Norbert Schwontkowski: “We Make Any Size of Mirror”
(Norbert Schwontkowski and Forrest Bess, Philip Guston, Alex Katz, Pablo Picasso)
Mitchell-Innes & Nash
1018 Madison Ave
New York City
September 21 through November 22
525 West 19th Street
New York City
September 8 – October 14, 2006
Jockum Nordström and Norbert Schwontkowski unironically combine faux naïve styles with sophisticated drawing, painting, and collage techniques. Nordstrom’s drawings and collages are postmodern in that they celebrate pluralism by humorously exploring pastiche. Formal experimentation with concepts of space lead to pictures that are more disjointed than unified. Schwontkowski’s paintings are subtly painted and calming. His sophisticated palette, playful simplifications, and use of iconic or symbolic imagery relate his paintings to those of Philip Guston, Alex Katz, Odilon Redon, Edvard Munch, and Giorgio Morandi. Schwontkowski decided to hang his paintings next to paintings by Katz, Guston, and Pablo Picasso, among others. Although this could be seen as an immodest gesture, I considered it to be a tribute and a form of self analysis.
Nordström contrasts different concepts of pictorial space, fashions from different historical periods, sophisticated realism and expressionism inspired by children’s art and nineteenth century folk art. Nordstrom’s art is more endearing than most self conscious pastiche art, because he, along with Schwontkowski, takes his chosen medium seriously. He revels in drawing’s power to conjure a world from nothing. Nordstrom has passages in his work that resemble the drawings of children and folk art, especially many of the figures in them, but oddly enough, he reserves his most delicate and exacting powers of rendering, his Ingres-like line, for furniture and architecture.
In the drawing How Long, 2005, we see a door, two desks, and a chair rendered in a detailed and well proportioned manner and a woman in a short sleeved blouse and mini-skirt strumming on a guitar, rendered in a more humorous, abstract and child-like way. Her hands are tiny and her head is big. As in the rest of these drawings and collages, Nordström plays with contrasting styles, scale, and modes of representation. Even though such drawings as Pawn Broker, 2006, have solitary figures in them that are more realistically rendered, the one hand Nordstrom decided to place on the figure looks like a flipper and there are no feet to be found. Strangely, the legs on all the pieces of furniture, and the decorative carvings on them, are carefully rendered. Nordström’s abstractions of the human form are assertions of his subjectivity. Nordström’s drawings are exploratory, playfully inventive, and formally sophisticated. He combines different drawing styles in an intuitive way. He arrives at odd formal statements using juxtaposition.
On the right side of the graphite drawing Things are Beginning to Hum, 2006, the detached upper torso of a casually dressed diminutive male looks out at the viewer with his arm raised above a female who is on all fours wearing nothing but a black shirt and tight underwear. She too looks out at the viewer. Nordström wants to describe what is in front of what in this part of the drawing. The woman is clearly positioned between a brown table and a black chair. The figures ignore one another and gaze out at the viewer. They are props brought into existence to entertain their creator. The rest of this drawing is comprised of figures wearing costumes from different historical periods floating in front of a white background along with pieces of furniture, and objects resembling fireplace utensils and old musical equipment. Nordström’s imagery titillates us because he’s also titillated by it. He created these tableaus for the same reasons a young person draws action scenes, to invent a world where fantasies can be played out. I imagined Nordström producing sound effects as he drew and pasted.
For Nordström, drawing is a variegated and playful exploration of the psyche, and luckily for us, he is not afraid to suppress his child within, although we shouldn’t forget how sophisticated these drawings and collages really are.
Schwontkowski uses symbols as metaphors for internal states, but his ultimate goal is to transform the painting into a mirror or something that reflects viewers’ inner states. All viewers experience instant recognition when looking at Schwontkowski’s paintings, but the familiar imagery, boats floating on an expanse of brown water (Boote, 2006), a butterfly hovering before an oval mirror that reflects the lepidopteran and is filled with watery and dreamy light that beckons and holds our gaze (Schmetterling, 2006), reversed lettering as if seen in a mirror (My Face, 2006), the toes, feet, and legs of a bather basking in an orange alien light (Am Strand (Orange), 2006), birds’ nests in a tree (Winternest, 2006), three standing lamps on a weird floating green area rug (Der Grüne Teppich, 2006), a geyser like fountain with four blobby figures shambling towards it (Die Erscheinung (Fontaine), 2006), uneven rows of rectangular and circular mirrors (We Make All Size of Mirrors, 2006), a plate or moon like silvery face (Spiegel (Reflektion), 2006) and an exotic nighttime scene of a moonlit fishing village (Fischerdorf, 2006), becomes alienating and comforting simultaneously because of the subtle underpainting and otherworldly color schemes. The colors and hues of pigment defamiliarize the familiar, transforms the mundane or recognizable into symbolic icons or landscapes, which are quirky but at the same time, accessible.
Reminiscent of Morandi’s palette, the muted colors Schwontkowski uses are sophisticated because of the glazing and pigment mixing processes he employs. The colors quietly simmer and are in a constant state of becoming. The contrast between his dense and emotional colors and his naïve style of rendering things lend these paintings an air of the fantastic.
Muted colors, a lot of browns and grays, and delicate and subtle underpainting and glazing, add an element of the irrational to an overwhelmingly calming whole. These paintings are symbolic mirrors. An image of ourselves, albeit a fragmented one, is always present when we look at them. When we look at a mirror and when we look at a symbol our brain attempts to make visible what is invisible. Although Schwontokowski leaves traces of his ego behind in the form of brushstrokes, his presence is fleeting. We are lost inside Schwontkowski’s paintings by the time we realize we are alone.
A version of this review first appeared in the New York Sun, Thursday, September 28, 2006print