BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 06 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 29

Kathleen Schimert

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 06 SEP 96

Some years ago, Anne Coffin Hanson, the eminent historian of 19th century art at Yale, mentioned that Marcel Duchamp once confided to her that his favourite artist was Odilon Redon. What Duchamp must have admired in Redon he would also find in Kathleen Schimert's art ­ as well as seeing something of himself. Schimert is an important member of a small but increasingly visible group of artists who have lost confidence in the theoretically-laden work which, for a decade and more, has busied itself identifying with contemporary moral, philosophical and intellectual problems. Redon, and the group of Symbolist artists associated with him, once felt just such a loss of confidence. He and others were troubled by the consummate failure of art that outwardly expressed rage, or steady critique; art that called out for social and political reform, but in the end, did nothing. Schimert, like the Symbolists before her, is turning increasingly inward.

Like Duchamp, Schimert links magic with science in ways that create equal amounts of serendipitous amazement and cerebral rigour. She invents hallucinatory scenes that lean way out over the edge, but with one finger always lightly touching on hard science, or if not science, then literary monuments. For instance, she writes love letters to Neil Armstrong which are as poetically coded as her serene sculptures, films, drawings and videos. She writes to the astronaut whom NASA hustled off to quarantine right after splashdown, fearing the first ever contact with moon dust would set off an earthbound lunar plague, as if she were remembering love lost: '...the last time I saw you was through a sealed glass cart waving like some medieval vestige; parading evil germs and fear of smells. Tenderly I touch my hands to the glass and you stepped back'. Beneath Schimert's hand, Guenevere writes to Arthur, Ophelia to Hamlet, and Katy to Dracula. In these letters and other works she speculates on articulating her emotions in the first person rather than enduring them in the second and third. If, as we are told, we live a rapid succession of models that define and precede experience without our ever taking a breath, then Schimert wants no part of it. She is attempting to remember what it was like before all that, and without simple nostalgia getting in the way. She is bidding to reclaim the 'real', lost to others, by brewing touches of 'real life' through her art. It all seems quietly outrageous. Could it be true that work such as hers ushers in a profound reality, newly uncovered? Is she creating new symbols for new feelings? Perhaps she is.

With all those definitions flying at us like fast balls hurled out of an unhinged pitching machine, she ruptures the undifferentiated veneer they effortlessly produce by matching unmatched pairs of models for experience ­ specifically, science and magic, nature and culture, romance and madness. She creates a slippage between those models as they repel one another like backward pointing magnets, offering a glimpse of authentic experience in the breach between them. That an artist would attempt this at this moment tells us something profound about our culture, and Schimert's passes at capturing the real are themselves recondite.

Her sculpture Moon Rocks (1994-95) consists of beautiful ceramic shapes with mirrored surfaces that slip and fold over themselves. They are not moon rocks at all, but neither are they sculptures of rocks. Schimert aspires to sponsor the resolution of the historical antagonism between naturalism and ideal beauty. Her things do not belong to nature, but of course, no idealised lunar stone is sitting around for her to admire either. Her rocks nominate the third thing. To look at these undulating metallic oozings is to understand them as alien, as other worldly ­ the by-product of a dreaming femme fatale on her way to the silvery moon, toward a place whose very name bespeaks madness.

Schimert is the prophet-architect of an extravagant non-linear narrative. It is all created out of her counterpoint of contrary models that produce stutters in experience. As impressive as any single work is, one will intuitively call out to another, creating an uncanny harmony which we could never have imagined on our own. These rocks are, after all, the lunar fragments that Guenevere, Ophelia and Katy think of when they dream of adventure and romance, when they let their imaginations rise from the collective unconscious, or when their lunacy grips them without letting go. Redon once wrote that he was able 'to make improbable beings live like human beings, according to the laws of probability by putting, in so far as possible, the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible'. Schimert does this too.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.