The first tinge of autumn spiked the air as the streets of downtown Grand Rapids teemed with artgoers for ArtPrize, 2014. A curious line had already formed down Ionia Street, excitedly inching toward the doors of the old Morton House which was once an opulent 1920s hotel. After bankruptcy and a stint as rent-subsidized housing, the place has been vacant and boarded up, save for this year’s excellent SiTE:LAB exhibition.
When I entered the multistoried ghost of a hotel, a continuous dank breeze pushed against the inside corridor, a short and dark walk under disintegrating ceilings with ominous gaping steel-meshed holes and crumpling plaster corners. The central lobby then opened up to a spectacularly dusty and ambient light where, encompassed by the walls of curling paint, Julie Schenkelberg’s sublime installation “Symptomatic Constant” sat corpulently like a shipwreck.
Within the materials lies Schenkelberg’s remarkable talent for recapturing wonder. “Symptomatic Constant” is a massive work. It starts as rubble on the marble floor with plaster dust and shards of ceramic, resembling a shore of beach glass, then steadily the work grows up into the high space of the lobby’s ceiling with fabric draped from an old cast-iron heating register. Schenkelberg builds in layers with architectural salvage culled from the site itself as well as local thrifting. Her cultural archeology is distinctive in its details and restless as the whole of her ship-like installation.
Schenkelberg is a collector. She has an eye for timelessness in the materials she selects and remains an architect of renewal. This is not a matter of optimism, or recovery in any conventional sense. Rather, her voice in this work feels like that of survival, which is manifest in her abstracted ship-run-aground form. In materials, I feel her central obsession is not to preserve the past but rather to borrow it, paint with it, use it as her expression. Her incredible wonder of the antiquation plays on the collective memory of our object’s past. She rescues the perishing for a reason. The curation of materials contains a spirit, a ghost, a memory. Whether it be a worn-out grand piano (original to the hotel) or stacks of indiscrete linens, the materials resonate above their own presence. Schenkelberg’s work here is an adventure, comprised of her poetic collections without being precious. She acts as a poet who describes with pale, faded metaphors to build a wonderfully strange atmosphere.
Looking at her work, you can envision Schenkelberg developing a specific language of things in new and surprising ways like a painter. She has a rich vocabulary of ethereal, antiquated items, such as milk glass, stacked valises, and tattered leather-bound books. She amends them with chalky robin’s egg blue and pink pastel paint the consistency of cake icing, taken from the cues of a delicately crumbling architecture. Rendered further, you can see the artist’s expression in the repetition of drilled holes, slashing cut marks, and smashed ceramic. Her hand denotes an authority that immediately gains the viewer’s trust. Her fiction envelops us in a sublimity, where even the heavy mildew fragrance of wet plaster from the old hotel’s depths adds to the authenticity.
While the mythic analogies swelled up in a hull of archaic architectural sinew, I wondered what side of the story we may bring ourselves. This fiction is a dazzle but can offer more than just a touch of fatalism. It quickly brought to mind, “The Raft of Medusa,” 1818-1819, Théodore Géricault’s iconic masterpiece of French Romanticism. Géricault’s painting depicts the aftermath of a warship wreck off the coast of Senegal in 1816. Due to a shortage of lifeboats, 147 people were left behind to fend for themselves on a makeshift raft. They drifted for 13 days before the rescue of only 10 survivors. The disaster worsened by starvation, dehydration, and cannibalism that ensued and each of the figures in the painting tells the story. Géricault assiduously researched the horrific, then contemporary, incident and was able to question survivors. He even sketched them as well. Géricault built wax models and figurines and had the original carpenter of the Medusa build a scale model of the raft. He studied cadavers and body parts, visited hospitals and beaches—there is no mistaking his obsession for detail in his many sketches. It’s famously captured in the final larger-than-life painting as two intersecting pyramids of figures. On the left side, death is darkly descending in the expiration of life from an improvised mast against a foreboding weather system. On the right is hope in the ascension of bodies to the waving flag at a passing ship. Horrific and fascinating. There is no real resolve. Perhaps there is just a tinge of hope in the light and passing distant ship.
Schenkelberg is less topical in her shipwreck, but her intention and process are as tenuous, just as obsessed. Julie Schenkelberg grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, surrounded by the beauty of decaying architecture, slate-gray skies, and rusted steel. Her relentless fascination is evident in her process of seeking out and curating distinct objects. Yes, these items are ubiquitous except these objects carry a history, these objects have souls. Scrap metal yards, thrift shops, estate sales, construction dumpsters, attics, and basements—her preparation is an active and continuous search. After gathering the appropriate materials she organizes by size, color, material, like a gigantic painter’s palette.
It makes sense to prepare for something this grand. Becoming intimate with the materials, Schenkelberg understands their properties physically and unveils their spirit. When they are pulled from the palette, each component is sensitive to space, attuned to the unique surroundings at hand in the creation of a sublime work both beautiful and frightening. Gericult worked hard in the gathering, he used it in a realistic style, but ultimately he was after raw emotion. Schenkelberg’s emotion is palatable in the tactile. She creates moments of startling presence where everyday facts are magical, visual in our own memory.
To the front of the lobby, sweeping staircases with Art Deco railings lead to several mezzanine level spaces with balconies overlooking the ballroom like porticos from the heavens. Beneath the fading, elaborate, delicately frescoed ceilings, “Symptomatic Constant,” exquisite in its construction of reclaimed detritus, lies romantically shipwrecked on the dusty travertine marble floor. Here are two intersecting pyramids: a crumpled ground plane elegantly shifting in tone and a pyramid of architecture thrusting upward in a hull and a sail—uncertain and intensive. From this vantage, it was appropriate to watch as patrons, beneath the ruined sky of repeated arches, discover its evasive edges. “Symptomatic Constant” resonates on this scale, alluding to a work even more vast and disquieting. It reminds us that loss is profound and that the conclusion, though ethereal, is ultimately survival in the ascension.