Ludwig Schwarz: Chronologic (Carry On)
Wendy Weil Atwell
Three disparate works by Ludwig Schwarz stage a bitter critique of how various systems in our culture use time to manipulate the truth. Whether his focus is consumerism, the art world or the mass media, Schwarz’ art spills scathing light on how the truth gets blurred with the passage of time. Chronologic (Carry On), curated by Jennifer Jankauskas, combines conceptually based objects and paintings that examine how chronology—the determination of temporal sequence of past events—gets distorted. Most importantly, the work challenges viewers to determine this phenomenon for themselves.
Mounted on the right-hand wall as one enters the space is Carry On (time heals all wounds)—a package of corned beef encased in a Plexiglas box atop a built-in shelf containing nine recent issues of Time magazine. Above the corned beef, a small monitor plays a loop of Carlito’s Way. Schwarz purchased the meat several days before the recent Mad Cow disease scare. According to the artist, “the piece is based on the speed at which phobia is eased by mass media’s self-perpetuating stranglehold on fiction as reality and vice versa.”
The artist’s selection of materials poignantly demonstrates his astute observation. But what if this explanation had not been provided? Could the work hold up solely through its material composition? Having been exposed to both, I can no longer give an honest answer. Nevertheless, a fascinating contrast of time does occur. On the one hand, there is the swelling plastic package of rotting beef—the purchase date on it acting as a poetic reminder of its materiality—while, beneath it, time is neatly metered by the successive headlines of Time. The potential, impending explosion of the rotting meat powerfully overshadows the orderly compilation of world events, neatly compacted into flimsy throwaway newsmagazines. The disparity between these two ways of measuring time successfully exposes the construction of “media” time. How long ago was that Mad Cow scare? Are we still scared? No. The media (and time) have eased our collective fears, pushing the issue from the headlines—and our consciousness.
Two different movies accompany Carry On depending on which direction the piece travels. Carlito’s Way is “shown when the piece travels to a destination south or west,” and Bad Boys, with Sean Penn, is shown “when the piece travels in a direction north or east.” Given its southerly position, San Antonio gets Carlito’s Way. In it, Al Pacino plays an ex-con vying for a second chance. Yet the persona of Pacino is so strong, his character’s role dissolves into the actor’s trademark bravado. The dialogue is so badly written as to be deemed irrelevant. Consequently, Pacino’s star quality destroys any possibility of getting lost in the film’s thin narrative. Part of Schwarz’ title for another piece may apply here as well: hindsight is 40/15. Moviegoers know Pacino’s shtick so well that his past films are somehow ruined by it.
Despite all of this, the indulgences movies provide allow for an escape from daily reality. It is like comparing the Arts and Leisure section with the daily headlines of the New York Times, flipping past the bloody images of war to read about the decadent worries of Sex and the City. With the inclusion of movies, Schwarz points out yet another chronological anomaly.
To the left is Carry On (autopilot)—Crate and Barrel boxes assembled in the shape of a giant L, accompanied by a sound loop. Based on the song Carry on My Wayward Son by the band Kansas, Schwarz’ sound loop mixes in an overlaying structure “based on the fleet of Boeing passenger aircraft from the 727 to the 767.” This decision—the technical details of which still escape me despite my attempts to get the artist and curator to explain it to me—seems purposefully difficult. Schwarz’ song selection, combined with the sound loop, plays at a volume that creates a gratingly irritating experience. Kansas already gets too much airtime on classic rock stations, and Carry On is one of those songs that gets stuck in your head—an invasive, self-perpetuating tune that creates its own mental loop.
Ludwig Schwarz, Chronologic (hindsight is 40/15, shuck ’n jive), 2004
Oil on canvas and Plexiglas
10 paintings, each 16 x 20 inches
The lightness of the empty white cardboard boxes endows this piece with a “waywardness” not unlike the proverbial son for whom the song was composed. Through the combination of the noise and composition, Carry On (autopilot) embodies (and evokes in the viewer) a knuckle-clenching rage. The target of this rage may depend on the viewer’s perspective. One easy target is the lighthearted, everything-is-okay scenario promulgated by American consumerism. Another may be the flaccid notion of a pop song’s ability to soothe the savage temperament of youth.
Ten oil on canvas paintings comprise Chronologic (hindsight is 40/15, shuck ‘n jive). Mounted perpendicular to the wall with Plexiglas brackets, the paintings appear stacked in a row, one in front of the other, such that there is no possibility for full-on, frontal views of the images. With this style of viewing, the process of taking in information is slowed and scattered, as is the viewer’s understanding.
Each painting features an advertisement for an exhibition, such as Ludwig Schwarz/antisocial sculpture/Emmanual Rohan Art Center/Dallas, TX/Feb. 8-April 16, 2004. The image in this painting is Schwarz himself in a gallerylike setting, petting a cat—a notoriously antisocial species of animal. Slowly, it dawns on the viewer that many of the galleries are fictional… there was no Pawn Shop Girls exhibition at Eugene & Hyde in Rotterdam; however, Rentown did occur at Angstrom Gallery. According to the press release, Schwarz found these paintings at a garage sale and then hired inexpensive laborers in China to paint his images on top of them. Only the paintings’ borders hint at their original, decorative content.
When it comes to creating a fictional career history, Schwarz is adept, delivering an effective conceptual trompe l’oeil. The images and ideas he presents seem so real that you want to double check his CV. Out of everything in the show, these “paintings”—designed and farmed out by the artist—most successfully walk the fine line that conceptual artists must walk when it comes to determining how much information is too much, or not enough.
No easy conclusions are offered up by the work, and this is its strength. Yet details which might further strengthen the work were not readily available in the exhibition space. Instead, this information—the fact that the paintings were readymades, the exact dates of the Mad Cow scare, the artist’s statement about the media and time—were presented only in the form of a press release e-mailed by the curator. Rather than selecting specific media to “liberate” or explicate his artistic ideas, Schwarz delights in doing quite the opposite; he seems to make a purposeful decision to burden the work.
In fact, the artist’s own term, “antisocial sculpture,” describes the series well. A sculptor recently bragged to me that his genre of art was a more social and public form of art making as opposed to painting. “Sculpture,” he said, “involves teamwork just to create and install it.” Schwarz’ creations invert this generalization. There is no “viewing,” in the sense of taking in a piece of art. Instead, coming into close range with Schwarz’ work feels uncomfortable and very confusing—more like a confrontation. Thankfully, that’s where Schwarz’ humor, however subtle, comes into play.