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A Business Like Any Other
Julia Schmidt's discursive painting

In the exhibition Freisteller, which introduces this year's Villa Romana fellows at the Deutsche Guggenheim, Julia Schmidt's paintings are also on view. The young Leipzig-based painter is one of the most promising German painters-particularly because her works question how painting is produced, valued, and marketed. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf had a conversation with the artist.

Julia Schmidt, Untitled (atelier) I, II , 2007
Courtesy Casey Kaplan Gallery
© Julia Schmidt

Braided pig's hairs, the façade of a corrugated iron hut, the blurred covering of a baroque Versace chair with a shadow of a man's crotch etched into it: the things and details in Julia Schmidt's paintings appear unfocussed, bleached out, spotty, fragmented-a kind of visual driftwood washed up from the depths of an endless process of production and reproduction that devours images and goods as quickly as it generates them. While young art often serves to adorn the lifestyle of a global art community, Schmidt is interested in the recycling of a culture based on luxury.

Julia Schmidt, Villa Romana 2008
Photo: Gregor Hohenberg
© Gregor Hohenberg

"There's this incredible ease with which painting is absorbed by the market. I want to put disturbances, barriers, fissures in my paintings in order to counter this simple ability to consume," she says, blinking into the sun. We are sitting on the roof terrace of her studio at the Villa Romana, looking out over the cypresses onto Florence. Schmidt is currently preparing for the exhibition Freisteller, which introduces this year's Villa Romana fellows at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. After the filmmaker Clemens von Wedemeyer, who took part in the 2007 skulptur projekte münster, Schmidt is probably the best-known fellow. In 2006, the 32-year-old received the Art Prize of the Sachsen LB, awarded in cooperation with the Museum der bildenden Künste in Leipzig, where she showed her solo exhibition Tourism and Painting. Since 2004, the prominent Casey Kaplan Gallery in New York has represented her work. A career as speedy as this might produce a certain attitude in some people, yet Schmidt seems amazingly down-to-earth. Her tone is subdued when she explains that she paints on MDF panels "because it is a neutral ground that doesn't push itself into the foreground," or stresses that an individual work is less important to her than its "constellation within a group of pictures." As though she wanted to put her painting work into a larger perspective-not out of feigned modesty, but from analytic self-reflection.

Julia Schmidt, Untitled (production) , 2007
Courtesy Casey Kaplan Gallery
©Julia Schmidt

One could picture her, perhaps, as an economist, a person involved in the economy of image production, with the ways and means in which images are turned into art and how they are consumed. "My work is about production processes," explains Schmidt. "I'm also interested in this in terms of my own things. What happens before, what happens afterwards, also with my own paintings? How are things devoured? It's a kind of chain. It's not a self-evident thing for me to make a painting. It's much more about what a painting is, who it's for, where these things are shown. My work already contains a reference to the art system. But it's abstract, of course." But what does the Third World corrugated iron hut that Schmidt depicts in her 2008 painting Untitled (Stackr) have to do with the advertising motif for Versace chairs that she uses for Untitled (Crotch) from 2007?

Julia Schmidt, Untitled (Stackr), 2008
Courtesy Casey Kaplan Gallery
©Julia Schmidt

"Stackr" is an abbreviated form of the word "Stacker." An image, torn from a newspaper and hanging on the wall of the studio in Florence that Schmidt has just moved into, serves as a basis for the painting of the same name. It's a black and white photograph of a ghetto in a developing country. Stacked on the roofs of the huts are boxes of fruit sold on the street below-thrown up there by traders that want to deliver their goods as quickly as possible. Yet while this mixture between shelter, kiosk, and storage could clearly be taken as a metaphor for the endlessly repetitive everyday cycle of goods, the actual painting contains only traces of the original image. Entire parts of the picture have been removed, the hut cut out, the background painted over in white. Branches, stones, tossed boards blur into an abstract still life as the boxes on the roof dissolve into an almost minimalist structure.

Julia Schmidt: Untitled (crotch), 2007
Private Collection,
© VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2008

The same happens with the Versace motif photographed by the star photographer Steven Meisel in Hugh Heffner's Playboy Mansion, an image that represents the diametric opposite end of the production chain-luxury furniture elaborately photographed and erotically staged for advertising campaigns. "At the time, I used a great deal of pictorial sources that had to do with the 'fetish of power'," Schmidt explains in a conversation with the critic Clemens Krümmel published in the catalogue to the Freisteller exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim. "I tried to create a relationship between high-end advertising and painting. The way that in which Meisel brings out a subtle racism from the fashion show aesthetic - the Mexican gardener between the models dressed in Versace attire who fishes flies out of the swimming pool, the maid from Sri Lanka at the house door - this very directly stressed the relationship of fashion photography to power and hierarchy." Schmidt transforms the spread legs of a male model, the lower body stretched out on the Versace chair into a flat silhouette of color in which all depth and structure have been carefully obliterated in countless layers of paint. In Schmidt's work, the sexual organ, the apparent center of the body, becomes both the center of the image and an empty spot. In a kind of inverted sexism, she extinguishes all traces of corporeality and "castrates" her motif.

Julia Schmidt, Untitled (bristles), 2008,
Courtesy Casey Kaplan Gallery
©Julia Schmidt

"This overpainting is in itself an absurd gesture," she says, "a waste that isn't economical at all. It's unprofitable when I keep painting over certain areas in a painting. In a world where every handshake is translated into cash and, as the saying goes, 'time is money,' I paint over the pictures up to thirty times, which is completely absurd. Yet it's exactly this quality that I'm interested in." The effect she achieves is in a certain sense paradoxical, because the image isn't brought to fore, but becomes more and more lost with each layer of paint applied. Schmidt says that she is trying to "understand" her motif by painting over it: "The painting process merely reflects my thinking. Of course it's also a work about form, but I actually need up to four months to make a painting because I have to think about the motif, about its meaning."

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