New York

Tomas Schmit

The distance between a line and a line of words is vast, yet the semiotic flames of language regularly overleap that gulf to singe purely visual marks. Even when relatively well integrated, as in paintings by Edward Ruscha, or Jean-Michel Basquiat, words can menace the composition of which they should be but a feature among features. Or consider the best work of Jenny Holzer or Maya Lin, in which, the pictorial having been abandoned altogether, text is essentially wall-to-wall and respect for the consuming power of language amounts to ceding to it entirely.

A founding member of the Fluxus movement, Tomas Schmit indulges an apparently irrepressible impulse toward quirky, gnomic syntheses of Paul Klee, the language of Zen conundrums, scientific illustrations, ’60s-album-cover esthetic, and certain Outsider art. Overall, this show of recent drawings (his first solo exhibition in the United States) had a refreshingly personal quality—as though, like a form of thought, the work in it were going on all the time anyway, and only happened now to intersect with the art world. But the main reason these small works succeed occasionally and often remarkably is that Schmit makes the link between the two integral and explicit. “For me,” he writes in the show’s elegant catalogue, “drawing is related to writing—it is the drunken, disheveled, wealthy son of a stern, beautiful, impoverished mother.”

Unexpectedly, it also helps that English (the impoverished mother of most of these works) is not Schmit’s first language. Written out across the bottom, the title of one drawing—that’s what i call a same boat!, 1993—seems to revel in its skewed relation to grammar while also commenting on the absurdity of the claim, which might be being made by any or all of the cartoonish figures who ride in tiny boats atop loopy, generically Modernist, abstract shapes. This work seems to be at once a wry assertion of the opposite of the famous Magritte (“That’s what I call a pipe!”) and an illustration of what Freud called “the narcissism of minor differences.”

Be it beast or . . . , 1993, reads downward like a poem of three lines—“THAT’S THE WAY IT LOOKS LIKE/WE MIGHT OVERDO IT/BUT WE DON’T”—each of which is accompanied by a fluid, gestural drawing of a chameleon whose tongue zips out across the space beneath to snare an insect. Balance is achieved in an odd interchange of meaning between the lightly penciled words and the images. The semantically redundant “LIKE” of the first line is an example of the “overdoing it” referred to in the second line, whose chameleon has an extra bug stuck to its tongue, imaging the possibility of surplus to which the words refer. Beneath the final line—“BUT WE DON’T”—the number of bugs on the lizard’s tongue is back to one and thus it “looks like” the first. With this difference: a serpentine shape that has passed unnoticed behind each lizard now seems to be the tongue of a hidden lizard and it has caught an insect of its own, balancing this lowest stratum’s composition but also humorously complicating the claim made by the words.

Only a handful of the drawings are managed with comparable deftness. From the history of perception II, 1993, starring a rabbit and tree that should be forcibly returned to The Little Prince, typifies the way in which the eccentricity that brings us original deployments of the lexical and pictorial can just as easily bring us the wincingly cute. That Schmit presents us with one as breathlessly as the other is the sort of troubling side effect often encountered in the work of artists invested in the cultivation of their oddness. But, as the price of admission, it’s worth paying.

Thad Ziolkowski