CLARENCE SCHMIDT: Let's Call it Hope
RICCO/MARESCA | JUNE 14 – AUGUST 17, 2018
Clarence Schmidt, remarkable poet of homespun constructions, was raised in Astoria, Queens, but made his way to the Woodstock area in the late 1930s. Trained as a mason, he acquired land on which he would build a remarkable house, alive with scores of windows. Additionally, he fashioned objects—homemade artifacts—that incorporated found materials into a matrix of rough, unbridled creativity. At Ricco/Maresca Gallery there is the chance to relive Schmidt’s idiosyncratic vision; sculptural objects demonstrate the quirky ingenuity he was possessed of: their use of everyday things give them a living presence we can appreciate as the work of an outsider artist—even if that term has lost its critical edge due to overuse in the market. However we describe him, the wonderful photograph taken in 1964 by Peter Moore, along with 16mm films (1963 to 1969) of the artist himself by Beryl Sokoloff, attest to an exuberant presence slightly comic in its naive certainty.
In contemporary art we are encouraged to ponder, but in Schmidt’s imagination the impulse is to enjoy. He is not necessarily someone who will be positioned in the history books. Instead, he is an artist whose reputation will maintain itself and grow due to the increased respect for individuals who took on the task of building their own world—despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of general interest as well as these artists’ own lack of convention. Schmidt’s art, as uncouth as it is, makes an argument for untutored creativity in its own right. The objects in the show possess a marvelous spontaneity; most often found, rather than made, their elements display the edge of Schmidt’s determination to bring about a world of his own. His low relief, Pegasus (1952 – 72), more than likely an appropriation of the sign used in old Gulf gas stations, is treated roughly—small streaks of red and white paint cover the dark surface of the sculpture. It is an impressive work of art, this despite the fact that it is something that Schmidt did little to change.
Hobby Horse (1952 – 72), also based on the innocent theft of an object, incorporates a white horse almost certainly picked up as a child’s plaything. It faces the viewer’s left, is framed by an open circle of old wood encrusted with white paint, and is raised to eye-level by a pole of steel. Set in a small, darkened room in the gallery, Hobby Horse fascinates with a slightly menacing, otherworldly aura, in which the suspended animal looks like it is out of control. Like Pegasus, this work combines assemblage with a sense of otherworldly poetics—both horses are flying, somehow lifted into open air. Fender (1952 – 72), a composition of two fenders—again an appropriation—attached to the wall, preserves its look as established by industry, as well as an archeological ambience given its rusted surface. The two pieces are installed so that the fat ends come close to each other in the middle, while the narrower parts occur at the top and bottom of the sculpture. Looking a lot like twin scimitars, the components of Fender occupy a psychic space in which the viewer stands absorbed by their irregular facade, which lends them an air of historical weight but also attracts contemporary interest.
Schmidt’s Beer Can and Holes (1952 – 72) incorporates three Budweiser cans, attached in various manners to a rough, vertically placed piece of wood. It is charming because of its simple directness, although the bullet holes in the cans keep it from being too appealing—this is probably both deliberate and instinctive on Schmidt’s part. And Table Leaf with Mirrors (1952 – 72), consisting of a five-inch-wide wooden strip decorated along its length with darkened shards of broken mirrors and, on the upper left, bits of white paint, repeats the strategy Schmidt regularly uses: the intelligent and even inspired use of common materials. As an artist, Schmidt is a gifted practitioner of assemblage; his insight remains various and near to ecstatic. As a spiritual predecessor of the much more sophisticated Arte Povera movement, he has much to show us now, when we are so much in need of artlessness.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.