New York

Erik Schmidt

Elizabeth Dee Gallery

As I write this review, the New York Times is featuring news of a Hamas cease-fire in Gaza, with Israel agreeing—provisionally—to withdraw its forces. Whether this will have come to pass by the time this magazine goes to press remains wholly unclear, but such events inevitably pressured readings of Berlin-based artist Erik Schmidt’s work, on view during the conflict in his first show at Elizabeth Dee, titled “As above is so below.” Consisting of one short video and a cohort of thickly encrusted paintings, the exhibition on first glance seemed to have nothing to do with politics. The paintings admit an almost culinary involvement with their materials; their surfaces are so densely and baroquely constituted as to infuse the gallery with the heady, just-finished smell of evaporating solvent and to occlude any imagistic content that such overwrought impasto might be producing (or, more likely, harboring). But to stare at these roiling planes for long enough is to glean their representational bases: Following a project that takes as its subject the social mores and hunting rituals of the German aristocracy (published in book form in 2007 as Hunting Grounds), Schmidt’s most recent immersive foray was in Israel’s Ella Valley, where the pictures for this show were conceived.

Part of the Jerusalem corridor bounded by the West Bank, this historic site of bloodshed is now perhaps best known for its proliferating vineyards. An ostensibly odd segue from a series on the symbolism of an archaic sport, this recent work nonetheless continues Schmidt’s interest in the dialectic between hunter and prey—even if its articulation of this theme appears somewhat displaced. For, again, Schmidt’s paintings are firstly about their own manufacture. Twists of color, applied straight from the tube on white grounds, arc and curl in on themselves, projecting outward from the support in stubbornly gravity-defying acts. For all their meatiness—their resolutely sculptural and nonobjective presence when viewed from close range—these strokes are distinctly atomized, or paratactic; only when seen from some remove do the compositions flatten into the likes of olive trees and arid rocks, flocks of animals and migrant workers. Optische Dichte (Optical Density) (all works 2008) might be the most explicit about the terms of its conflations (density of brushwork and urbanism, for one), though Das Auge Israels (The Eye of Israel) is particularly striking as a landscape that snaps into focus out of the immediate morass.

Other works offer up their identities much more readily. Die Beziehung verschiedener Dinge (The relationship of different things), unmistakably centers on goats traveling across a rocky field. Westlicht (West light) is quite evidently a wooded scene rendered in a lush palette (midnight blue, salmon pink, violet, tangerine, chartreuse, and pea green) bisected by an incandescent shaft of light. Personenschutz (Protection of Individuals) emphasizes a fiery thicket of bare branches. Yet like their more opaque counterparts, these less optically disorienting works raise questions regarding where and how meaning gets produced in them. The key to many of these landscapes is the eponymous video, a two-minute loop of a migrant worker shaking olives out of a tree with a machine. The protagonist here becomes a cipher for labor, the video possibly commenting on exploitation in the region. A further twist of the screw comes in the related painting, of the same name, which features a skeletal figure, likewise stationed in a tree, outfitted in what uncannily appears to be a soldier’s uniform replete with camouflage and helmet (though closer inspection reveals him to be the video’s laborer). Through, and often despite, his profuse marks, Schmidt enmeshes current politics in otherwise formal exercises, begging the question of to what end.

Suzanne Hudson