Meet the Artist

Bastienne Schmidt

Bastienne Schmidt

In her new exhibition at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in Chelsea, Bastienne Schmidt is showing 30 works on paper based on images of ancient Greek vases. The artist, who was born in Germany, spent her formative years in Greece and Italy—countries that heavily inform her work. For the past 11 years she has lived in the Hamptons with her husband and two sons, using the landscape of Eastern Long Island as a background for her acclaimed photographs. Shooting in color, she poses as her own model to create images that explore questions of womanhood, female identity, and domesticity. Schmidt has published four books, and her work is part of important public collections here and abroad.

Artspace curator Nessia Pope spoke to the artist about her new show, her formative years growing up on archeological digs, and how the Hamptons are kind of like Greece if you look at it in the right way.

You work in many mediums, from photography and print making to drawing and painting. What are you showing at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery?

I will be showing a series of works on paper series entitled Silhouette Vessels. It's a series that I have been working on for the past two years that is in part inspired by my dad being an archeologist and growing up in Greece, and on the other hand by my continuing fascination with the idea of silhouettes—their distinct compression of shape and form and the clarity of their visual edge and separations of spaces.

What kind of drawings are they? I know you use paint on paper, which is a non-traditional approach to the medium.

In a certain sense they are not drawings—they are painted spaces on paper. It's about expansions and recessions of spaces manifesting themselves in a humble household object, like a vessel. I work with polymer paint, but also with espresso coffee and pigments. It's the process of wet-on-wet painting that allows me to create these bleeding-out interior surfaces that are subtle but emotional.

It seems to me that Greece also influenced your palette.

Absolutely. There is always a color tonality that plays into the blues I'm using. I spent three months each year on a Greek island where my father was working, and I was always seeing that blue in the horizon line of the water and the sky every moment of the day. Just being there and also watching my father work was a deep influence on my own work. My father would go over many boxes filled with Cypriot terra cotta pieces, and I clearly remember the shapes of the fragmented vessels and their earth tonalities. It's only years later that I realize the extent of the influence it had on my work. A lot of my work deals with typologies, and this comes straight from watching my father lining up fragmented pieces. I think the way I work is like an archeologist, an anthropologist, and an archivist with a subjective and emotional tonality. First I find the themes that I want to work with—and these themes are usually guided by personal experiences—but then I try to place them in a bigger context.

My father died when I was 25, and that also influenced my work deeply—the idea of death, memory and loss. After my father's death I moved to America to become an artist and to make my mark in New York, but also to follow his footsteps. Although he was German, he was born in New York and had lived there for 10 years. In 1988 I got an artist's grant to work in Peru, and that's were I began to photograph death rituals in Latin America over the next five years. It was a difficult but also an incredibly enriching time. The work that I brought back with me was shown in a solo show at the International Center of Photography and became my first photographic book, Vivir la Muerte.

The world thinks of Latin America as a happy, fiesta-oriented place, but, being a Latin American myself, I know it can be dark and very sad.

After having lived first in Germany and then in Greece, I became very much aware of so-called emotionally warm countries like Greece or Mexico or Brazil and emotionally cooler countries such as Germany. That's of course a general stereotype, but there is some truth to it. Witnessing grieving rituals in Latin America or in the Unites States or Germany, there is totally different way to show your emotions-in normal life situations as well as in situations of grief. Working with rituals of death in America and in Latin America, I often felt that there was this underlying sense [in the U.S.] that one is supposed to get over their emotions and not show them too much, while in Latin America there was at times a much harsher social reality but also a much greater willingness to embrace death.

The silhouette is a Victorian idea, and it was also used in American folk art of the last century. It's associated with women's crafts, and it carries a strong symbology—it's emotionally charged. I love the way you use it, where it can also have feminist connotations. Can you tell me how it functions in your work?

It's true that silhouettes were used in a lot of different art forms. My influence comes on one hand from early Greek amphoras that had geometric patterns and human silhouettes on them. On the other hand I love Nancy Spero's work, and of course Kara Walker's, where the female silhouette is used to underline something very specific in a political context. It's also true that I love the combination of having a bit of a conceptual underpinning but one that has its own emotionality. A vessel is something so ordinary, especially in women's work, but if you look closely the complexity is in the details, as in the changing color overlaps. In my previous series, Typology of Women, I used bright painted paper with little women drawings on them. In this series the women transformed themselves into different models from the Venus de Milo to the sexpot to Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz.

So all of the historical references become your own personal history. How do you translate these emotions into photography?

For me, photography was always an extension to document what was around me and to see the larger context in it. Usually my photographic projects take a long time—four to five years-and they culminate in a book. There is an emotionality and mystery in my photographs, where there is a layering of meanings. In the last series, Home Stills, I place myself in the pictures, but it's not about me specifically—I become the stand-in for an everywomen, moving in and out of these different people's lives.

Saying you stand for an "everywomen" sounds like a feminist statement, which brings me back to the silhouette form and what it could imply. Do you consider yourself a women's voice?

I do consider myself to have a feminist voice. I think we need more women in our society to speak up again. I don't think it's very fashionable anymore, because we are supposed to have resolved women's disadvantages in society. But if you look at the political dialogue right now there is always a women's theme popping up, and I am still shocked sometimes by the conservative interpretation of what a woman's life is supposed to be. The silhouette form is another way of reminding ourselves and of giving woman a voice.

Drawing is such an intimate activity. How do you navigate so easily from one medium to the other? Do you work on different things in different spaces? When you are in Greece, for instance, do you draw more?

In the winter I draw and paint more, and in the summer I photograph more. That seems the rhythm right now. I usually go through periods where I do one much more than the other. I don't see the mediums themselves as being so different. There might be different technical aspects to it, but what interests me is the implicit message, and that can be a cut-out silhouette or a photograph of myself in landscape.

Please tell us a bit about your work in canvas.

My paintings are really an extension of my works on paper. I work on paintings side by side with my drawings and use the same materials. I use a backdrop on my paintings that's very often patterned fabric, and lots of layering of tracing paper on which I paint and draw. Again, for me the meaning comes though this reverse archeological process. Instead of taking off layer after layer, I add layer upon layer until it looks right to me. The density of a surface where the meaning of previous layers seeps through is an exciting thing for me.

Where do you live now? I hope it's in a place that reminds you of Greek light and color.

We have been living as a family in Bridgehampton for the past 11 years. My husband, Philippe Cheng, is also an artist. The light and sky out in the Hamptons does remind me of Greece—there is definitely the same search for the horizon line.


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