Though lately it may seem as if art's lost its polemical edge - as if there were no more compelling issues or revolutionary chapters, only strategic maneuvers - signs abound of a new kind of work well versed in the methods of institutional critique, informed by sociopolitical themes, yet reveling in its "objecthood." Flaunting its savvy, it dramatizes previous esthetic and social polemics in elaborately staged narratives infused with romance, mystery, and perversion. Shuttling between yesteryear's frisson and the limbo of the present, this hybrid sensibility constitutes the "retro-Romantic."
The path toward this new frontier has been charted by artists such as Matthew Barney, whose work engages us by exploiting our fascination with uncanny creatures and their uncontrollable libidos, and Andrea Zittel, who encourages us to project ourselves into unsettlingly regimented domestic environments reminiscent of '50s behaviorist experiments. The tactical raiding of pop-cultural history, the interest in fictional narratives laced with romantic drama, and the implication of the viewer in the work through formal and expressive means are, however, not limited to the youngest generation, but also inform the work of artists once collected under the rubric of post-Modern rationalism. Take, for example, Cindy Sherman's posthuman cyborgs; Jenny Holzer's eerie high-tech sculptures and Gothic fictions; Robert Gober's fantastical forest dotted with ghoulish body parts; and Ronald Jones' cast of real-life characters grappling with death and desire in otherworldly settings. With "Dear Mr. Armstrong," 1995, her first New York solo show (at Janice Guy), Kathleen Schimert joins the burgeoning ranks of this new "movement."
Schooled in post-Modernism like many artists of her generation, Schimert learned from but did not necessarily identify with critique-laden and theory-rich art. Though she considers herself first and foremost a sculptor, her interest in the "maker's process," in transforming raw material into an expressive object, and in narrativity underwrite her epistolary adventures, film and video sequences, and diagrammatic drawings or storyboards, all of which address a number of intersecting themes: tragic love, gothic horror, and the larger-than-life heroes who populate the contemporary landscape. Engaged with the expressive and empathic potential of art but wary of the autobiographical, Schimert develops fictional narratives around such figures as Sir Lancelot, King Arthur, Guinevere, Ophelia, Neil Armstrong, and Dracula. The leading characters in her romances form a rogue's gallery of male superheroes and supervillains whose prowess and virility contrast with the languishing, highly emotional female characters with whom they correspond.
Included in "Dear Mr. Armstrong" were a series of letters and a group of "moon rocks," handwrought ceramic sculptures with undulating contours bathed in an iridescent glaze. As though enacting the tortured relationship between form and content, these sculptures emerge from a specific narrative, yet are not fully explicated by it. With their soft, liquid sheen and small scale, Schimert's moon rocks beg to be touched and possessed. As with all of her sculpture, which has the esthetic appeal of post-Minimalist work, these amorphous shapes echo Schimert's formalist statement that "the way a thing is made is the way it is," displacing content to the Zen plane of visual, spatial, and tactile immediacy.
The texts, which were displayed as typed pages or as wall drawings, are structurally and syntactically akin to Surrealist automatic writing and to Concrete poetry. Juxtapositions of discordant trains of thought, rambling sentences, fragmented references, and multilayered sections that look like printer's errors perfectly mirror the states of mind of the women who pen these missives. Confessional, sentimental, romantic, erotic, mystical, they represent the ravings of the female hysteric. …