While looking at two series by Jeffrey Schweitzer, The Drifter and Future Mythologies, one is reminded of a quote from the 15th-century morality play The Summoning of Everyman that appears on the title pages of volumes in Random House’s Everyman’s Library:
Everyman, I will go with thee/and be thy guide,
In thy most need to go/by thy side.
The Drifter in particular provides a character with whom many can relate: a hobo who journeys over mountainous terrain and rough waters. He is a seeker and an adventurer and, in every instance, a fictional self-portrait of the artist. “I started the series in 2008,” Schweitzer told Pasatiempo at his studio. “It’s kind of a nonlinear narrative. I describe it like a picture book that’s just open and on the walls in different shapes and sizes. There isn’t a story line that accompanies it. It’s just a transient drifter character that gets into adventures. In my mind there’s an order, but it’s not really important for the viewer to see it in that order. The drifter character is kind of an everyday character everyone can relate to, but I wouldn’t say he’s generic.”
Schweitzer casts himself in the role of the protagonist in the series through the medium of photo-collage. Dressing up as the drifter — with ill-fitting pants, a plaid jacket, a hat, and a small suitcase — Schweitzer photographs himself and inserts the images into his paintings. “They’re all pen and ink and collage. I used to do a lot of video stuff — basically, me putting myself into my drawings. So I’d film myself in front of a blue screen and then put myself into the videos. The problem is that a five-minute video would take about 50 drawings. I had to storyboard them out first.” From storyboard ideas Schweitzer developed larger works that are allegorical and that portray different moments of the drifter’s odyssey.
A more explicit narrative structure is contained within Future Mythologies. No less a series of self-portraits, composed similarly to The Drifter, it tells a story through paintings of an old hunter who has lost sight of his faithful dog, also a photo-collaged element. This event is represented by a diptych called Unnatural Fog, with the hunter occupying one panel and the dog the other. “In the story line, the hunter gets separated from the dog. What happens is his hat blows away. Then the dog runs away, and he’s alone. The pieces get progressively darker. When it’s installed, what I usually do for this story is write it out on the wall in ink. To illustrate the fact that they’ve gotten lost and separated, I usually install them far apart, so the actual install mimics what the story entails.”
Like his drifter character, Schweitzer’s hunter has a spate of misadventures, including a run-in with a pack of wolves. He moves through a misty forest of leafless trees and hilly landscapes rendered in inks and washes that add a dreamlike, atmospheric quality to the imagery. Schweitzer’s figures loom large in the wooded countryside. He uses forced perspective to condense the surrounding environment into flat panoramas, not unlike those in old Japanese landscape paintings. The figurative imagery seems to emerge from an abstract rendering of earth and sky, with the overall compositions darkening at the edges like old film stills or photographs. “The first thing I do is brush on Liquitex matte medium. That kind of seals the page. Then, when you rub on ink, it soaks into the paper where there is no matte medium. So you get these really dense, saturated areas of color. I can either sand or wipe away — I actually use a lot of scrubby pads like you would wash your dishes with — to create highlights. What looks like white paint is just the absence of color. It’s an additive and subtractive process.”
Schweitzer’s Bindle Stick Studio is a small space on Canyon Road. His paintings range from notebook-sized works on paper to panel-mounted illustrations up to 10 feet in length, and there’s not enough room in the gallery to present Future Mythologies in its entirety. Schweitzer is working on prints of every image in the series accompanied by text that tells the story. “I wanted to put it all together into a book because it kind of lends itself to that. For this series I was thinking of doing a hand-stitched edition of five rather a mass-produced thing. It’s still in the experimental phase.”
For Future Mythologies, Schweitzer photographed himself as an old man, toying with the possible outcomes of his own life. “I get a lot of people asking when it’s supposed to be taking place. In some people’s minds it’s really old, and in my mind it’s the future. Mortality is kind of a recurring theme. That’s really why I did this story. It’s a little tongue in cheek. I’m a city person, so I never lived in the woods. I have no survival skills whatsoever. So the very notion I could live out in the woods in a cabin with my dog is ridiculous on its face.”
The Drifter series, too, wrestles with the theme of mortality. Sometimes the wandering figure takes his rest among flowers or sits pensively at the base of a tree, legs dangling over the edge of a precipice. In other images he navigates stormy seas, small and defenseless against massive waves, or hikes up steps carved into the sides of mountains. In the painting Mountain Climbing, the drifter travels a road that spirals toward a shelter at a mountain’s apex. He lacks the single-minded focus of the hapless hunter of the other series, looking for his lost dog, and seems content to wander, as a driven leaf, toward whatever fate has in store. “I’m inspired by road movies from the ’60s and ’70s and a lot of Beat writing, adventure stories, and really bad fiction. It seems like people always attach their own experiences to these images. Without forcing them to think about it in a linear way, people isolate certain pieces and relate to certain parts of the story.” ◀
▼ Jeffrey Schweitzer: The Drifter, 2008-2013
▼ Through September
▼ Bindle Stick Studio, 616½-B Canyon Road, 917-679-8080