Artist Judith Schaechter's stained-glass windows are lauded throughout the world for their beauty, decorative charm, and edgy take on the darker aspects of the human condition. This month's debut of 17 new pieces at Eastern State Penitentiary is the Philadelphia-based artist's return to the local spotlight with her first solo exhibition here in 10 years.
Working with the nonprofit preservation group behind Eastern State Penitentiary, the artist pushed herself to create an ambitious piece in a large archway above a door in Cellblock 11. "The Battle of Carnival and Lent" contains 90 human figures in a complex composition that depicts a mythic battle between good and evil, piety and debauchery, crime and remorse, despair and hope. Inspired by the city, Eastern State's history and the 16th-century Bruegel painting "The Fight Between Carnival and Lent," the work might be the artist's masterpiece. It is her second-largest stained-glass window (the first is in the collection of New York's Museum of Art and Design). And although Schaechter's works are normally shown in lightboxes, all her windows at Eastern State are integrated into the site's architecture.
Schaechter is a world-renowned artist with a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her work was included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial and the 2011 Venice Biennale. But she responded to Eastern State's open call like hundred of other artists. She was offered a basic stipend of $7,500. But because the costs of her materials are so high (to say nothing of the installation and fabrication expense), she raised an additional $10,000 herself through United States Artists, a nonprofit website that assists artists with funds and fundraising opportunities.
Eastern State accepted Schaechter's proposal two years ago and was eager to work with the artist. "We never seriously discussed not accepting her," said director of programming Sean Kelley. Kelley and the Eastern State art committee knew that Schaechter's work, with its frequent use of figures in distress or isolation, was a perfect fit for the prison.
The idea for a big new piece above the door was Kelley's. Schaechter was initially against the idea, but Kelley was able to win her over. "The theme is appropriate," Kelley said. "Anyone in prison or in a personal prison has an angel and a devil on their shoulder."
Schaechter had wanted to put work in Eastern State for years. "I totally love the place," she said with typical ebullience. "Between this, the Mutter Museum and the Wanamaker Organ, they should do a tour of the creepy things in Philadelphia."
"Creepy" is a high compliment from an artist whose work might fall in that category as well. Looking at a Schaechter stained-glass window is an aesthetic experience, but it helps also to know a little art history, since the artist draws on sources including Greek mythology and the medieval cathedral in Chartres, France. "I look at Judith's work and I think of Renaissance frescoes and the stained glass that preceded it," said Elisabeth Agro, Nancy M. McNeil Associate Curator of American Modern and Contemporary Crafts and Decorative Arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Agro said it's important to talk about contemporary crafts in their broader historical context. "When I saw Judith's new works, my thoughts went to 'Guernica,' Bruegel and public art, like Diego Rivera's murals on industry or Otto Dix's paintings looking at war. She's looking at this moment and at issues of humanity, and those artists were, too."
The Philadelphia Museum of Art owns two early works by Schaechter, and Agro said she would love to add this big piece to its collection. "The PMA is like any major museum: Regional art is a priority. We are always trying to add. Of course I'm going to put in a pitch for it."
Schaechter's windows will be on display through November, then sold through her New York dealer, Claire Oliver. The big window is about the same size as the piece owned by the Museum of Art and Design, which came with a $120,000 price tag. Eastern State's Kelley said that although the institution would be happy to own the window, its art program is about temporary installations and not permanent ownership. "My dream is that it will be in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and, if we wait 10 years, we can get it back over a summer," he said.
The windows are only one part of Eastern State's art programming for the year. Inspired by 1996's groundbreaking "Prison Sentences" exhibit, which filled 20 prison cells with art, the site state adopted artist projects as a part of its public programming. All art shown at the site deals with the various aspects of incarceration. Three new installations by Lisa Bateman, Ryan Legassicke and Tyler Held, a 2011 University of the Arts graduate now living in New York, join Schaechter's windows and several other art installations held over from previous years - a serious amount of art.
Perhaps as poignant as Schaechter's work, and certainly not to be missed, is Held's "Identity Control," a complete four-door sedan that's been stripped of its engine, paint and all identifying parts; cut up to fit through a 25-by-62-inch cell door and reassembled inside the cell. The car - a stand-in for an inmate - will consume the entire cell space. The goal is to highlight the dehumanizing nature of incarceration. n
"The Battle of Carnival and Lent" and other works, Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Ave., through November, free with admission ($12, seniors $10, students and kids $8), 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, 215-236-5111, www.easternstate.org.
Art Attack is a partnership with Drexel University and is supported by a grant from the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge, administered by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.