Christoph Schmidberger

Michele Robecchi


Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, at the extreme west of an immense and uniform nation,

Los Angeles is a metropolis that dominates its surrounding reality by living off its contrasts. 

Lacking any true centre and shaped by the immeasurable distances which have facilitated its 

very modernity, while perennially cloaked under its mild and indefinite climate, this Californian 

city is also a sounding board that is ready to reflect any state of mind: the perfect mirror of 

that gigantism and colourful enthusiasm around which a large portion of American culture 

rotates. Having always nurtured an intense artistic scene, over the years it has affirmed 

generations of artists whose formal attributes seem to trace a clear dividing line between 

those who have chosen to immerse themselves in that atmosphere and those who have done 

so by chance. Mike Kelley and Edward Ruscha, two of the most illustrious, established a 

relationship of open conflict with the architecture and society in which they grew up, exploring 

the contradictions and putting forward a wilfully exaggerated and distorted vision. Those who 

came to Los Angeles from a different reality, for example David Hockney or Jorge Pardo, took 

an equally critical position towards the city, without, however, giving up on paying homage to 

its aesthetics, venturing into a territory where endowing an image with a defined form seemed 

to be a necessity as well as a desire. 

Christoph Schmidberger seems to belong to this second category. The Austrian artist decided 

to make the west coast of the United States his home almost a decade ago. At first, his 

painting seems to be an instrument of social analysis. The figures that inhabit his canvases –

nearly always friends and acquaintances immortalized by the artist's camera – move within a 

series of domestic situations that are occasionally shot through with a vein of eroticism. 

Though the atmosphere leans towards the every-day, nevertheless, his protagonists give off 

such a sense of certainty and awareness of the cult of their own image that they would not be 

out of place on the set of an afternoon sitcom or on the pages of a J. Crew catalogue. Even at 

the brashest moments they convey a calculated and distant sensuality, as though the 

dimension in which they operate were able to protect them from the viewer. 

Because of the dominant position of cinema on the cultural scene in California, one might be 

tempted to write off these images as just one of the many pieces that go to make up the 

modern show-business world. Generation X, the prevailing age-group in Schmidberger's 

works, has had the dubious honour of inaugurating an age in which ordinary people have had 

the opportunity to explore the mechanisms of popularity through continuous public exploration 

of their own image. Even if narcissism and success are undeniable components of this 

process, to conclude one's reading at this point would be tantamount to falling into a trap. 

Indeed, Schmidberger is a master of the red herring. His reluctance to offer explanations is 

quite understandable – painting, after all, is a matter of interpretation, especially when dealing 

with an immediately decipherable language like figurative painting. However, close 

observation of his work, which is what this strategy implicitly calls for, brings out an 

ambiguity, the visibility of which is directly proportional to its strength. He often interrupts 

the realism in his paintings with carefully placed abstractions and sudden chromatic 

exaggerations; the casual nature of the situations portrayed is in fact the result of carefully 

studied composition; the meteorological heat is offset by ice-cold execution; the presumed 

intimacy of the scene is undermined by a deliberately impersonal style. The whole is 

accompanied by titles that are as evocative as they are misleading, flaunting an importance 

that smacks of sarcasm. Wars and Rumors of War (2010), for example, portrays a couple, of 

unusually advanced age for this artist, busy dealing with the vegetation in a garden. In a 

game that recalls Edouard Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1882), the man looks at the 

woman, who in turn looks at us. It is a reassuring family situation, but the man's glance, 

which is furtive, being seen by the spectator but not by the object of his attention, creates a 

palpable state of tension. The title has a rather broad spectrum, and though by citing war it is 

quite distant from the soporific scene to which it has been attached, it does refer to the 

difference between reality and the documentation of the same, giving a lateral though 

extremely significant contribution. I Believe (2010) depicts a woman clasping a diary in her 

hand and sitting beside a cabinet on which there is a photograph. Once again, the intimacy of 

the scene is broken by her looking out at the spectator; her smile is disarming, and completely 

wipes out any sensation of having intruded into a private moment. Instead, You No Longer 

Know Who I Am (2010) is the emblematic title of a painting showing a solitary man floating in 

a swimming pool. His body is abandoned limp in the water, showing how a dismal state of 

affairs can be conveyed by his presence even in an oasis of pleasure. This contact with water 

takes on the form of an escape, a temporary union with one of nature's fundamental 

elements, where the individual's identity is wiped out to the point of becoming unrecognisable 

even to those who should know him well. To a certain extent a title like You No Longer Know 

Who I Am provides a good synthesis of Schmidberger's intentions and his reticence about 

providing explanations to accompany the images he has created. On careful consideration, it 

is not really important who these people are nor why they do what they do; the technique with 

which they are depicted is so clear and clean, so rhythmically regular that even a hint of extra 

information could have serious consequences, causing that skilfully designed and well thought 

out equilibrium, with its deliberately immediate appearance, to come crashing down. This line 

of reasoning has an abundance of precedents in the history of art. Even two giants like 

Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol have repeatedly expressed indifference towards their 

subjects, even when they were recently deceased celebrities or relations who had enlisted in 

the army; they insistently touched on sinister or obsessive aspects of the culture they were 

dealing with. Figurative painting, especially when it is linked to a photographic matrix, needs 

to operate such a distinction. This is the ingredient that makes the enjoyment of a painting an 

indefinite experience, when compared to a photograph. 

Further proof of this concept is provided by Schmidberger's drawings, though dealing with the 

same themes as his paintings, these enjoy full autonomy and stand out for their skilful use of 

black and white. Again, the temptation to think of Hollywood is strong. During the mid-

eighties, on a wave of technical euphoria, a tendency to recolour the old Hollywood classics 

took hold, fortunately it was short-lived. In what might be defined as a rescue operation, 

Schmidberger's drawings disassociate themselves from the bright colours of his paintings and 

revive the iconography of a grand old age, recalling how the charm of those classics lay 

particularly in their complete mastery of monochrome. 

It is, of course, difficult to establish whether this tribute is intentional or consequential, in 

either case it is a rare concession to the past from an artist for whom the present is a 

speciality. It will be interesting is to see exactly how Schmidberger's work stands the test of 

time. In the seventies, Franz Gertsch's huge canvases were often interpreted as a mere 

exercise in style, influenced by the American Hyperrealism of Chuck Close and Richard Estes. 

It was only years later that we able to truly appreciate Gertsch's intentions for what they 

really were: a celebration of the Blow Up, the explosion of colour in cinema and European 

Hippy culture. It is dangerous to make predictions in art, however the idea that in thirty years 

or so the young, uninhibited and exhibitionist universe depicted by Schmidberger may be seen 

as a portrait of the inconsistencies that marked the first decade of the third millennium, is 

something more than a suspicion.