On the work of Nick Schutzenhofer

Em Kettner

Vined plants line the windowsill in Nick’s home studio, their stems snaking over the countertops and onto the bookshelves to form a twisted rope perimeter of the room. He works like a gardener in the clearing at the center of these creeping growths, laying his surfaces on the floor and crouching to apply oil or egg tempera. This orientation favors the edges as entry-points into the painting, impelling the viewer to engage first with his treatment of these boundaries. Though Schutzenhofer’s work ranges in size from paintings that envelop the viewer’s entire body to those that might only frame a torso, each image refers to things minute, internalized, or peripheral: familiar patterned marks evoke those one might scrawl in the margins of notebooks as complements of or digressions from the standard text. In many works one finds the figures of women and dogs as repeated, half-hidden motifs, perhaps alluding to the marginalized experiences of these beings. Origin myths and animal natures emerge and dissolve into the painted forest canopy. The resulting images start to unravel just as they first hint at their content, and the viewer might tumble into the gaps left by implied forms and cracked surfaces.

Schutzenhofer’s selection for this particular showing favors images that offer an alternative to the act of reading by dismissing the signifying properties of the written word. His repeated calligraphic marks play various roles: here a snaking curve defines the profile of a face; here that same curve is a river current; here it’s a cluster of leaves. The fluid meaning and repetition of these forms voids them of their content until they break and become not like writing but rather a barely-coherent mantra, a series of sounds—a song.

His work does, however, engage with inherent problems of translation: in fact, many of the paintings are appropriately left untitled as if to remind the viewer that language necessarily reduces or otherwise delimits that which it seeks to convey. Accordingly, while his mark-making seems to evoke handwriting, the work ultimately skirts that sort of legibility, instead allowing the viewer to question the subtle pressure variations that take place amid repeated dotted or curved lines. In the larger paintings, these marks might suggest both urgency and ease, while the same moves in the smaller images allude more directly to tangled, embellished letterforms found in illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells. One might also situate his work with the Tughra of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520). The lines that construct this ornate imperial seal act both as text to communicate the official signature and as the container for an abstracted garden landscape—not unlike Schutzenhofer’s swirling script that, rather than evolving into cursive text, shapes the edges of trees or faces before wriggling back to crowd the painting’s borders. Like the Tughra, repeated on countless legal documents, the shapes in Schutzenhofer’s paintings gain implicit value through their repetition, not through a shared understanding of definitive meaning. 

A partially submerged, supine woman, shivering dogs, and trees laden with fruit function as repeated motifs in Schutzenhofer’s recent paintings. Several works feature larger patterned heads in profile that sometimes overlap and contain the other figures. These beings hidden in his painted overgrowth emerge slowly, allowing the same latent discovery as felt when peering through window blinds at faces composed of leaves from neighboring Burr oaks. Like in the paintings, the leafed features might flutter independently yet together alter the expressions, squint the eyes, and part the mouths in conversation—an arborous cryptophasia sung out whenever the wind sways them. Schutzenhofer’s images, with their calligraphic qualities and abundant vegetation, also echo the Voynich Manuscript, an encrypted codex found in Italy dating from the early 15th century. The vellum pages depict plants that reach out root-limbs toward one another in bizarre, poignant scenes of supplication, surrounded by the swirling undecipherable text of an idioglossia. Crudely drawn water nymphs, dwarfed by the labyrinthine flora and coded text, wade through inked mantis-green puddles around the margins of the page. So too in Schutzenhofer’s scenes one finds the women melting back into the blank page, burdened and visibly compressed by the vines and alphanumeric characters to which their own forms vaguely refer.

These script-like figures thus both describe and veil their apparent referents, and the surface across which they float itself operates as a mask: in many of his works, Schutzenhofer adheres panels of paper to cover the more porous canvas structures beneath. In his purple 6-foot untitled work, the paint puddles around the edges where these panels meet, seeping into the crevices to stain the canvas in violet striations like inkbleeding through blank journal pages. Here, as in other works, glyphs collect on the surface into a floating mottled head, an ornate and grisly face that rears up like a charmed snake from the base of the painting; the assembled marks teeter between their convergence as facial expression and complete disintegration, with each stroke following its own internal logic. This precarious duality also defines the famed portraits of 16thcentury painter Guiseppe Archimboldo, who notably fit root vegetables or wriggling eels and fish together to form macabre human faces. An onion now becomes the bulbous cheek of a Market Gardener (c.1590), compounding its otherwise recognizably vegetable condition with some eerie animism.

Schutzenhofer’s images require a viewer willing to entertain ambiguity, and one who anticipates that at any moment the parts might lose their hold on each other and topple back into disorder. His large purple painting is similarly destabilized by its constitutive calligraphic marks that refer as much to an illegibly written word as to its intonation—as much to the shape of the speaking mouth as to the blood cells flowing in vessels just beneath the skin. The purple, serpentine visage here stares out with one sleepy eye and turns the other inward, as if inspecting its own coiled interior. Hovering next to the giant portrait, a watery leaf cradles a reclining woman, herself a whisper of a drawing, as fluid and effortlessly composed as the gestural waves around the painting’s perimeter. Might she be the unassuming snake charmer, or does her faint presence afford the viewer a grim look down the massive head’s throat to that which it has devoured? 

Schutzenhofer cultivates environments either contained within the frame of the body, as in the aforementioned purple painting, or as containers for the bodies they envelop and obscure. The marks that make winding rivers and banded tree trunks also simulate intestines and twisted networks of capillaries; dotted shapes appear simultaneously as folly-red apples falling all at once from the tree, and magnified blood cells rushing downstream. The scenes refer in near-equal measure to the historically weighted subject of figures navigating sublime landscapes, and to that landscape as representative of the figure’s crude and wild interior. Schutzenhofer’s large-scale yellow painting on linen comes to embody the latter, mapping entrails in a nebulous space that shows the path of an acidic, sick tongue stained with huge oily fingerprints. Those bodily processes sorted out quietly, invisibly, internally are in this image exposed: congealed grease, bile, mucus, and sweat. If these vulgar splotches issue from one’s viscera, this canvas, stripped of its paper-panel skin, fails to suppress them.

This painting, along with the rest of Schutzenhofer’s recent work, forces viewersto consider that which churns and bubbles beneath their own feeble hides. The images caution that whether one seeks shelter in the woods or in the inked pages of a journal, one must look gently and cultivate space for growth; for, as the paintings suggest, both the integrity of one’s body and the meanings assigned to words are always at risk of bursting, like baskets of dried petals, into the incoherent chaos of their once-entangled parts.

The fluid meaning and repetition of these forms voids them of their content until they break and become not like writing but rather a barely-coherent mantra, a series of sounds—a song.