trained as an artist and exhibited infrequently during his lifetime, Schacht was a peripheral figure in Chicago’s art scene, neither fully “inside” nor “outside” of its institutions. He was, however, actively involved in Chicago’s burgeoning gay community and its leather fetish subculture. At various points, Schacht lived in Chicago, with his partner in Indianapolis, and in rural Iowa before relocating there more permanently in the 1990s after caring for his dying father in Phoenix, Arizona. The artist lived and worked in Leon, Iowa (approximately thirty miles south of Des Moines) until his death in 2009.

The queer ornamentation that I trace throughout Schacht’s oeuvre and use to unify this exhibition holds significant political potential in its interwoven challenge to art historical precedent and the articulation of radical, non-binary genders. Ornamentation, as Schacht deploys it, negotiates and exceeds its limitation to the decorative, a foundational assertion for theories proffered by Gottfried Semper and Alois Riegl at the end of the nineteenth century. For Schacht, the ornamental is neither the direct product of materials and techniques (Semper) nor can it be folded into a historical narrative that is teleological in its development and trans-cultural in its articulation (Riegl).1 Rather, Schacht’s work subtly puts forth an assertion of queer ornamentation as an aesthetic means of becoming outside of heteronormative and archetypal models of urban gay community building. More recent theorizations of ornament have found political potential in its status as surface detail adorning the more substantive body of work.2 In these ostensibly negligible details lies the aesthetic possibility to carry meanings suppressed or excluded from the hegemonic visual field.3 His penchant for brightly colored patterns surrounding hermaphroditic genitalia, resplendent chinoiserie abstractions, and his symbolic lexicon are not mere decoration. Ornamentation, when put to queer purposes, is anything but additions to a foundational, perhaps functional, form; rather, it is a constitutive component of the form itself.

1 Gottfried Semper, Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Künsten oder praktische Ästhetik: ein Handbuch für Techniker, Künstler und Kunstfreunde (Frankfurt am Mein, 1860). Alois Riegl, Stilfragen (Berlin, 1893).
2 Rosalind Galt, Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

3 Rae Beth Gordon, Ornament, Fantasy, and Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992).

C.C. McKee is a dual-doctoral candidate at Northwestern University and the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. McKee’s research includes contemporary African diasporic art, colonial Caribbean visual culture, and queer approaches to art history. They have forthcoming articles in Art Journal and the Journal of Curatorial Studies. McKee is also an active curator with recent projects at the Block Museum, Satellite Art Show, and the Ghetto Biennale in Haiti.

The curator would like to offer thanks to: Iceberg Projects, with particular mention to Dominique Knowles and Michael Madrigali; Dan Miller for his logistical and conceptual diligence at every turn; and Jane Wenger, owner of the Schacht Archive, for making the collection available to researchers and for her generous support of this exhibition with loans, framing, and editorial acumen, to list just a few.


Chicago Artists Writers (Willy Smart)
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