When you look at a Victor Schmidt sculpture, "you don't immediately see what it is, but you feel it." That's the artist's own verdict on his work, but it could be a prescription for contemporary art. Even before Clive Bell declared, in 1914, that "the representative element in a work of art may or may not be harmful; always it is irrelevant," aesthetes considered being able to "see what it is" as subordinate to line, color and shape.
Irrelevant or not, contemporary art's fraught relationship with representation informs all the pieces on display in Hot, the new exhibit at Ovvio Arte, featuring recent work from seven artists who will have solo shows at Ovvio.
Ovvio is a workspace, gallery and performance venue founded last year by Veta Cicolello and her husband, Theo Antoniadis. The space made its unofficial debut as the site for The Rabbit magazine's release party in April of last year, and since then it has hosted plays and band performances as well as conventional exhibits. Cicolello and Antoniadis bought the Chestnut Street building after losing the lease on a smaller space, and they devoted three months to fixing up an open warehouse that had broken windows and a roof that let rain pour in.
The pair have been active in the Nashville art community since moving nine years ago from New York, where Cicolello had been working as the visual director for Macy's in Herald Square. She selects the artists whose work will be displayed at Ovvio, while her husband oversees the gallery's technical aspects. (Antoniadis, a musician, also does renovations and designs furniture.)
Cicolello explains that there's no aesthetic mission in her management of the space beyond "seeing work I like and respect...." Because "I'm not a gallerist, I'm an artist," she says, she understands the plight of artists, who often have to prove themselves extensively before being granted a solo show. She insists that such shows are "the best way to present their work properly in its entirety."
If that's the case, then Hot—which includes just two to four pieces from each artist—is a foretaste of events to come. Clifford Bailey's "Gideon" is an energetic fictional portrait of a silent film-era dandy with waxed black hair and unnervingly red nose and cheeks. Alysha Irisari Malo's small impressionist paintings of extracted teeth are amusingly gruesome. And Cicolello's own works include both earlier mixed-media collages and her recent, religiously themed work, such as a topless Mary Magdalene with café-con-leche skin.
Sohaila Zanjani's "xx" is a long vertical rectangle covered in blackened seaweed-green paint, on which orange-red blobs or arabesques are arranged in the same apparently random way. They look abstract, but observation reveals they're goldfish, painted with loving realism even if the energetic brushstrokes give the impression of paint applied almost by accident. Some are distinct, some hazy, as if submerged at a distance.
Schmidt's forged steel sculptures, reminiscent of Hans Arp and Henry Moore's modernist work, also demand a second look. Their bulbous shapes could be distorted or surreal bodies, while their comically precise names, like "Bayard (the Magic Horse)" and "Curbside Piece (Urban Lullabye)" seem to call for close interpretation. "Day of Rest" is comprised of three pieces: a sort of coat rack with a wide cylindrical base, and a shaft topped by two curved prongs. From them hang two mysterious accoutrements, an oblong bat and a sort of ovoid doughnut. Like Duchamp's sculptures, it presents spectators with the paradox of an intentionally useless invention.
Schmidt has an impressively cosmopolitan biography. A child of military parents, he was born in Germany, studied sculpture in Aix-en-Provence and Paris, worked in New York for years (he taught at Pratt and worked for the Iron Workers union), and moved from New York to Nashville (his wife's original home) in 2007. Nevertheless, he met Antoniadis and Cicolello for the prosaic reason that his studio neighbors theirs. He explains that he's usually working on five or six pieces at a time, at various stages of completion.
The pieces "sort of feed off each other," Schmidt says, so he's never really starting from scratch. Each sculpture begins with "idea, direction, a mass and a size," he explains, but he adds that "they are representative. Children have often looked at my work and recognized things immediately."
As for Cicolello, in latter years her paintings have depicted such figures as Pope Benedict. But she insists that the most important part of her process is the physical act of painting, whether an observer recognizes the subjects or not: "To me, the more recent work is still abstract."