PRINT September 1995


THOUGH LATELY IT MAY SEEM as if art’s lost its polemical edge—as if there were no more compelling issues or revolutionary chapters, only strategic maneuvers—signs abound of a new kind of work well versed in the methods of institutional critique, informed by sociopolitical themes, yet reveling in its “objecthood.” Flaunting its savvy, it dramatizes previous esthetic and social polemics in elaborately staged narratives infused with romance, mystery, and perversion. Shuttling between yesteryear’s frisson and the limbo of the present, this hybrid sensibility constitutes the “retro-Romantic.”

The path toward this new frontier has been charted by artists such as Matthew Barney, whose work engages us by exploiting our fascination with uncanny creatures and their uncontrollable libidos, and Andrea Zittel, who encourages us to project ourselves into unsettlingly regimented domestic environments reminiscent of ’50s behaviorist experiments. The tactical raiding of pop-cultural history, the interest in fictional narratives laced with romantic drama, and the implication of the viewer in the work through formal and expressive means are, however, not limited to the youngest generation, but also inform the work of artists once collected under the rubric of post-Modern rationalism. Take, for example, Cindy Sherman’s posthuman cyborgs; Jenny Holzer’s eerie high-tech sculptures and Gothic fictions; Robert Gober’s fantastical forest dotted with ghoulish body parts; and Ronald Jones’ cast of real-life characters grappling with death and desire in otherworldly settings. With “Dear Mr. Armstrong,” 1995, her first New York solo show (at Janice Guy), Kathleen Schimert joins the burgeoning ranks of this new “movement.”

Schooled in post-Modernism like many artists of her generation, Schimert learned from but did not necessarily identify with critique-laden and theory-rich art. Though she considers herself first and foremost a sculptor, her interest in the “maker’s process,” in transforming raw material into an expressive object, and in narrativity underwrite her epistolary adventures, film and video sequences, and diagrammatic drawings or storyboards, all of which address a number of intersecting themes: tragic love, gothic horror, and the larger-than-life heroes who populate the contemporary landscape. Engaged with the expressive and empathic potential of art but wary of the autobiographical, Schimert develops fictional narratives around such figures as Sir Lancelot, King Arthur, Guinevere, Ophelia, Neil Armstrong, and Dracula. The leading characters in her romances form a rogue’s gallery of male superheroes and supervillains whose prowess and virility contrast with the languishing, highly emotional female characters with whom they correspond.

Included in “Dear Mr. Armstrong” were a series of letters and a group of “moon rocks,” handwrought ceramic sculptures with undulating contours bathed in an iridescent glaze. As though enacting the tortured relationship between form and content, these sculptures emerge from a specific narrative, yet are not fully explicated by it. With their soft, liquid sheen and small scale, Schimert’s moon rocks beg to be touched and possessed. As with all of her sculpture which has the esthetic appeal of post-Minimalist work, these amorphous shapes echo Schimert’s formalist statement that “the way a thing is made is the way it is,” displacing content to the Zen plane of visual, spatial, and tactile immediacy.

The texts, which were displayed as typed pages or as wall drawings, are structurally and syntactically akin to Surrealist automatic writing and to Concrete poetry. Juxtapositions of discordant trains of thought, rambling sentences, fragmented references, and multilayered sections that look like printer’s errors perfectly mirror the states of mind of the women who pen these missives. Confessional, sentimental, romantic, erotic, mystical, they represent the ravings of the female hysteric. The “moon” letters are authored by several versions of the hyperfeminine—the Moon, Katy, J. A., Your Loving Wife—all of whom are afflicted with insatiable erotic longing, overwhelming anguish, and a fatalist’s view of the world. Each writes to a lover identified respectively as “The Man on My Surface,” Dracula, Neil Armstrong, and “The Drowned Man.” Expressing her lovelorn desolation, a woman named Katy addresses Dracula as “the Undead, Barren, Blood-Sucking, Seductive, Give Nothing, Sensitive Man,” and writes that “these days life withdraws before coming too close.” The precise nature of Katy’s relationship to Dracula remains vague, as do most of the relationships described in the letters; the reader must unearth a “lover’s discourse” from endless layers of subtext. If you occasionally sense where you are at any given moment—in space, on the moon, over a frozen lake, around a television screen, behind glass—figuring out how you got there is no easy task.

In two bodies of work produced prior to “Dear Mr. Armstrong”—Sir Lancelot (Celluloid Star), 1992–94, and Ophelia, 1991–93—Schimert borrows themes from the romance-novel genre, aspects of which she distills in epistolary texts, film and video sequences, and sculpture. In Ophelia, the video sequence, Schimert concentrates on the death scene described in Hamlet, technically manipulating the image of the drowning Ophelia so that she virtually dissolves into a pixellated abstraction. A letter, supposedly written by Ophelia to Hamlet, echoes this process of dissolution: “Every morning I wake up before dawn and go swimming in the quarry. . . . I try to float within the image, keeping still until I feel warm all over and the difference dissolves between the water and myself.”

The Sir Lancelot Super-8 film sequence plays off the tale of the knight raised from infancy by the Lady of the Lake. Projected on three screens simultaneously, the film—which, stylistically, resembles a Super-8 porn flick or Hollywood B-movie—displays a hunky, skimpily clad Lancelot kissing the water, climbing rocks above the lake, and gazing into the pool from atop the summit, his breastplate reflecting the magnificent rays of the sun. Captured by Schimert’s voyeuristic gaze and pruriently objectified by the camera, he fulfills but never experiences scopophilic desire. Here Schimert reverses stereotypical spectatorship roles, but her portrayal of women elsewhere in her work as overly emotional, passive victims has been controversial, for it is precisely this image that many feminists have struggled to overcome. While Schimert supplants feminist didacticism, she retains the charged images of that discourse. Manipulating tropes of desire and despair, she empties behavioral models of their conventional connotations and employs the feminine as the most economical means to abstract and mobilize “pure” expressive qualities.

Whether placing art on a purely esthetic plane, transforming maleness into a spectator sport, or objectifying women as emblems of emotional hysteria, Schimert welcomes the characterization of her interests as perverse; social deviance, idealism, and sensual immediacy are the hallmarks of her art. Displaying no ambition for her themes to be read as “real,” yet valorizing unmediated subjective expression, she yields to what Susan Sontag once defined as “the erotics of art” when she proclaimed, in “Against Interpretation,” that “what we decidedly do not need now is further to assimilate Art into Thought, or (worse yet) Art into Culture.” While establishing a romantic horizon destined to fade into another fiction, Schimert remains fully aware that her dovetailing of epic drama and idealized longing, of rejection and renewal, constitutes a saga that not only revisits the heroic triumphs and defeats of Modernism but dispels the illusion that Modernism was ever decisively vanquished.

Jan Avgikos is a contributing editor to Artforum and the recipient of the 1995 CAA Frank Jewett Mather award for art criticism.