Preying with the Angry Ghosts of Colonization

Aurel Schmidt, the Brooklyn-based artist who specializes in drawing, is overseeing the formation of a new providential dispensation. She introduced her deities in a pair of recent pop-up exhibitions in New York and in the Rialto during the vernissage of the 2015 Venice Biennale. A friend lent her an apartment in St. Mark’s Square for a month where she worked for 17 hours a day drawing the work she then showed in a weekend-long exhibition in April called “New Gods.” “The gods I am talking about are very cynical, very dark and very dangerous, and they reside in all of us.”

Untitled (Buddha), 2015, coloured pencil on paper, 30.5 x 27.5 inches.

We have seen some of them before. Her gods are strange composites appropriated from various cultures and mythologies—a Mayan death mask, a Chinese Buddha, vanitas figures, even a wretch with a flower protruding from his butt, lifted from Bosch. They often end up getting attached to domestic objects, a wall sconce, a plastic lotion bottle or a shower fixture. They can be arranged as totems, or they can be the centrepiece of a modified ceremonial mask. The figures that emerge from this hybridity are fantastic and poetic. “I’m creating a new creature, like Frankenstein, who is dark and exciting in a Lynchian way, as well as being horrifying.”

Untitled (Monkey), 2015, coloured pencil, acrylic on paper, 33 x 24 inches.

The most horrifying of the new gods is a demonic chimp around which radiates a gruesome halo of six white baby heads skewered on pointed sticks. Schmidt sees it as a revenge object provoked by wholesale co-opting of primitive images and the implementation of cultural slavery. “I was imagining that piece as some kind of post-apocalyptic, neo-colonial backlash.”

These drawings carry some heavy political freight. In her world of grotesque deities, the battle lines are drawn between competing versions of capitalism: the old god of capitalism and power and the new gods, who embody what she calls creative or spiritual capitalism. “Creativity and spirituality are beyond what you can buy and one of the saddest—and grossest—things is to abuse these things. You see it everywhere, where people’s most vulnerable needs are preyed upon.” Schmidt regards the masks as having a residual and unpredictable power. “My fantasy is that these death masks are haunted objects in which ghosts still live as symbols. So they are not dead. They still have spiritual value. I think of them as these angry ghosts of colonization.”

But there are occasional drawings where the anger is slightly mediated. In a totemic piece modelled on Hans Baldung’s Three Ages of Man with Death, 1540, Schmidt shows us the baby, the old woman, her younger beauty-conscious self, a zombie standing in for death, and in place of the owl in the foreground of the painting, she sits a rubber duck on the handle of the shower cord at the top of her drawing. But the main difference is the addition of a little thinking figure who rests, eyes closed in thoughtful contemplation, between beauty and death. “Instead of saying that life is bad, everything is horrible and then you die, I wanted this thinker to be a figure of hope. There is something beautiful in human nature that offers the potential to think our way out of whatever situation we’re in.” In Aurel Schmidt’s new religion, reason is the word made fresh. ❚

Untitled (Light), 2015, coloured pencil, pastel on paper, 22.5 x 17 inches.

Volume 34, Number 2

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #134, published May 2015.

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