Melinda Schawel has always been drawn to the physicality of creative process, and allowed the non-rational act of making to guide the development of her atmospheric imagery. Previously this affinity for process has led her to explore printmaking, yet over recent years she has expanded her repertoire to incorporate numerous techniques executed on paper and wood. Through scraping, sanding, painting, perforating, drawing, cutting, drilling and tearing, Schawel crafts her artwork in a manually intensive process that belies the graceful abstracted visions that result.
Working with a pared back palette of neutral tones that are accented by bold reds and graphic yellows, Schawel’s works appear both primordial and feather-light. The artist strikes a balance between control and chaos as she manipulates her medium and the ever-present element of surprise to create shapes and forms of a largely variegated nature. These compositional entities are always disparate, and each bears its own distinct topography. At times they appear continental, like islands and landmasses seen from an aerial perspective floating in an ocean of glacial negative space. At other times they might seem like matter enlarged under a microscope, or leaves drifting past on a pavement. Part of the appeal of this work is its ability to slip so readily between the macro and the micro.
Schawel’s forms hover on the surface, occasionally collide into one another, and act in dynamic tandem. There is a push and pull tension where some recede and others seem to come forward in the pictorial space, as she sets up a formal interplay between compositional elements. From aqueous stains to areas of hard-edged mineral density, the artist adapts her methods of application in search of a visual equilibrium within each image, and notes the importance of knowing when to hold back. This awareness translates in the successful and subtle evocation of atmospheric space.
The three-dimensional quality present in many of Schawel’s works reveals her somewhat sculptural approach to image making. The artist relentlessly scores and tears the heavy gauge paper that she works with, when wet or dry, so that areas stand out in relief. These are often tinted with watercolours to create unusual and intriguing textural effects that invite closer inspection to discern their materiality. In certain works numerous torn sections of paper, akin to feathers or small leaves are collaged together. Often surrounded by an inky black substrate they call to mind the intricate beauty of nests, as they draw together numerous seemingly random parts into an entity with its own intuitive order
Schawel continues to push at the boundaries of what is physically possible with the materials she employs through perforating works on wood and paper with numerous small holes. These bring the viewer’s eye back to the surface, as they wind a meandering path through each work. The points also contribute to the somehow cosmic quality within her imagery. Massed together they can appear like constellations or a smattering of stars, illuminating a bigger scheme. Trails of perforations exist in others, a metaphor for movement, journeys and migration.
Born in Illinois, USA, Schawel’s personal history involves extensive travel and living in a number of different countries. Thus it is not surprising that the theme of migration found expression particularly in her earlier work, as she came to grips with crossing between different cultural worlds and physical locations.
Yet while this conceptual thread still exists, this body of work displays a shift toward a more universal and non-narrative significance. Schawel’s smooth expanses of tone and colour, ambiguous forms, and nuanced textural details coalesce to create a visual harmony. These works have been wrought according to an idiosyncratic set of rules, Illuminating experience and intuition, mapping an unconscious understanding that goes deep yet always comes back to the surface.
Melinda Schawel is represented in Melbourne by Flinders Lane Gallery
All images © Melinda Schawel
Text © Marguerite Brown