Notes on the Crowd Series

Notes on the “Crowd” Series by Zoe Pettijohn Schade: 


The crowds began with a sense of time and power, a sense of waves of effort and force evident in the landscape of Paris. I could see the swelling up and receding of crowds in the creation and destruction of the great structures like the Roman walls, and the medieval defensive walls whose fragments still dot the city. One of the most poignant examples that became an early seed for the series was the façade of Notre Dame. The statues of biblical kings that adorn the face of the cathedral were attacked by the crowds during the French Revolution, and were decapitated. The fallen heads were lost to history until they were found in a dump in the 1970s, and are now on display in the Cluny museum. When I came upon them there, I became mesmerized by their melancholic and zombie-like faces; they seemed to carry within them the whole arc of the force of crowds, the marshaling of strength and effort to build the great edifice and the wild force that tore it down. These Decapitated Kings became a subject of a drawing series from life in the museum, and then one of the first crowds in the crowd series of paintings.


I began to see in the landscape the traces of great tides of people, and the physical layering of these archeological remains, this accretion of one layer on top of the other is a key aspect of my experience of historical time and an analog to the structure of my paintings. Time is also felt as an accretion through death, as many of the crowds are formed by the accumulation of earthly remains. The catacombs of Paris contain an enormous crowd arranged in patterned structures. I recognized in myself the tendency to associate this vast display of death with a memorial to some disaster, but in reality nothing at all happened other than time, and the inevitable and relentless accumulation of dead bodies that accompanies its passing. A grouping of skulls in their pattern structure was also a subject of observational drawing that then became a crowd in the series. 


Death is also a subtext in the Crowd of Monkeys.  The monkeys originated from observational drawings at the Natural History Museum, and I was very aware of the fact that I was drawing corpses. The monkey’s expressions were very emotive, ranging from contempt to horror, and were likely the last expression they had before they died, and probably one they gave to their killer. The monkeys hold another association that is rooted in a saying told to me by my mother. I was relaying some worry to her, and she responded by saying that situation was like the Hundredth Monkey. I hadn’t heard of the Hundredth Monkey, and she explained the concept as follows: the first monkey tries a task and fails, as does the next, and the next, but eventually the hundredth would succeed. This struck me as a very poignant crowd: one that contains both the hopeful vision of inevitable community progress and the harsh Darwinian fate for the other 99 monkeys.


The Crowd of Feathers also contains this tension between an idea of perfect union and the restriction implicit in order. There is a direct reference to medieval angel feathers in the coloration: I was specifically looking at Cimabue and Fra Angelico. The feathers of the angels recall an idea of harmony, of individuals composing a beatified whole. The individual feather I began with was a humble pigeon feather I found in my garden and drew from observation. I became fascinated with two implicit aspects of the feather structure I was building, the transition of humble grey-scale feather to beatified feather, and the martial quality the feathers assumed when arranged in order on their grid, recalling soldiers marching in formation. 


 All the images in the crowd series are organized on a scalloped grid, the clearest example being the gravestones. This stacking structure is fundamental to all the crowds, and it has implicit properties. The two dominant properties of this structure are that is it extremely rigid and fixed in place, and all the elements in it are equal in visual weight.  It has taken me some time to realize these two qualities also apply to death. The gravestone pattern is similar in this accretion of death as the skulls, but in this image the individuals are more equivalent and interchangeable through the abstract form of the stone.


This inflexibility led me to investigate what the weaknesses or vulnerabilities were implicit in this structure as well. Put another way, were there any ways for elements in the system to be exceptional or disobedient without negating the whole structure? I thought of each possibility of noncompliance as a degree of freedom, the most available being absence, as opting out is the most basic form of resistance in any system. All elements in the crowd series play with this axis of presence and absence: it is the one exceptional monkey, or a chink in the armor in the crowd of feathers. There are also degrees of freedom made available by secondary structures in the paintings, for example the feathers can be out of order in their scale from humble to angelic, and the monkeys have been given reign to travel between the layers, rising or sinking in front of or behind the other images.


While developing the paintings, I found that each type of crowd was composed of its own distinctive mark. This language of mark making has roots in the historical tradition of pattern painting from France, but was becoming increasingly manifest in the crowd paintings. The marks themselves started to feel like individual elements; individuals in their own crowd, and the cohesion of these marks have become another degree of freedom.  The strokes in the Decapitated Kings became longer and more independent of the form, resembling a kind of blur, or recalling a spirit photograph. This is opening up another step on the axis of presence and absence.


The psychological and philosophical ramifications of different patterns and the way images are structured have been a fascination of mine for many years. The crowd series has opened a way of investigating these dynamics by charging the elements with some degree of individuality, largely through being recognizable figures. The way these figures are organized becomes akin to a kind of law that governs them. The tension between how much agency these elements have, and how they interact with the structures that govern them are central dynamics to the paintings.