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The Sacred and the Profane


Judith Schaechter, “The Battle of Carnival and Lent,” 2010-2011. Stained-glass panel, 56 x 56 in. Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, NY, Marion Stratton Gould Fund, Rosemary B. and James C. MacKenzie Fund, Joseph T. Simon Fund, R. T. Miller Fund and Bequest of Clara Trowbridge Wolfard by exchange, and funds from deaccessioning. Image courtesy of Judith Schaechter.

If you love the circus, you should have a good time at “The Path to Paradise: Judith Schaechter’s Stained-Glass Art,” the first survey and major scholarly assessment of the artist’s 37-year career. Organized by the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, the exhibition includes some 45 of Schaechter’s stained-glass panels along with a selection of related drawings and process material.

Since the mysterious disappearance of Hieronymus Bosch, art has rarely hung its hat on the gallows. Schaechter’s work reminds me of listening to a Bob Dylan song from the “Highway 61 Revisited” era, watching a Ken Russell film like “The Music Lovers” or reading Dante’s “Inferno.” Images come at you so fast, and landscapes are so crowded and busy with contradictions of overt craziness, that you can’t possibly process anything without relistening, re-watching or re-reading.

Jessie Fischer’s work, when she lived in Iowa, and Mary Kline-Misol’s, during her Richard Dadd phase, were similar. Pre-Renaissance Bible studies and the pre modern circus form the headwaters from which Shaechter’s visions flow. Her universe includes nine rings of hellish amusement featuring motorized apes, feral children in wolf skins, freaks of all sorts, decrepit sin eaters, orgiastic saints, Escheresque snakes, devils dumping, angels agonizing, ghosts haunting, and blood lust.

Stained glass is most associated with religion and Louis Tiffany. The fact that it is the artist’s chosen medium forges her simultaneous band with both the sacred and profane realms. Her panel “Florist” could be a meditation from Mircea Eliade’s book “The Sacred and the Profane.” The philosopher argued that that modern people, even atheists, still retain a little of the religious man’s feeling for the sacredness of nature, and that such positive feelings reflect the memory of a degraded experience of nature as sacred. Eliade concluded by considering the sacredness of stones, the moon and the sun. In this panel, Shaechter considers flowers, wild and picked. It’s not a pretty story for the florist. The artist’s best known work, which was originally created for a penitentiary, is “The Battle of Carnival and Lent,” shown here as a war between sacredness and profanity.

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Many of these images are set on sideshow and burlesque stages. How better to present “Slut of the Year?” “A Play About Snakes” is a phantasmagoric intertwining given a full stage. Even without stages, things are staged. “New Ghost” is set over modern Berlin. “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” seems to be a parody of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” She seems to have managed to dream up Venus’ breasts and hair color but nothing else is even close to the goddess. “Nature” shows a woman on a divan. “Horse Accident” is far worse for the rider than the horse. “Hemophilia” force feeds the viewer with the terrible beauty of tragedy.

The old circus, before political correctness and PETA, has delighted few artists since Federico Fellini retired his director’s chair. One panel presents the parade of circus apes on motorized vehicles. “My One Desire” gives a young maiden the gift of laying with a unicorn. The drama of the circus is portrayed in images like “Lucifer Poops” revealing the old trickster, in the pose of Rodin’s “Thinker,” dealing with modern plumbing’s incompatibility with large tails. It is surrounded by 14 other images, including a creature eating an ice cream cone.

Drama is heightened in “Beached Whale” by so much blood in the water that even the sky looks bloody. “Birth of Eve” is made mysterious by wondering how she emerged from flowers. The artist’s self-portrait reveals an awkward little girl with ruby slippers, a huge lollipop and a car on fire.

This show plays till May 23. ♦


  1. Rod McCullough says:

    I’ll bet the Des Moines Art Center would be happier if you’d mention the location of this exhibition in your article.

    1. Editor Wanted says:

      Had to read the entire article 3 times to make sure I didn’t miss the location. I didn’t. You did.

  2. Primrose Magoo says:

    Robert suggested to me that a sequel might
    be inspired by the author: “Ballad of a once fluid man,
    crammed and distorted by the classical mess.”

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