How can a sky feel gendered? How can an arm; a dark, inkjet-printed monochrome; some pale botanical print, tendrils twirling; a glassy skyscraper in ’70s sepia? There’s a coolness, a clarity, to Hagar Schmidhalter’s desire-filled, image-laden body of work that begs – no, invites – such questions. But no, I am wrong again: ‘laden’ is too strong a word for such a lean, associative, fleet oeuvre. (Her lean, decisive bodies, not quite fleet enough to flee her frames – though almost.) The Basel-based artist’s precision with images, and images of desire, asks the same from her critic. I’ll try to be clearer.
Schmidhalter’s works often begin with the bound: the fashion magazine, the Audubon field guide, the modernist architectural monograph, the Roman archaeological catalogue. She uses these pages as grounds for new works, collaging elements gleaned elsewhere, or simply tucking loose-leaf images inside, then photographing or scanning the whole. Her found publications – each with their own modern or postmodern record: architectural, sartorial, historical – become archives, ‘books’ of her own artworks. The resulting palimpsests develop into something shape-shiftingly provisional: a collation of collages, the poster-size c-type prints prin-ted from them, as well as minimal Plexiglas-partition sculptures which sandwich and frame the images. Size and support structure might change, but the underlying unit – the frame of the page – remains.
In so doing, Schmidhalter’s many frames – of reference, of the image, of the table or floor, archive or studio – collapse into one another, offering a seemingly slowed-down disassembling of images and histories, as in some spectral film sequence. If the artist’s books seem indicative of the bound body – bound by its sartorial and gendered appearance – they appear simultaneously stitched to and loosened from time. In Time Binds (2010), feminist scholar Elizabeth Freeman describes the ‘power of anachronism to unsituate viewers from the present tense they think they know, and to […] ignite possible futures in light of powerful historical movements.’ Further, her idea of eroto-historiography limns the ‘use of the body as a channel for and means of understanding the past.’ When they appear, Schmidhalter’s bodies are found, fragmented, fashionable, ambiguous; set inside their books or frames, their stylish exteriors seem to exude interiority, just as her works’ matte or glossy surfaces appear to radiate privacy.
See Ohne Titel (Audubon’s Wildlife) (2013–14), a c-type print offering the titular book open to beautifully drawn birds and leaves laden with collaged details of modelled clothing, skin just showing. See the luminous inkjet prints 197 and 131 (both 2013), shown at Vitrine Gallery in London last year, named after page numbers appearing within their frames. The former’s dark ground features a discrete, cropped image of a torso – perhaps female, but ambiguously so – in a white button-down shirt. The latter work offers a violet ground bisected by images of upended suited figures, cropped at the neck. The sartorial laconicism of the works doesn’t dispel their wound-like erotic power, Roland Barthes’s inescapable punctum. Their formal and temporal anachronism, meanwhile, allows them to float off the wall, as a well-turned metaphor might off a page.
A kind of relay between interior and exterior – appearances both – emerges in such works, as well as in those collapsing modernist architecture into fragmented female figures. A tower’s glassy façade lowers into well-heeled legs, a girl with a sweat-shirt tied low around her waist is framed by a building; stairs zigzag into shoes. If the artist’s cool command of desiring bodies in minimal compositions can conjure Collier Schorr’s likeminded photographic work and Hilary Lloyd’s corporeal and architectonic video details, Schmidhalter’s associative style also recalls a game of exquisite corpse, minus the manic, Freudian misogyny of its male Surrealist originators. Indeed, when attempting to describe Schmidhalter’s practice, one pulls from the fashion and literary worlds: the artist as editor, as stylist, using a singular formal syntax. Yet though Schmidhalter’s indexical work has the whiff of the catalogue – fashion, architectural, bibliographic – her systemic narrative remains obscure.
See the poster-size c-type prints made from collages culled from the same book, shown at Kunsthalle Palazzo, Liestal, this year (117, 113, 114, 116, all 2013). Made while the artist was a resident at Cité internationale des Arts, Paris, and living in a Corbusier-designed studio, the works fed into Schmidhalter’s employment of other modernisms: a book about Rue Mallet-Stevens, the Parisian street featuring a string of modernist villas built in the 1920s, for example.
Born in Raron (where Rainer Maria Rilke is buried, and home to a museum for Iris von Roten, the 20th century Swiss feminist), Schmidhalter began as a painter before moving increasingly to the reproducible image and its attendant technologies. What did Walter Benjamin write of Eugène Atget and his Parisian streets? ‘[H]e photographed them like scenes of crime. The scene of a crime, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence.’ Atget first marketed his photographs as ‘documents for artists’ to paint from, evoking Schmidhalter’s expert, suggestive use of found imagery as simultaneously source, archive and evidence. Evidence of what, though? Of certain and uncertain bodies, certain and uncertain temporalities, of the styles that place and unplace them? Perhaps. What else?