Erik Schmidt: As above is so below

Elizabeth Dee Gallery: November 29, 2008 – January 10, 2009

Erik Schmidt, "Die Beziehung verschiedner Dinge," 2008. Oil on canvas, 51 1/8" × 74 ".

Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Dee, New York

 

Though Erik Schmidt has been critically acclaimed in Europe for years—to the extent that in 2006 Hatje Cantz published a comprehensive monograph—his work has so far remained little known in the United States. This might finally change with his belated New York solo debut, despite its limited offerings. With one film and a selection of new paintings, this exhibition can serve merely as an introduction to a complex oeuvre, yet it succeeds in revealing some of Schmidt’s key concerns.

Schmidt, who currently resides in Berlin, was born in 1968 in Herford, Germany. He has worked extensively in film, photography, and painting, and much of his work is dedicated to the exploration of various cultures, their environment and social rituals. His best-known body of work, entitled Hunting Grounds, was inspired by the German aristocracy’s tradition of hunting as a prestigious group activity. In Schmidt’s hands, the custom serves as both a social study and a mirror of the interior lives of the people who engage in it. The hunters are the aggressors but also seem hunted—not by another species, but by their own lust for physically overpowering weaker creatures, be they animals or men.

In his films and paintings, Schmidt reveals himself as a storyteller whose narratives evolve slowly. His films capture a small, intimate gesture or a simple gaze to generate dramatic impact, with frequent close-ups offset by wide-angle shots. In his paintings, intimacy is created through the physicality of the paint. These compositions are always dense in information and characterized by heavy impasto. Thick layers of paint create an almost mosaic effect and vivid surface textures hover between abstraction and representation, gradually disclosing their imagery. In this regard, Schmidt’s paintings demand a substantial amount of time to be deciphered. It is only through close inspection that the individual scenes become clear to the eye, allowing figures to emerge from backgrounds, and trees to recede into the horizon line.

At Elizabeth Dee, Schmidt has departed from the Hunting Ground series and focuses instead on the Ella Valley, located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Since June 2007, Schmidt has repeatedly visited the area, which is less well known among Israel’s many visitors, and dominated by softly rolling hills and vineyards that are primarily cared for by Thai and Palestinian migrant workers.

Schmidt’s works range from complex depictions of migrant workers farming the land to detailed studies of olive trees and plants, but the heavy impasto of his signature style, with its density of forms and colors, is now counterbalanced with large areas of white. Schmidt’s sensitivity to ambient light as it is caught and reflected by the landscape reveals an almost Impressionist sensibility not often found in contemporary painting. His keen compositional eye and unusual viewpoints keep this more traditional subject matter from seeming decorative or trite.

The film—a sketch for a more elaborate future project—was made during Schmidt’s last trip to the region in October 2008. In it, Schmidt becomes a physical part of the environment. He is shown searching for what this land might reveal while losing himself in it. There is a picnic with Israelis in a pine forest, signifying one part of society, while workers harvesting the olive fields draw attention to the labor this land demands.

Schmidt succeeds in making us believe that we are discovering some intimate truth about a land that is foreign to most of us yet omnipresent in its historical and cultural conflicts. Its fine nuances may unfold—as always with Schmidt—slowly, but these glimpses of earth, sky and the life in-between burrow deep and linger.

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