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A Foreign Land: the Urban Landscapes of Ana Schmidt

Ana Schmidt, Eroded Territory, 165 x 145 cm, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Ana Schmidt is an international artist and urban planning architect currently living and working in Bilbao, Spain.

She is born in Bochum, Germany and together with her family she moved in Asia, living in Vietnam and Thailand before her sixth birthday.

From a sweeping birds-eye view, hazy streams of smog billow from an urban center. At human height, we see graffiti’ed, dilapidated walls, urban rubble and structural poles. From what seems like a focused crouch, we view plastic debris, weeds, and detritus. These industrial environments are distinctly “non-places,” symbolic of both human presence and passage. And yet, as the focus of Ana Schmidt’s painstaking artistic practice, they take on a metaphorical significance, as the ironic foil of lush traditional landscape painting.

Dead End, 164 x 116 cm, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Schmidt’s deep level of attention paid to her subjects, as well as the laborious planning process, only serves to strengthen the paradoxes of mental landscapes and urban progress at play. The artist seeks full immersion in her chosen environs, physically exploring areas on the outskirts of major cities until a particular panorama catches her eye. She searches for graffiti-tags, rubbish, places where young people may have had their first drink, wastelands around motorways where nature emerges from crumbling pavement.

Ofelia, 73 x 54 cm, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Schmidt takes copious notes and composes plein air studies, in addition to forming a bank of reference photographs. Perspective is of momentous significance in her works, and so Schmidt takes multiple visits to a place, with varied atmospheric conditions and at different hours, before establishing a definitive point of view. Through them, she identifies how shapes of the landscape interrelate with their shadows and interact with varied light, and which colors ultimately resonate strongest as core anchors in the composition. Each chosen place produces two clear impressions: the first comes through the physical act of taking photos or making sketches, while the second emerges from viewing the copies and sketches in retrospect.

“Both stages are very exciting,” Schmidt tells NY-ArtNews. “I never cease to be amazed at the appearance of details, angles, shadows… That is what allows me to continue painting: the emotion.”

Traces on the Territory, 195 x 165 cm, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Back in the studio, Schmidt deliberates meticulously on her field references, studying the relationships between focal points and the scene’s cool and warm hues for selecting a final palette. Atmosphere and light are the predominant focus. Interestingly, she uses an extremely limited palette of only eight colors. She builds primarily through three desaturated values, noting the aesthetic effects of certain groupings of light and dark. Schmidt finds that working with a limited palette imbues her rather complex compositions with greater color harmony, and allows adjacent higher chroma colors to pop off of the canvas.

As with her subject matter, she sometimes colors with exact accuracy to life, while other times she finds that layering color creates beautiful nuances that cannot be achieved any other way. Regardless of local color, through a profound understanding of temperature, Schmidt achieves convincingly life-like environments by balancing cool and warm shadows.

Fences and Barriers, 73 x 60 cm, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

That being said, every visual minutia of a scene is unquestionably an area of interest in the eyes of Schmidt. During the painting process, she focuses with incredible concentration on nearly every detail of the pictorial environment.

“The more details a painter includes allows the viewer more time to spend with a painting and examine its depth,” Schmidt comments. “I think that with detail paintings acquire a special depth, they allow a slow and meditative process of enjoyment. This slowness is in direct contrast with the terrific cascade of imagery that characterizes our digital world.”

Out of Order, 84 x 112 cm, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Schmidt refers to her subjects as “dirty landscapes”: fringe places that have long outlived their original purpose. They are the rather unappealing and abandoned shells of their original function, which would otherwise never be considered proper subjects for art. Schmidt welcomes, even celebrates, decay and rubbish for their metaphorical representations of emotions and thoughts.

This is not Graffiti II, 120 x 180 cm, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

She explores figures in her paintings, but through absence and isolation. “I am not interested in flesh.” She states. “I am interested in the figure's presence, as walls, graffiti, trees, bridges, buildings… Human activity is always present by the things they leave.” Devoid of human life, a weed or a piece of graffiti in Schmidt’s paintings instead takes on presence and personality, within the larger city: an allegory for the human mind. The razor-sharp reflections in Dead End seem to harken to another second reality. Weeds creeping across the canvas of Bad Seeds take on the heroic force of nature’s reclamation of her ground. Schmidt’s narratives pull from the great figurative painters such as Titian or Velazquez, bathed in pagan myth and exploring the potential for portraiture and landscape to relay conceptual explorations. Schmidt believes that landscape painting offers unique possibilities to explore the unsayable: the issues of pagan myths, like mortality, beauty, solitude, and ephemerality.

Bad Seeds, 162 x 114 cm, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Though Schmidt’s art practice is grounded in realistic detailed representation, she is far more interested in the abstracted, allegorical significance of her spaces rather than their literal accuracy. She often fabricates her painted scenes with changed embellishments, layering her own personal interpretation of the space while blurring the lines between reality and imagined mental landscapes. The resulting subjects are meditations on place, location-based memory, and modern life, subverting the logic of man-made space. The observer must be complicit in the transgressions of time and space over their view, sitting passively with the silence of an abandoned metropolis landscape, bereft of its intended audience and constructed purpose. When we confront this emptiness, what does it say to us?

City Shards, 195 x 112 cm, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Ironically, Schmidt has had to say goodbye to many of the subjects of her paintings in recent years. These industrial areas, older than the artist herself, have grown tired, decayed, and eventually disappeared; just like the people they were built for. Yet the ephemeral nature of these landscapes are precisely what drives Schmidt to capture them. As if they were human beings, Schmidt recognizes the poetic journeys and honest presences of urban semblances of space.

This is not Graffiti I, 189 x 189 cm, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist

Find more of Ana Schmidt’s work at her website.

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