Rachel Schmidhofer is a Brooklyn-based painter. Her vibrant still-lifes of natural objects and domestic interiors evoke contrasting feelings of wonderment and guilt, while simultaneously seeking the hidden meaning within – and connections between – unlikely collections of objects. I reached out to Rachel via email to speak a little bit more about these elements of her practice, as well as “Icicles in Caves” and “A Series of Moves,” two summer exhibitions that feature her paintings.
Nate Jones: Hi Rachel, thanks so much for speaking with me. Some of your paintings, along with work by Erika Lynne Hanson, are currently on view in the exhibition “Icicles in Caves” at Field Projects, curated by Jacob Rhodes. While it is clear that your still life and interior scene paintings depict a variety of objects, from beer cans and license plates to refrigerator contents and leftovers, the shows focus is primarily on our relationship to, and representation of, the environment. We’ll talk more about these questions later, but for now, I’d like to know a little bit more about your attraction to still-life painting in general. What motivates your choice of subject matter?
Rachel Schmidhofer: Hi Nathan. So my choice of subject matter is very intuitive – I paint what happens to move me, or what I feel a sense of life in. I’ve always spent a lot of time with objects – first in my grandma’s attic, now in flea markets/antique stores, or just moving objects I’ve collected around in my studio. When I was young I would watch this sketch on Sesame Street called “Teeny Weeny Little Super Guy,” where all the kitchen cups and gadgets would come to life and interact with each other as soon as the woman left the room. Since then I’ve thought a lot about the lives of inanimate objects.
Ultimately, I’m interested in the energy of the object more than what the object actually is. I’ve been studying yoga intensively and thinking about the interconnectedness of all things, and the energy exchange between an object and its environment. Most recently, I’ve been interested in containers that hold and display things from the natural world – plants, fish, rocks, inside of domestic spaces.
NJ: Your point about the energy of objects is well taken. When looking at your work in “Icicles in Caves,” I noticed that many of the objects seem to glow from behind dominating layers of gray paint. The effect is achieved in some instances quite literally, particularly in those cases when it appears that the gray paint is scraped away to reveal the luminous light effects of rock formations and minerals. The contour lines of vases and glass objects – rather than being painted on the canvas – also seem to be scraped away in order to reveal more hi-keyed colors beneath. Am I correct in noting this? Can you speak a little bit about your painting process?
RS: You’re correct in noting that. As of late, I’ve been starting with a keyed-up, abstract underpainting. I cover that with layers of gray and other neutrals – I like to think of this as a ‘primordial mist’ from which forms can emerge. Then I add and subtract – carving through layers with my finger, often, until I arrive at something I’m happy with. Sometimes I’ll work in the dark with a projector. I’ll load up my palette knife with different colors and start rendering objects in semi-darkness, then turn on the lights and react to what I’ve put down. I feel like the steps that happen before my intellectual brain starts trying to render objects have become really important to the space created in the final painting.
NJ: I like that parallel between your use of color and your process – the primordial mist that will eventually depart to reveal something, and your flicking on the light to reveal more fully the image you were painting. Do you try to prolong that sense of the unknown, that period of time before you are able to recognize and comprehend the object you are rendering? It seems that this sets up an interesting tension in your work, especially when considering your interest in displays. When I see your paintings of forms that recall rocks and minerals placed inside what look like cabinets or drawers, I think of early natural history displays. The grid is obviously a rational device used to organize knowledge and illuminate relationships between objects. How do you see or understand the collision between abstraction and grids, containers, and other vessels in your work?
RS: I definitely try to prolong the sense of the unknown as long as possible. That’s certainly the most interesting part of the process for me – when the layers are starting to react to each other visually, but the possibilities for the painting are still very open. I’m sure this sounds cheesy, but that’s when the painting can kind of show me what direction it wants to move in, as opposed to me trying to enact my will upon it, like I’m collaborating with something instead of just painting alone in my studio. It’ll still end up being a painting of say, a potted plant, but there are so many ways to be, and also to visually perceive, a potted plant. I see the grids and containers as a human attempt to contain/control different kinds of energies, and from a painting perspective, the grid and the container are visually useful devices to anchor abstract marks in the physical world. If you have the outline of a ceramic planter, you can put anything into it and it will still read as ‘plant’. I’m really into the perceptual line between abstraction and representation – how much information you need about an object before the brain finishes the circuit and deems the thing a ‘plant’, for instance.
NJ: So abstraction in your practice is a way of retaining a sense of mystery in spite of elements that seek to control, understand, and instrumentalize. When I look at these paintings, I can’t help but think of the processes of domestication which brought the exterior world into the home or the museum, altering it fundamentally. I think about the hothouses of the early 1800’s that created meticulously controlled environments conducive for the growth of exotic plants, and the simulation of the paradise found abroad within the confines of the newly developed glass and steel architecture. Separated from their natural cycles, plant growth was governed by human intervention. Isobel Armstrong, in her essay “Transparency: Towards a Poetics of Glass in the Nineteenth Century,” called the flower “the ultimate city commodity.” To this we might add goldfish in a plastic bag, a subject of one of your paintings in “Icicles in Caves.” With your references to displays, is the circulation of natural objects and their subsequent transformations on your radar as you paint?
RS: Definitely on my radar, particularly with the fish paintings. I grew up going to carnivals where kids would play those games where you win fish, and then run around and go on like, the teacup rides clutching these poor goldfish in bags. As a kid who got carsick on those rides, I always empathized with the particular kind of purgatory I imagined those fish to be living through – and the tension between my feelings of guilt about fish in captivity and my feelings of riveted awe and wonder that occur when staring at a glowing, artificially lit aquarium definitely play in the work. So yeah, I think about those things. I have this rock – it’s a piece of celestite – that I acquired at a flea market held inside of a suburban mall in Minnesota. I thought it was so beautiful, and that night I went to sleep with the rock near my head and proceeded to have the most vivid, terrifying, wrenchingly acute nightmare I’d had in recent memory. I had nightmares for several nights until I removed it from my room (it lives in my studio now). I spoke to a woman who knows a lot about minerals and she told me that I need to emotionally reprogram the rock – that the violent way in which some of those rocks are blasted from the earth and then handled can leave them essentially traumatized and emitting negative energy. I think a lot about that conversation, and again about my conflicting feelings of awe and wonder and guilt and responsibility that come with possessing those objects. I mean, when you bring a plant or a fish into your home, you’re completely responsible for its health and well-being. That’s kind of enormous.
NJ: I want to hone in on those conflicting feelings of wonder and guilt. In her article “Aggregating Lapidary Still Lifes,” Annabel Osberg suggested a melancholy quality in your paintings arising from your attempt to capture moments of fleeting beauty. She writes: “Geologic specimens defy the effects of time, yet their coruscant beauty is transitory inasmuch as it only exists under specific conditions. Rocks must be cut and polished to reveal their inner transparent color whose effulgence, in turn, depends on certain illumination. Each sparkle is precarious.” The impossibility of making permanent the precarious sparkle is, she suggests, the source of melancholy. I am curious to know your assessment of this reading, because when I look at your work, I almost get the opposite impression. I bring this up not as a criticism of the former point, but just as something I’d like to think about. For me, when a geological specimen is relocated to a new space, I don’t see its sparkle as precarious. I see it as permanent. When a mineral is disturbed and brought into a timeless museum space, or even a domestic space, polished, and made to shine for us, it will keep shining for us until we no longer want to look at it. The goldfish are for us to look at whenever we want. The same can be said about plants in a hothouse. Not only are these objects removed from their original sites of growth, they are placed within a suspended temporality, and perhaps made permanent, or at least more controlled. For me, this is where melancholy is located – maybe not in the desire to capture flickering moments of beauty, but in our attempt to make beauty permanent, on demand, and domesticated. I find the elimination of ephemeral beauty to be melancholic.
RS: I think I agree with both points, actually – hers and yours. I’ve always felt an inherent futility in trying to make a painting of something I’m in awe of. It can feel a little like I’m ‘throwing rocks at the sun’, which has its own melancholy, in a way, but also it’s own allure for me. It’s hard to imagine that a geode interpreted by me via painting could be more compelling than admiring a geode in real life, if for no other reason than having too much invested in the way something looks in reality doesn’t always make for the most interesting painting. It can be a lot easier to make an interesting painting from boring subject matter. It frees you up to depart more from the real thing, to serve the painting and not the subject. That being said, the compulsion to paint things that I am in awe of is very real for me, hence the melancholy derived from the ‘impossibility of making permanent the precarious sparkle,’ as you put it. To speak to your point, I agree there is plenty of melancholy to be found in the human attempt to domesticate and make permanent fleeting moments of wonder in the natural world, especially when you look at those things as a microcosm of what humans are doing to nature on this planet on a larger scale. And I agree with you that I think all sparkles aren’t necessarily created equal. An ephemeral sparkle is very different than a gaudy sparkle – and the line between those things is fertile ground in my work, I think.
NJ: That last thought definitely resonates with me when I look at your paintings, particularly in the play between the natural and the artificial. I think both come to a head in your paintings of aquariums, but also in your earlier paintings of Christmas trees. Both carry ephemeral sparkles – perhaps in the form of the natural beauty of organic elements – but also sparkles brought on by display – the luminous lights of the aquarium or what we add to the tree, which add that extra bit of awe or wonder. I want to ask now a little bit about what you hope to achieve in your paintings. In issue #122 of New American Paintings you write that “Everything in the world is an awesome thing to paint, except when everything in the world is just clutter and meaninglessness. When looked at in the right way and at the right time, unconnected images…incite feelings of excitement in me, as if I’d been let in on a secret.” You spoke earlier about prolonging that sense of the unknown, but it seems that you are also after some sort of flash of understanding. How do these two thoughts come together in your practice? Can you speak more about how you seek to establish these epiphanies, or make meaning between unconnected images?
RS: I think at the end of the day, my paintings don’t ‘make’ meaning as much as they search for meaning. Sometimes I come across an object, or an image, that seems to belie an energy that is much bigger than the mere object – like for a second I might see a flash of connection between that object and all things. I’ve recently begun to learn about tantric theory, in which there is thought to be an overriding energy, for lack of a better word, that permeates all beings and objects – and although it feels like we all have separate identities and egos we are all fundamentally made up of the same universal consciousness. I’ve recently begun to approach that feeling when I meditate, but I believe I’ve always gotten glimpses of that understanding in surprising places – like when I find a random image of a license plate from New Mexico on the internet, or pick up an object at a flea market that floods me with some kind of feeling or understanding – like the world makes sense for a second. If I’m trying to achieve something with my paintings, it might be to mark and examine those moments where I feel connected to a larger system of universal order – where the boundaries between objects in the world and myself seem to become porous.
NJ: Maybe that’s another way abstraction functions in your work. Earlier you mentioned it was a way of prolonging the disjuncture between perception and cognition – what is the minimal amount of information you can give to allow your gestures to still be read as a potted plant, glass case, etc. But I also read abstraction in your paintings as a sort of erasure where the figure-ground relationship is troubled. Your paintings often seem quite flat. There isn’t usually a palpable sense of depth or solidity to the objects you depict, especially in your most recent paintings. The distinctness of the object is lost as the boundary between the object itself and its surroundings is blurred, which reflects your discovery of moments belying a universal connection. Going through your work, I’ve also noticed a recurrence of collections and of clutter – from crushed beer cans to the interiors of refrigerators and medicine cabinets, objects on a dresser, and photographs clustered on a wall, in addition to your depictions of rocks and minerals in display cases. Would you say that one way in which you seek to find meaning is through the act of collecting and the display of numerous different objects in numerous different settings?
RS: I used to try to find meaning through collecting – but this can be an especially tough practice to sustain with the space constraints in NYC – and I’ve increasingly found that having too many objects around makes me anxious, even when I love those objects. I think that I started allowing more space in my paintings when I began craving more open space in my life. The act of collecting is definitely interesting to me, though. I love getting glimpses of what people accidentally collect in private spaces, like the inside of their refrigerator or bathroom cabinet. I love looking in people’s refrigerators. It feels super personal, like looking inside their heads – much more so than looking at the stuff they’ve chosen to display in their living room. I like thinking of it as another kind of portraiture. I used to imagine that as soon as you shut the refrigerator door all the condiments spring to life and forge alliances and start singing and yelling at each other – now I just wonder which were used once and forgotten and left to sit there for 16 years. But I find those cluttered, incidental sorts of compositions to be really striking sometimes.
NJ: I like that you bring up collections in the private realm because you reference collecting and display in the public realm to a certain degree as well. Throughout your work we see both natural history type displays (Rox, 2015) alongside more intimate types of display, like the miscellaneous objects in a medicine cabinet (Chapstick, 2014). It seems to me that both the public site of display and the private site of display – each a vehicle for organizing objects, whether rocks or lotions – begin to lose distinction in your work, to the point where they actually seem to merge. Paintings like Corporeality and Sunspots (both 2015), are a good example of this. Both works depict what appear to be rock formations on shelves, but backlit in such a way that reminds me of light reflecting off mirrored or metallic surfaces in bathrooms. But I’d like to wrap up our interview by noting that you also have work in “A Series of Moves,” on view now at Driscoll Babcock. The press release for this show states that the work on view offers a “self-reflective statement about art, art history and the role of the artist.” So to wrap up, I wanted to ask you if you had any thoughts about where your work would fall into the wider canon of art history. Who are the artists, and what are the practices, that intrigue you the most?
RS: I’m very intrigued by Nicole Eisenman and Gerhard Richters’ practices – they both seem comfortable switching up their painting style, and vacillating between abstraction and representation when they feel like it. I love it when artists feel free enough to make more than just one kind of thing. Jennifer Coates’ practice is really rich and incredible. She makes these paintings of food that look like they’re growing things and decomposing as you stare at them. She also writes horoscopes under the alias Crystal “Kitti” Shimski (who is a cat puppet) and gives crazy intensive lectures on subjects like ‘The History of Bubbles.’ All of her different projects seem to infuse each other. I love Katherine Bradford and Caroline Wells Chandler’s work as well. To me, there’s a real honing of craft and a palpable sense of celebration in both of their work, which I find pretty unusual in contemporary art.
NJ: Great, thanks so much Rachel.
ICICLES IN CAVES: ERIKA LYNNE HANSON AND RACHEL SCHMIDHOFER
Curated by Jacob Rhodes, on view at Field Projects Gallery, June 16 – July 30, 2016.
A SERIES OF MOVES
Curated by Jacob Rhodes, on view at Driscoll Babcock, June 28 – August 12, 2016