When I went to interview artist Louis M. Schmidt, it wasn’t intentionally to reinforce my theory that all real artists deal (in different ways) with the same problem. Afterward, however, my theory remained happily intact.
Discovery number one: Schmidt is a real artist. His checkered past (tattooed-covered skate punk from the Mid-West meets holocaust memorial researcher living in Eastern Europe meets recent graduate of UC San Diego’s highly regarded MFA program) has led to an expansive vision of creation and critique, one where he seeks to comment on things like “myths of progress”, “personal and societal unhappiness”, and “the many failures of history.” Talk to him and he will try to convince you that he is “unhappy,” both as an artist and as a person. I guess I should say right here that I don’t buy it.
Sure, the barren somewhat post-apocalyptic (could we say timeless?) landscape that his work offers may embody a certain pessimism. And yes, whether through drawing, sculpture, installation, or his zines, Schmidt has labored for years to develop and fine tune such a landscape. However, an obsession with unhappiness does not make sense without a strong intuition of success, redemption, fulfillment. This brings me back to that singular problem with which a real artist has to grapple.
Any unhappy world must contain a vision of happiness within it. The deeper unhappiness is felt, the stronger the intuition of fulfillment will be. The only way for discontent to exist is through the acknowledgment of something better, even ideal or utopic (the latter a concept that Schmidt has dealt with extensively). Human development has its origins in this structure, arguably spurring all of our innovation or progression. Neither artist nor scientist could exist in Eden. Our progress is made possible by a world that demands correction. It is in the space between our imperfection and our fantasies of perfection that growth, creation, desire, mobility, and change occur; if we were perfect we’d have no need to pose questions, take steps, make art, etc.
Artists are, of course, in a unique position to enter this negotiation, and Schmidt is unique among them. Through a currency of images, he calls up and comments on problems that often stem from specific narratives, but which inevitably end up addressing a general issue that lurks behind the example. His message is adaptable to various uses, most notably because he remains dutifully ambiguous, creating environments through which to play out human dramas rather than providing an answer that would ultimately not satisfy the nuance of the human psyche. Instead, he employs specific visual components to engage the viewer in his project, aesthetic hints to guide us through our own process.
His current installation We’re All In This Together For Ourselves at Agitprop in San Diego (3139 University Ave. North Park, 92104) could be seen as a sum of his artistic project to date. Taking its lead from a horrific story he absorbed while living and researching in Vilnius involving a young Lithuanian child who had to dig his way out of a mass grave during WWII, it moves to an unspecified commentary on such things as historical precedent, societal movement, vertical progression, and trauma.
Structurally, the installation uses cycles or spirals to lead the viewer through the room. On the first wall, detached heads turned sideways on representations of cinder-blocks lead to the next wall with a procession of life-size nude figures walking on top of more heads which fade into oblivion through well executed perspective. The third and largest wall, opposite the first, continues the procession, this time with decapitated figures, still life-size, walking upwards on a mountain (or pyramid) of heads in varying orientations.
The installation engages the viewer in specific ways, and it is this engagement that ultimately sheds light on its redemptive potential. To establish this engagement, we perhaps ought to look at what little context there is in the piece (the lack of context almost seems to heighten its importance). The cinder-block backdrop on the first two walls is one: an ambiguous gesture to structural excess or industrialization. The lines of the blocks as well as the isolation of each head on the first wall perhaps suggests imprisonment. Similarly the processional aspect of the figures conjures a mechanized movement often associated with detainment or lack of will. The scale of the piece is decidedly life size, and every face in the installation appears to express some degree of shock (even while the object of this shock is unclear). Time, too, is left uncertain; the scene could take place in the past (Schmidt’s inspiration) or the future (his projection).
One primary under-current that connects all of these loose contextual observations is the observer. Indeed, each detail seems constructed to evoke a sense of awareness in and of the viewer in relation to the represented scene. The life-size scale of the figures as well as the diversity of their appearance allows physical relationship to establish itself. A further situational relationship is established through the fact that the installation encloses itself around the viewer, mimicking the sense of being hoarded to which the figures are seemingly subjected. Even the cider-blocks, imagery which Schmidt is using for the first time at Agitprop, engage with the space around it, which is itself raw and unpolished. Finally, insofar as the faces are in shock, there is the distinct possibility that the viewer is the object.
In these ways does Schmidt draw the viewer into his landscape while simultaneously offering them the opportunity to devise a way out. The redemption of the piece lies in its acknowledgment that a dismal situation is the most fertile grounds for the imagination, and that, if we are brought face to face with not only the shocking problems that swirl around us, but our very role in perpetuating them, we might be moved to invent their solutions.
We’re All In This Together For Ourselves opens at Agitprop this Saturday, August 7, 2010. Come join the herd and see for yourself how unhappy the artist really is. We’ll be there. Schmidt has also just recently finished an installation at The Periscope Project downtown San Diego. This article only scratches the surface of his overall practice, to learn more visit http://bridgethevoid.blogspot.com