Po-Mo Nuggets in Contemporary Art
Sometime in the late 1960′s, Modern Art began to morph into “Post-Modern Art.” And frankly, it is now hard to sift the crap from the glory in contemporary art. In some cases, a single artist offers both, as with Jeff Koons, or Rachel Whiteread. That’s a problem in Post-Modernism.
The Post-Modern movement was built upon a series of fits of destruction. With Conceptual art, ideas destroyed visuals. In Pop art, visuals destroyed the sacred weight of the subject. With Appropriation, artists took the work of other artists and labeled it as their own, thus destroying the notion of artist as genius.
Once the smoke cleared, almost every over-reaching, Modernist myth had been debunked. Authorship, visual pleasure, the authority of the museum, and even artistic quality were all deemed fabrications of cultural chauvinism. That’s why it’s so tough for us to figure out if the carelessly-made object before us is an act of conceptual brilliance, or just lame. Too many quick quick-cut collages tell us only that we are less than the sum of our parts.
Unless you follow contemporary art the way I follow Mad Men, you may find yourself standing before a monument to Anti-Monument, thinking it isn’t worth the styrofoam it’s made from. That was my sense of under-whelment from viewing Thomas Shutte’s recent, 18’ high “Man in Mud” this past August at his exhibit at House de Kunst in Munich.
So it comes as a huge relief when an artist is willing to offer a nugget of meaning without irony. Dickson Schneider’s current series of paintings, of fashion models sharing space with works of fine art, offer just that.
He puts the two cultures of visual beauty together. Both the contemporary models and the fine art, modern and classic, are given equal but different values; he treats both with exquisite care. The result is an opportunity to feel the connection without any overt instruction from the paintings themselves.
The fashion models in Schneider’s paintings are imagery from advertising poses. The models are glorious and bizarre, as they are in life. Their unnatural proportions are mesmerizing; their long, adolescent legs, like stilts, retain a human appeal in spite of the perplexing distortion.
In the painting “Fragonard,” Schneider places an African-American model with straight blond hair and blue eyes before a backdrop of 18th-century pornographic fine art. In the background, plump, naked women frolic weightlessly in a wooded glade as the contemporary model in pink looks self-consciously, just a few degrees to the side.
This is so wrong it thrills me. Two sexual ideals, from different times and tribes, placed together. Our contemporary woman’s gaze breaks the reverie. It’s a brilliant touch: showing both the foreground figure as fitting into and rejecting a sexual fantasy idea is one of the best aspects of Schneider’s work. Every time I look deeply into the implications he presents, my eye is teased away by some different layer of a painted morsel. Distracted, I find myself thinking: “Cool purse.”
The same thing happens in his painting “Sebastian.” Using centuries-old iconography, a bevy of beautiful people from current times share play space with St. Sebastian, who, as usual, is tied to a post and skewered by a dozen arrows. A female saint grieves… Great shoes.
Similarly, in Isenheim a young woman with a perfect, vacant look for our times leans into the frame, causing her top to slip and expose her breast. Behind this image of current commercial beauty extends the arm of the crucified Christ as seen in the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald in 1512-16; Christ’s arm is covered in syphilitic sores.
The juxtaposition doesn’t scream, it just waits for us to notice it. The two periods, the two elements, are treated with even weight; every thread of runway couture is treated with the same reverence as the robes of the Virgin.
Katina Huston is a visual artist who is very, very close to Dickson Schneider. She attests that the foregoing is completely true.