Roads Less Travelled: Dott von Schneider’s Road Trip at Hedge Gallery

Dott Van Schneider, Jawbone, Drawing

Before the SUV ruled America’s highways, before Uber and Lyft threatened the primacy of the family car, there was the Road Trip. Not that anyone called it that back when the Joad clan were fleeing the Dust Bowl. But from The Grapes of Wrath all the way through Jack Kerouac’s adventures, up to the sad moment when Chevy Chase and his family arrived at a shuttered Walley World, the Road Trip has been a defining American experience in literature, cinema, and daily life. For mixed media artist Dott von Schneider, one-tank family trips around Ohio were one of the great things about growing up, and along with later, longer journeys are a key to understanding the various two- and three-dimensional forms her art has taken over the past decade.

The big picture here can be found in a book that the artist grew up with: the Rand McNally Road Atlas. Google Maps or Siri may give voice to the road, but a physical map of geographical features does something more cognitively crucial. It draws lines, and those lines show more than just the route to follow. They show the world. Every map is an inset clipped from a larger, conceptual document that, like Borges’ fabled ancient map, grows in size as it increases in detail. A map, in combination with the magnifying powers of human consciousness, becomes what it shows; it doesn’t just tell you to do a U-turn at the next intersection. Yet as I hold it in my hands, and search, like a bird high above, for my own position on this paper plane, I can never entirely forget how invisibly small the human world really is.

At von Schneider’s Hedge Gallery solo exhibit Road Trip, her chosen materials will include more “real” things than art materials—motor oil, vellum-like heating duct diagram paper, dirt. In previous shows the artist represented emotional or spiritual states through extended, specific tropes. More than ten years ago her exhibit Nervous Bird at 1300 Gallery (located in part of what is now the West 78th Street arts complex) consisted mainly of paintings on panel that seemed like a type of symbolic self-portrait, images of a standing avian creature rendered as a restless nest of vibrating lines. In 2010 her show Burrows displayed abstract-seeming compositions executed in oil paint, rock salt and RIT dye on MDF panels. They were essentially drawings of holes that von Schneider noticed in the desert outside Las Vegas, near where she lived for a while. The mysterious, black holes turned out to be the pieds-à-terre of a shy colony of tarantula—possibly the most aesthetically ambiguous of fuzzy animals. But in von Schneider’s pictures, they become layered symbols of all things that lie unknown in the dark—lost people and hope, but also the shadows of future hope and dimensions of freedom.

Both of these earlier shows could be understood as geographic studies of isolation, at least so far as they locate a nexus of internal energies, opening into the emotional space of a gallery. But the twenty or so works in Road Trip, made on paper, panel, and earth itself (“raw dirt” is listed as an ingredient of one larger piece), are more ambitious, referring to more relatable experiences. When von Schneider and her sister were young, they travelled with both of their parents, sometimes together, sometimes separately. Their mother was an artist and craftsperson who packed the family up with her ceramics and drove to different craft fairs.

Then there was Dad, who worked with an HVAC firm in downtown Cleveland. He provided a different heuristic element to their lives, an element of restless, even relentless searching, plus a feeling that travelling was valuable in itself. Perhaps what is new about Road Trip is the degree to which von Schneider’s father is the subject and source-point of much of the imagery. In a statement Dott explains that von Schneider senior was a man who collected Aston Martins and tinkered with them. Among the memorabilia that have survived from her childhood is a head gasket, part of a DB Mark III Aston Martin. Using some of her father’s drafting paper, finely reticulated by age and covered with detailed, fading diagrams of complex machinery and handwritten math calculations, von Schneider “printed” the outline of this round, six-hole gasket by dipping it in motor oil. She writes, “The motor oil continues to eke into the fibers of the blueprint paper in the futile exercise between vocation and avocation.”

This last observation is a statement of another of the exhibit’s underlying subjects. The tension between art and work is unspooled in the course of travelling, as if the road were a tightrope stretched above two almost unrelated modes of existence, both of which the artist calls a “ball and chain.” The sepia-toned, graphically rich gasket imprint acts as more than a mere image, speaking of the smell and sound and heat of travel and distance, distant places and far off times. Like the tarantula holes, the horizontal row is a sum of immeasurable events, an ecliptic of loss, change, and discovery.

Dott Van Schneider, Head Gasket, motor oil on HVAC schematic

Then there is the earth itself, under and beside the highway. Raw materials, brought to new life by the jolting combinatory charge of memory and art-making, bring their own meanings to von Schneider’s pieces: “I’ve been collecting soil and rocks along my road trips for several years. Friends and family have offered up treasures from their own travels as well.” Among these is the jawbone of a buffalo with several teeth still intact, brought back as a gift to her by her sister following a trip many years ago. Von Schneider’s painting shows the jawbone resting in the grass, grinning and curving like a rusty sickle, no longer chewing the prairie. It could be an emblem of her art, which touches and tastes and grinds, processing time and travel. It aspires to be real in itself, as genuine as dirt and bone, moving along the gallery walls. Von Schneider marks another kind of trail, making charts that don’t so much measure distance as press it against the eye, erase it.