Visitors at Sunday’s Renaissance Society opening of “Passing Through the Opposite of What It Approaches, Chapter 25” walked right up to the paintings, their noses nearly brushing wood. People clustered and jostled amiably, beelike, in front of a single painting; individual viewers paced back and forth in contemplative solitude and peered to investigate the hidden trapezoids of a painting’s beveled backing, and the frequent stacking of paintings of different sizes.The exhibit features the work of R. H. Quaytman, a New York painter who incorporated photographs from the Society’s archives into each work on display.
Two pieces on subsequent walls, both entitled “Passing Through the Opposite of What It Approaches, Chapter 25, Hamza’s shelves,” feature a photograph of the bookshelves of Hamza Walker, associate curator at the Society, silkscreened onto a block of wood and detailed by Quaytman. One painting is black and white, and silkscreened scars in the photograph form a pattern that resembles a flock of cranes with soft-edged wings. In the other, the photograph is in delicate shades of gold and the cranes sparkle with diamond dust.
Each painting in the exhibit has distinct visual components that radiate from wood blocks with beveled edges—Quaytman shuns the flexibility of canvas. The wood feels more permanent, somehow, more solid, not only dimensionally inflexible but laterally so—a fist would be a far greater enemy to a stretch of canvas than it would one of Quaytman’s pieces, and it seems that paint would be more reluctant to disappear from them over time.They’re menageries of shifting color and shape, the tenants visibly murmuring. Painted elements—stripes of maroon, timid grey squares, bold blue beams—both obscure and reveal the photographs. In such a way, the collection also permits the viewer to indulge in a generous universe where figures and objects cast shadows in delicate shades of sepia, muted cranberry, and royal blue.
In discussion, Quaytman reveals that the painted detail “activates” the piece. What could be considered the scarring of a single-medium creation—the photography—is enriched by the addition, forming a more perfect union of tempera, silkscreen inks, and gesso.The organizational structure of the exhibit forms a component part of a family of Quaytman’s exhibits that build on one another, a storage-ready portfolio orienting itself toward posterity. Each exhibit in Quaytman’s ouevre is crafted in response to an invitation by the specific gallery space. The primary subject of “Chapter 25” is the tenure of executive director Susanne Ghez, who has been at the helm of the Renaissance Society for forty years; Quaytman also focuses on Ghez’s relationship with her mentor, curator and art historian Anne Rorimer.
In conversation with Walker on Sunday, Quaytman spoke to the process and motivations behind “Chapter 25.” The crowd for the event, held in the University of Chicago’s Kent Hall, was so large that people sat in the windowsills and leaned along the walls. The periodic table of the elements slumped in the top-right corner.With an eye on the preservation of her own body of work, Quaytman said of her organizing principle: “I like the way books go on shelves and didn’t like the way that paintings go on racks.”Quaytman commanded the air of an eccentric aunt or family friend, dressed in a girlish grey plaid jumper, a giant penny icon strung around her neck, and peered out of doll-size eyeglasses. In executing “Chapter 25,” if Quaytman felt like using a color or making use of a technique, she would do it. If it didn’t work out, she would try again. When an audience member sought the motivation for the recurring shade of blue, she replied, “It’s basically just aquamarine, and the maroon is the color of the school,” indicating the University of Chicago. Walker giggled, and so did the audience.Quaytman presented an artistic mission that is characterized by equal and conspiratorial senses of thoughtfulness and spontaneity. Knowing this, a return to the exhibit after the talk rendered the paintings infused with a deliberate mellowness that is no less pleasing to the eye or to the mind. As she said of a piece, smiling calmly, “It has some ideas.”