Artist John A. Schweitzer was so fascinated by the intellectual clash between Victorian art critic John Ruskin and Irish poet/playwright Oscar Wilde – an iconoclast who challenged conventional mores – that he created a 33-collage series dedicated to its themes.
Eleven works that are part of that series – 22 are in private collections – are on display until Jan. 4 at the Centre Never Apart, a lovely exhibition space at 7049 St. Urbain, around the corner from the cafés and shops of Little Italy.
Schweitzer’s works are mounted on one wall as part of a group exhibition there. They may be viewed only on Saturdays from noon to 5 pm. His series flows from an epithet attributed to Wilde just before he died in November 1900 of meningitis. He was 46.
“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go,” he is said to have uttered. Wilde succumbed to his illness, while the wallpaper is said to have remained hanging for a century.
In his collage series, Schweitzer reflects on this epithet and Ruskin’s view of the Nocturnes series of paintings by the American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, whom Ruskin accused of “throwing pots of pain in the public’s face.”
Schweitzer calls this “verbal ejaculation,” which is “literally translated” in the collage series in his use of “impasted drips, rendered with characteristic sprezzatura, to suggest an act of desecration.”
“These evocative drips allude to the mental instability of Ruskin, the troubled, chaste critic, in his tortuous attempt to reconcile the Gothic ideal with the earthier tide of human nature.”
Schweitzer says he “elliptically infers the presence” of the irreverent Wilde reclining as he views the much-hated beige wallpaper.
And “the message” in the collage series, Scweitzer says, is that through “improbable juxtapositions and art-historical citations” he continues “the laudable tradition of épater la bourgeoisie – disturbing bourgeois complacency.”