Catalogue Essay by Elli Walsh
With scalpel in hand, Schawel methodically tears the surface of heavy gauge paper, piece by piece, until a form emerges, taking its own organic path beyond the artist’s control. A lyricism inhabits this act of peeling layers and shedding surface; a dance between control and unpredictability that reveals the kinetic and sculptural potential of paper. An engraving tool is utilised to drill into sections of the paper, which by contrast is more controlled and symmetrical, choreographing depth by casting shadows. Each torn and perforated mark invokes both a ghostly presence and the imprint of absence.
Schawel also incorporates highly pigmented and diluted drawing inks and fluid acrylics, allowing them to spread, reticulate and dry under plastic. While her carved markings appear weighty and immovable – evoking ancient escarpments etched and eroded with the lashes of time – her inky stains merge and mingle like nascent universes still in formation. Some painted forms recede in the pictorial space as others approach the surface, threatening to drift off the paper and dissipate into the atmosphere. These optical manoeuvres of energetic shapes and textures create the sense that the works are in flux, forever evolving.
Through her unique and varied techniques, Schawel translates natural observations into atmospheric formations. Some worlds are carefully contained within stained, drawn or perforated perimeters while others dissolve into their surrounds like a fading memory. In the diptych The Calm Before the Storm (2018), gentle expanses of prussian and arctic blues recede into the paper alongside expanding perforated fans, while an outlined form of white hovers on the surface, vulnerable to the veil of blackness emerging from the edge. This work, as with many others, reflects Schawel’s attempt at remaining optimistic in an environment fraught with calamity. The paper bears the memory of the artist’s tools like former lives lived, a tactile symbol of Earth’s enduring strength.
Schawel describes her compositions as an expression of materials, process and form, inspired by natural events but not reliant upon them. Peering into her portals of aqueous forms and hard-edged shapes, we can see polar vignettes of sublime glaciers, galactic constellations glinting in the sky or tiny crabs burrowing into the sand. Yet there also appear to be echoes of domesticity, cartography and ritualism dwelling in the artist’s delicate lines and perforations, bringing together the manmade and the organic. This nature-culture dialectic can be read in the work Free Flowing (2018), where the central perforated annulus melds lace and lattice with feathery florets and the organelles of cells as a dense blue mass seems to pass like a raincloud over the picture plane.
Holding within their crystalline membranes a multitude of worlds, Schawel’s compositions both confront and comfort the viewer about the environment we live in. Her visual economy of texture, line, shadow and stain pictorialise not only phenomena occurring in nature, but also the nuances of our minds as viewers filter the elusive compositions through their own experiences and imagination.
Born in Illinois, USA, Melinda Schawel received a BA in Fine Art and Communication from the University of California Santa Barbara in 1993 and a Postgraduate Degree in Printmaking from RMIT, Melbourne in 1996. She has exhibited regularly since 1995 and has been selected for a number of prestigious commissions including the Westin Hotel and the Park Hyatt.
Schawel was a finalist in the 2016, 2015 and 2013 Nillumbik Prize, and the Fisher’s Ghost Art Award in 2015 and 2012. She recently undertook a residency at the Art Vault in Mildura, and her work is held in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, Artbank, Crown Casino, Geelong Regional Gallery and the Royal Museum of Fine Art in Antwerp, Belgium.