BY Dale McFarland in Frieze | 10 OCT 02
Featured in
Issue 70

Swiss Cheese

Jean-Frédéric Schnyder

BY Dale McFarland in Frieze | 10 OCT 02

These vulgar delicacies are often painful to behold: much of Schnyder's output is singularly unattractive, and his project appears completely undiscriminating and uninterested in any form of observable artistic refinement. Yet looking at the images of still lifes, mountain landscapes, dogs and soft toys, epiphanies, waiting-rooms, motorways, items of clothing and rough abstractions is a hypnotic experience. The list of subjects expands towards infinity, and includes nearly every object, thought or fantasy that a sceptical intelligence could desire.

Schnyder keeps his known biographical details deliberately scant. Born in Basel in 1945, he spent his formative years in an orphanage in Bern, then worked for a time in the mid-1960s as a commercial photographer before turning to fine art. Early pieces were influenced by Pop and Conceptual art, but by 1970 Schnyder had become tired of these genres and destroyed much of his work. Since 1982 his practice has been almost exclusively dedicated to oil painting.

In the course of a career spanning more than 30 years Schnyder has developed a holistic approach to making art, adopting a range of artistic styles - including Pop, realism, kitsch and abstraction - as templates that may suit a particular mood or subject. Relatively unconcerned by any of the ideas or histories attached to these diverse styles, he treats them as nothing more than forms of expression, simply as available and adaptable choices of language with which to describe the world. The resulting, medium-sized paintings seem to combine dumb mimicry with an outpouring of exaggerated creative activity. Through this strange form of commitment and intuition Schnyder transforms the trivial, the everyday, the banal into something strangely passionate, tinged with oblique significance.

'Wanderung' (Walking Tour, 1992), a series of 119 views of a Swiss autobahn is painted with the palette-knife-impasto flourish of a rather accomplished Sunday afternoon painter who has taken evening classes and learnt the sullen knack of doing trees and skies. These small paintings depict the Geneva-Romanshorn motorway viewed from various overpasses. One stretch of motorway looks very much like another and the landscape changes little, but occasionally it rains and the vehicle headlights reflect comfortingly on the wet asphalt. Sometimes one afternoon in early autumn the golden sunlight casts long shadows, or the road dissolves in a thick mist, or shafts of celestial light fall through black swirling clouds, and there's always the traffic coming and going at the same time. Like Rouen Cathedral in Monet's series of paintings, Schnyder's motorways (a subject admittedly a little more prosaic) are revealed in a constant atmospheric flux. Now and again the images stray into some kind of lurid fantasy occasioned perhaps by exhaustion, sunstroke or prolonged exposure to petrol fumes. In one painting a line of traffic has been turned into hurtling fireballs; in another it is nothing more than ghostly outlines, or melts into a Munchian vortex of red and yellow paint.

A great deal of Schnyder's work is made in series, and much of it involves day trips all over Switzerland to paint en plein air, as it were. He displays a zeal for collecting images of the same things in different places. There are 93 views of railway station waiting-rooms, 'Wartesäle' (Waiting Room, 1988-9), some quaintly rustic, others furnished with wipe-down suburban utility ware. There are 38 views of Lake Thun, 'Am Thunersee' (At Lake Thun, 1995), painted after another Swiss artist, Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918). In these, like the images of 'Walking Tour', the lake and Mount Neisen beyond are seen at different times of day and under different weather conditions. Schnyder paints the lake and mountain with the same slightly uncouth, folksy vigour, which seems far removed from the general alpine vistas of the artist's homeland.

These small works are aggressively picturesque, a little feverish and somehow monumental, but they never seek the casual menace of the Sublime. The catalogue of everyday views encompasses everything from picture postcard townscapes and churches to park benches, municipal camping sites and concrete underpasses. They all have that distinctive formulaic and so-called naturalistic style of an image produced by the simple steps of a well-practised amateur. The paintings don't exhibit any outward form of irony or blunt cynicism, and they give little by way of redemption, but the more you see of them, the more they seem to play at meaning.

The Folk art traditions of Schnyder's native Switzerland have also had a pervasive influence on his painting. This macabre vernacular appears in a series of works entitled 'Landschaft' (Landscape, 1990-91), which shows cosy alpine cottages with smoking chimneys, cuckoo clocks and rustic furniture, gingerbread men, and flowery meadows grazed by contended cows. There's something sickly about the images of this corner of paradise; perhaps this is the closest the artist comes to critique. In a number of them the chimney smoke forms a hazy swastika, in another a mountain shrine is flanked by two gravestones with inscriptions in Hebrew, and the gingerbread couple's house is merrily blazing away in the background. These nasty little bucolic nightmares are often painted in heavy relief and look like allegorical tourist kitsch warning of the innocent oblivion of the good and simple life. But perhaps the most shocking suite of paintings is Dritchi I-VIII (1985-6). These feature the Schnyder family's Tibetan lap-dog in a number of heroic tableaux: making a death leap across a raging torrent, dashing through a snowdrift, pupils dilated and ears flowing, wandering lonely in a snowy landscape or dozing while on guard by the artist's bed. Finally in Dritchi VIII she appears as a hybrid of man and dog, hovering above the clouds and illuminated by a spinning Catherine wheel of a sun, dressed in a painter's smock holding a palette, in a pose of divine benediction.

For an artist who emphasizes outmoded and largely disregarded forms of representation, it may seem apt that a great many of Schnyder's paintings are worked in a style akin to abstract Modernism, a style that he plays out in a similarly dispassionate and regressive vein. Some may be based on observation, as in Drei Blumen b, r, g (Three Flowers b, r, g, 1985), where a vase of flowers is reduced to its simplest form as discs suspended in mid-air, or as in the series of 20 paintings of the same subject, 'Drei Blumen' (Three Flowers, 1997-8), where blue, orange and purple pixels, standing for flower heads, occupy squares in a black and white chessboard grid. Others may be the result of a painting that has gone wrong, such as Flasche (Bottle, 1984), where an image of a bottle painted in heavy relief has been all but obliterated by the over-painting of a yellow triangle within a black oval on a purple ground. Hell/Dunkel (Light/Dark, 1984) kills two birds with one stone. Here the artist has painted over an existing work with the paint left over from the creation of the original. In fact there's another whole series made with left-over paint - Schnyder practises a somewhat Calvinist frugality when it comes to the concept of waste.

It may sound obvious, but the paintings that Schnyder produces in the studio have a very different quality from those made on trips to the farthest ends of Switzerland. They're created with the same imitative shorthand, but the subject matter, abstract or otherwise, appears to be born from a kind of personal symbolism. There's something very pointless but not at all banal about Gold (1984), which shows a golden oilcan lying on its side in a pool of shimmering liquid. The painting Schäfli (Lambkin, 1984), featuring the crumpled body of a discarded toy sheep, is stupidly touching and Vier Brennstäbe (Four Fuel Rods, 1984), in which three glowing orange bars float in lethal unison before a skyline of blacked-out high-rises, conjures the sci-fi strains of a quartet of Theramins.

There's really too much to try and describe: the Madonnas with Child, the giant candy-floss wraiths hovering in an alpine landscape, the ham-fisted homages to Jean-François Millet, a fascination with the letter M and an eight-year embroidery project are just a few of Schnyder's themes. The work is shot through with good-natured cynicism, celebrating the intensity of the commonplace in a muscular and workman-like prose. His brand of kitsch has an epic exactitude disguised as primitive romance, and it never lets you off with the gloomy consolation of good taste.