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Christian Viveros-Faune, New York

March 2000

Catalog text for Schumann exhibition at Galerie Gebauer, Berlin April 2000

.32 Caliber Cowboy Hat:
The Art of Christian Schumann

Consider these sentences: They're laughing at you; Rats can be cultivated and encouraged to grow; .32 Caliber Cowboy Hat. Vaguely paranoid, highly keyed and nonsensical, these and a ream full of other weird lines are prominently featured in Christian Schumann's paintings. What in the world do they mean? By themselves, not a great deal. But trace them as Christian Schumann does in competing graphic styles, crowd them densely like florid graffiti, place them next to swirling cartoony phantasmagoria, and these eruptions of language acquire the oracular character of inspired dementia. Schumann's painted texts bring to mind some of the most bizarre and illuminating passages of Alice In Wonderland. Lewis Carrol begins his famous book with a pointed dedication: "There will be nonsense in it!" Ninety pages later, one of Carrol's sillier characters, the Mock Turtle, keenly ripostes "But it sounds uncommon nonsense." Uncommon, fantastically painted nonsense is indeed what Christian Schumann's art is all about. A sort of Hieronymous Bosch for the advertising-addled, internet-obsessed, media-saturated age, Schumann's ghoulish imagination snatches visual detritus from the crackling, information-charged air and recycles it into ambiguous allegories of what the savvy young painter terms "hopeless optimism." Where Bosch saw evil beings lurking around every corner prepared to exploit human folly, Schumann presents slobbering businessmen, flying houses, impossible gunboats, surly comic characters and an anatomically-precise rendition of a chicken's digestive tract‹just a small sampling of the vast oceans of data spewed forth daily. Primordial and futuristic at once, Schumann suggests, humans presently wallow in an especially toxic brand of informational mire. Appointing himself the visual raconteur of this chaotic era, Schumann works hard to get down the self-replicating, ubiquitous, all-over structure of 21st Century information glut. As much as Bosch's style was visionary and unparalleled in the Netherlandish tradition, so Schumann's candy-colored, hallucinatory canvases are intensely original in their portrayal of the universal condition of message overload. Schumann looks hard at everything. High and low rent, painting and street signage, pulp magazines and literary fiction. A sort of human threshing machine, Schumann sheaves painterly grain from merely informational grass by means of an intensely subjective filter. Hooked into the zeitgeist like very few other artists today, Schumann populates his multiply layered canvases with familiar stuff that turns particularly oddball depending on its unanticipated collocation. A coffee-colored, Chicano dude's face is painted above the words "Doom" done in headbanger's Gothic script; a composition made up of glass panes with bullet holes is mirrored by the appearance of a donut and a LifeSaver; a Chinese inspection sticker appears surprisingly among a snaggle of painted figures and ink and pencil squiggles. Firmly satirical, Schumann's rollicking, jam-packed canvases hold the eye like few other pictures can. Crammed from top to bottom with competing visual material, paintings like Cream Crime and Ting demand the sort of attention their macaronic titles understatedly turn away from. Recognizable images emerge, unexpectedly tweaked by their author towards the land of Scary Monsters and Superfreaks. Schumann's bizarre sense of humor emerges at every turn: in the images of two Asian girls, their hats emblazoned with the words "Ham" and "Eggs"; in the crabbed writing that makes of the word "grit" the accusatory "gritic"; in the cheesy depiction of a serenading musician who is the spitting image of a young Ronald Reagan. No less than William Burrough's "routines," Schumann's paintings hold up a distorting mirror to human folly, especially the folly built into the design and manufacture of control mechanisms (and especially the mechanisms used to control information). By incorporating street images and commercially-inspired figures and alternately using text as both abstract type and denotative writing, Schumann arrives at a phenomenon he calls "deep-fried hypodermic needles" Jarring, sweetly disturbing combinations of the verbal and the visual, Schumann's "injections" turn out also to be the uncommon basis for his flat-as-a-pancake, all-surface compositions. Dependent as much on fine-tuned collage and the painting's skin as anything Robert Rauschenberg has ever done, Schumann also routinely exposes the substantial underpainting incorporated into his canvases. Using a nifty painting trick that is vintage Schumann, the painter achieves a blistery decal effect, whose rips and tears reveal hidden colors, lines and figures, accumulated there like years of advertising posters slathered on a public wall. Add to this the artist's penchant for penning lists, copying the lyrics of entire songs or writing down passages of original prose on his paintings ("stately neurons gallantly misfire in a pixilated parade of gloss flash flashes," one piece of compact prose starts out), and you have a painter devoted to the idea of a painting as a scarified palimpsest, seeking out markings and erasures with an equal sense of value. Even canvases that use no text at all, like Globus, retain every bit of Schumann's graphic power. Their structure is as adventurous as a child's notebook, as balanced as a Poussin composition. About his experience with comic books, Schumann has said "I always wondered why more people didn't paint like that." The non-hierarchical, all-over format of comics speaks to him with particular urgency. Through it's suped-up reach into popular and high culture, Schumann reimagines and mutates an entire thronged world. Welcome to Schumann's universe of word and image salad. Step right up. Donąt forget to wear your ".32 Caliber Cowboy Hat."