Jean-Frédéric Schnyder

Kunstmuseum Basel, Museum für Gegenwartskunst

Jean-Frédéric Schnyder distinguishes himself from most other contemporary artists by the fact that he paints only what he has seen in person. No photographs, no Internet; real life is his model. He has to have been there—no matter what the weather.

Less certain, however, is whether his humor always hits the mark. Sure, his 126 sunsets (“Sonnenuntergang” [Sunset], 1996), his 93 train-station waiting rooms (“Wartesäle” [Waiting Rooms], 1988–90), and his 119 views of highways (“Wanderung” [Walking Tour], 1993), all small-format paintings unfortunately not on display in this exhibition, are amusing. One smiles at Schnyder’s resoluteness, at the effort expended to capture the banality on canvas. Other artists may tackle great themes in their work; Schnyder applies himself to blowing up the insignificant so it can no longer be ignored. This may sound like a Pop-art strategy, but Schnyder is no Pop artist—rather, he’s an odd sort of realist.

This exhibition was not intended as a retrospective. Instead, curator Philipp Kaiser presented a kind of omnium-gatherum, the leftovers of the last thirty years and more, as it were: a carefully folded cloth, patched together from old painting rags (Hudel [Rags], 1982–97); the artist’s bicycle; and a homemade birdhouse in the shape of his little holiday cottage (Chasina d’Utschels, 1981). The exhibition perhaps included too much personal material. And early works, such as the forty-foot-long painting Apocalypso (1976–78), a kitschy danse macabre of skeletons and ballerinas, today seem neither visually impressive nor humorous. His small pictures, referred to as studies (included here were twenty-six from 1993 and thirty from 1997), seem at first glance to be witty reflections on painting. Viewed more carefully, however, they look like mere finger exercises.

Yet Schnyder can, as we know, be a virtuoso. Right at the entrance to the exhibition he had placed a sofa, seemingly inviting the viewer to get comfortable. This invitation is, of course, only symbolic: Sofa, 2006, here displayed living-room style with a painting of a sailboat, Bild (Picture), 2005–2006, hanging above it, has been constructed out of countless tiny pieces of wood, each one fitting into its neighbor as in a type case. Schnyder has made a mosaic of a piece of furniture, one that feels like a toy but looks like an elegant sculpture; he has used humor to create a perfectly formed little masterpiece from a mundane idea.

Dancing mice made of salt dough (Dreizehn tanzende Mäuse [Thirteen Dancing Mice], 1978), miniature baby carriages made of nutshells (Wägeli [Little Baby Carriages], 2004–2005), and homemade ceramic ashtrays: Schnyder has always navigated between applied arts and kitsch. Even so, the concentration on and sheer quantity of banal and cute objects is difficult to bear. Schnyder and Kaiser have pulled everything out of the hat, and lost a lot of the wit in the process. By comparison with his Swiss colleagues Fischli & Weiss, who always play the game of reinterpreting banality at the highest level, Schnyder only occasionally accomplishes this.

Stefan Zucker

Translated from German by Jane Brodie.

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