Critics’ Picks

Oskar Schmidt, Portrait of a Girl (Fernanda), 2018, ink-jet print, 37 x 30".

Leipzig

Oskar Schmidt

Galerie Tobias Naehring
Spinnereistraße 7
June 29–July 27, 2019

The five portraits in Oskar Schmidt’s exhibition “Centro” face one another in uneasy reciprocation, severing the gallery space with a taciturn exchange of gazes. Each sitter, unmoored against a digitally processed earth-toned backdrop, occupies their frame perfectly unblemished as the viewer’s eye traverses the image’s antiseptic solace.

For John Berger, the tradition of oil painting is historically inextricable from the desire to possess. Tactile solidity flattens subjects into objects of exchange; the tangible is conflated with the real, and ownership is the final destination. What, then, is the status of these photographs, conceived in opposition to Eurocentric traditions of painting? Produced by the GDR-born Schmidt during a studio residency in São Paulo, the five portraits—grand in size but otherwise eerily subdued—and three equally stripped-down still lifes aim to invert the imperialist currents of cultural circulation they refer to. Forgoing the lush solidity of oil painting in favor of a photographic void, Schmidt depicts sitters whose individual backgrounds are smoothed out into a tranquil gesture of Kinfolk-ification.

With its sans-serif typography and full-bleed pastel illustrations, the exhibition leaflet seems also to reference the effortless polish of digital lifestyle publishing, while the gallery space, housed in Leipzig’s former cotton mill, indexes a global shift toward “creativity” as a vector for serene uniformity. Yet as the subjects’ tense expressions maintain, something is off-kilter. This uniformity, in all its ease, is not exactly the equality we all imagined, and the anesthetic repose of Schmidt’s pictorial world is better described by the centerpiece still life—titled, tellingly, House of Cards, 2019.