(EXTRACT FROM THE TEXT 'PARALLEL UNIVERSES)
In Gustavo Schmidt's recent paintings we have two contrasting universes: modern still lifes that are anything but still and the stilled (in the spiritual sense-slowed, concentrated) lives of Orthodox Jewish community.
Both are based on realist painting traditions and both are located indoors but one describes timeless and time-honored practices of a religious group, the other reflects a world on the go. One is done in front of the subject and the other from photographs. Schmidt's choice of color and the quality of paint application are also in two different and mutually exclusive spheres. The objects and bags on the table are painted in a brighter more pastel set of colors while the Jewish paintings have the dark rich hues of Italian Renaissance paintings.
Schmidt's still life fit within the tradition of still life painting's restful love of objects in contained spaces that satisfy both the artist and the viewer's need for stable compositions that see things in order. In his work, there is a celebration of the pleasures of the simplest things from a loaf of bread to cloves of garlic. Essential to his work is the seen or unseen container, first and for most the table and then its subsets of bags, boxes, nets and jars and their relationship to the edge of the canvas, itself an object and a container. In Clarinet, an open black music case sits on a red patterned table covering, as rich as blood or wine against the snow-white background. Vermeer who used to like to fill the front of his canvases with similarly colored Oriental carpets spilling over tables as barrier between viewer and the more tempting action of the middle ground. Schmidt triumphs over reds' tendency to push forward and locks it firmly in the middle ground because he has a different methodology for thwarting intimacy. He uses the off center black rectangle of the music case to echo the edge of the painting-a box within a box. His dark center is pure Malevich-being versus nothingness. In this painting and others like it such as Barney's New York, Taking a Break and even Peaches, he reverses Malevich's polarity. The dark center is like a cosmic black hole and it is easy to imagine that with a sweep of the hand, the close of the lid the painter/magician can make it all disappear. It may look real, but all we see is also an illusion.
Part of the pleasure of still life lies in the act of painting from life in front of a subject whose fixity, lack movement, of simply just being there promotes a contemplative state on the part of the artist. Schmidt is also clearly interested in the mysterious effect of light upon material substance, in other words reality as given to the eyes. However, for all their stillness his still lives are far removed from the idea of still life as nature morte. They are rarely eternal moments set outside of time but rather embody a sense of flux and change, a quality of just passing through. The crumbled bags that are a feature of many of them such as Peaches suggest that our relationship to food production or clothing manufacture has shifted from the earth to the local supermarket or department store. He not only updates our roles and hunters and gatherers to the late 20th century but also points to the quantity of bags that populate our coming and going and how the play of their shapes and textures is as much part of our lives as the things they carry. The sensuality of the crispy, yeastiness of bread, the firmly buttery green flesh of avocados, the sweet juice of peaches is contrasted with the materials that let us bring them home-- thick, brown paper shopping bags slightly crumbled with use, the shiny, lacquer like quality of the shopping bags from upscale stores that suggest wealth and power with the armor of their surfaces; fragile, clear plastic shrouds for bread and the green netting that seems like it would be more at home in the field or the sea then capturing heads of garlic and binding them together in their own little world.
Once you add two or more objects, there is no such thing as a wholly abstract composition in still life. The objects enter a dialogue, become body doubles or game pieces in the terrain of relationships. At times, it seems as if Schmidt has let the objects define the relationships and compose the painting. In and Bread and Garlic his food stuffs are similar in mass but separated into two distinct islands, as are the two small leaves in a large bowl in Autumn Leaves, as if to say we may seem like we are together but actually we are distinct individuals. Other objects, such as the rolls in Bread and Plastic have a fondness for bundling in threes.
For all their superficial stillness, Schmidt's still lives are restless fragments of every day life, way stations, a brief stopping place. Nowhere is this clearer than in his two studies of conventional clutter, Coins and Corner. In most paintings of interiors or photographs in architectural or shelter magazine, the spaces are open and ordered and every object knows its place. But in real life as Peto showed us in his 19th century still lives of what would be today bulletin boards, our lives are usually filled with messy nooks and crannies, irrational collections of stuff that is often more telling than the big picture. Why do people have trouble spending change, unloading the days-unwanted harvest of coins into glass jars recycled from household use? Schmidt may not have a direct explanation of this common oddity but his painting of an ordinary glass jar of coins caught in a momentary beam of light alone on a shelf captures and fixes this normally invisible activity giving it the quality of a reliquary and in doing so he proves that still life painting is an ever changing mirror of who we really are.
Ann Sargent Wooster
Artist, art critic.
Education: BA, Bard College; MA, Hunter College; CUNY
One-person exhibitions include: Franklin Furnace, Artists Space, The New Arts Program
Group exhibitions include: Art In General; Nexus Gallery, Philadelphia; New Langdon Arts, San Francisco; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; A.I.R.; Institute for Contemporary Art, Boston; The Kitchen
Publications include: 7 Days, The Village Voice, Art in America, Afterimage, Video Times, Glass, New York Arts Journal, Artforum, ARTnews, Drama Review, Video Art: Theory and Practice, Contemporary Masterworks
Author: Making Their Mark: Woman Artists Move Into the Mainstream; Time Capsule: A Concise Encyclopedia by Women Artisits; American Art Since 1945; Quiltmaking, a Modern Approach. Catalog essays in: Buky Schwartz and The First Generation: Women and Video 1970-75
Awards include: New York Foundation for the Arts; New York State Council on the Arts; Helena Rubenstein Fellow, Whitney Museum of American Art; Gottlieb Foundation Grant; Black Maria Festival; Logan Grant; Northern National Art Competition.
Gustavo Schmidt's work begins with the same elements as the best Renaissance artists: strong drawing and composition, an awareness of Sacred Geometry, and a mastery of perspective and proportion gathered from years of arduous study and observation. His brilliant use of color and fastidious attention to detail and surface pays homage to traditional painting as well.
Yet it is beneath the aesthetic surface that Gustavo's uniqueness begins to emerge. As we contemplate his compositions, the images seem to emanate an almost mystical presence, a spirituality that engages the viewer on a deeper level. The objects and their interrelations seem to make suggestions, psychological and emotional. These not only challenge the viewer but also create a strangely peaceful and satisfying mood that transcends the physical beauty of the work.
Amy Madden Taylor
Art History Writer- Princeton University