New York

Norbert Schwontkowski

Most artists, on the occasion of their first New York exhibition, might be expected to jealously hoard all the available wall space for themselves, but Norbert Schwontkowski, in a gesture that seems to typify the unassuming spirit of his practice, chose to incorporate works by fellow painters into his recent show at Mitchell-Innes & Nash. Thus the exhibition was an unusual amalgam of solo debut and artist-curated group exhibition: Ten of Schwontkowski’s easel-size canvases were interspersed among a smattering of works by Forrest Bess, Philip Guston, Alex Katz, and Pablo Picasso—artists who Schwontkowski feels have been particularly influential on his own work. Indeed, the additional painters do seem to triangulate Schwontkowski’s sensibility—outsider-ish, expressionistic, rigorous, but a bit kooky, and locked in an ambivalent engagement with figuration.

Born in Bremen, Germany, in 1949, Schwontkowski has been showing regularly in Europe for years but has only recently come to the attention of US audiences and institutions. His pictures are beguiling even as they strongly project a kind of guilelessness—a characteristic that stems largely from his DIY approach to his medium. The artist produces his own paints, using ingredients that have included, as the artist has noted, “chalk, antifouling”—whatever that is—“copper paint, linseed oil, iron chloride, turpentine oil, water, and tea,” plus ground pigments and bone glue. The colors of these homemade paints tend toward the deep and tertiary, and the textures are sometimes gritty, crumbly, or gummy. As the thick, almost sedimentary encrustations around the edges of his unframed pictures attest, he builds up his canvases with layers of different colors which he then smooths down, resulting in fields of paint that look damaged, stained, abraded, mottled. These irregularities make his surfaces seem at once illusionistically fathomless—the imperfections reading as clouds or penumbrae or atmospheric phenomena—and adamantly present and material.

Set against these lush and visually complex backgrounds, and keeping their incipient sublimity in check, are simple representational elements: an array of mirrors, say, or a tree with birds’ nests in the cruxes of its branches. Schwontkowski’s paint handling can be calligraphic and sophisticated, as in Boote (all works 2006), in which a fleet of rowboats is articulated with a minimum of deft horizontal strokes, or Fischerdorf, where pliant tree trunks are suggested by sure-handed, unbroken sweeps of paint. Elsewhere his technique is childlike to the point of clumsiness, as in Spiegel (Reflektion) (Mirror [Reflection]), a picture of a round, moonlike, silvery face against a pinkish-black background, or Der Grüne Teppich (The Green Carpet), in which three spindly floor lamps stand on a jade rug.

The show was rife with references to mirrors; the most minimal painting on view was the small black-and-white My Face, in which the text MY FACE BEHIND A MIRROR, backwards and partially cut off by the left edge of the canvas, is painted in shaky-looking capital letters. The theme of doubling and reflection suggested a kind of mysticism, albeit one grounded in the banalities of everyday life. This hint of unfashionable spirituality, coupled with the shabby-chic patina of his facture (his rich, murky greens and purples are perhaps too gorgeous for their own good—they look as if they’d fit right into an upscale home-décor merchandising tableau), lead one to suspect that Schwontkowski’s work may face critical resistance even as it proves catnip for collectors. This critic’s resistance, however, was dispatched by the quiet intelligence and the subtle strangeness of the work.

Elizabeth Schambelan