Mike Schall, “Laurel Creek Country Refinery”
(2005), Graphite on paper. Courtesy of Dam Stuhl.
Visitors squirm and maneuver through the bottlenecked
interior of Dam Stuhltrager’s cavernous, irregular galleries.
It’s cold outside, crowded and stuffy inside. You can smell
the person next to you and see the places they missed shaving.
In the back room among the crowd is a suite of graphite on
paper drawings by Brooklyn-based artist Mike Schall, which
look at first to simply facilitate a demonstration of the
artist’s technical virtuosity. My initial prejudice is that
these odd landscapes are pulled off with the help of complex
maquettes or computer-generated images, but, as it turns out,
Schall’s environments aren’t so easy to peg. After most of the
crowd dispersed and I saw the work unobstructed, something
else occurred to me. Mike Schall’s drawn world, like this
social setting, has much more interior than exterior
Schall’s graphite-based landscapes float like ghostly,
industrial castles in a forlorn, post-apocalyptic sky.
Intricate networks of ladders, piping, and footbridges
populate the surfaces of dense geological masses that hover
forebodingly in boundless space. The large “Laurel Creek
Country Refinery” evokes the false sense of an active and
productive industrial network. Any traces of what might have
been a socially useful environment soon read as a derelict and
tangled system of useless cogs, tubes, and passageways. The
avenues and paths that could have supported human interaction
lead to nowhere and the machines that at first seemed to have
stopped working appear never to have worked at all.
The inclination to interpret these structures within the
context of a post-industrial wasteland as a social commentary
about the effect of industry on the environment proves
untenable as the internal logic of Schall’s environment
assumes control. The plangent, Roanoke-like sense of
abandonment yields to a more whimsical and improvisational
experience. Schall’s machinery functions like so many Legos in
a child’s linear, frolicking construction spree, where purpose
and verbal significance matter far less than the creation of a
self-enclosed personalized environment.
This imaginative spirit is underscored by its imperfection.
“Scenic Collection Facility” depicts a series of wood-framed
towers supporting massive rock forms. In high contrast, the
directional light sculpts the stark geometry of the eccentric
structures. Angles are slightly cock-eyed and shadows run
astray. The fugitive shadows compete with a somewhat distorted
perspective with disorienting results. These intentional, or
rather, incidental blemishes conspire to subvert any
illusionism or objective reference that could potentially
deactivate the work.
There are drawings in the show that are more precious and
labored than others. Two smaller-scale works, “Twine Bridge”
and “Baker’s Field,” feel too complete and careful next to the
other drawings. The more Byzantine, sprawling compositions
such as “Red’s Quarry” and “Laurel Creek Country Refinery,” by
comparison, have a to-be-concluded irresolution that serves
them well. Specific regions of the larger compositions, too,
feel perfunctory. The darker areas of Scenic Collection
Facility go flat and have a colored-in feel—only a speed
bump, though, in an otherwise imaginative, stream of conscious
As synthetic, self-contained universes, Schall’s drawings
keep company with an emerging class of notable contemporaries.
Paul Noble, Robyn O’Neil, and David Thorpe come to mind. In an
artistic landscape that is still preoccupied with notions of
frontier and originality, this kind of exploration is safely
quarantined from such concerns. Schall’s worlds, like others
in this realm, have the luxury of finding frontiers and
describing cosmologies within a self-defined dimension that is
immune from extra-worldly exigencies, and this along with
Schall’s individual sensibility makes his illogical world one