photographed by TERRY RICHARDSON
styled by MEL OTTENBERG
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
The madly detailed drawings of AUREL SCHMIDT bring together incredible technique and a world of trouble. After leaving Vancouver for make-it-or-break-it New York, the self-taught artist went from oblivion to showing her works at Deitch Projects and having them included in the Saatchi collection. She talks about the ride, the risks, and her very personal aesthetic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you feel like anger can be a useful emotion for an artist?
AUREL SCHMIDT — Well, we’re all a little angry. Maybe even a lot. I’m a very angry person. But I think that anger drives everything — sexuality, happiness, creativity. It’s a tool. It’s not like I want to get rid of my anger and be a happy person. But I’m not a happy person, you know? I don’t think there’s such a thing as happiness.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you know why you have this anger?
AUREL SCHMIDT — For many reasons, some probably stemming from my childhood. I mean, I fucking hate my father. But beyond that, the world kind of sucks. It’s not fair to be born into a world that’s not of your choosing — the way it looks, the way it functions.But you have to be a part of it. There’s something infuriating about that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you feel powerless to change things?
AUREL SCHMIDT — Yes, but it’s more complex, because people don’t know what they’d want to change. Marxist and Anarchist ideas are so old. People want to be happy and think things should be different, but they don’t always know what they’re fighting for. Fighting for power is still fighting for power, even if it’s fighting in another direction. But you can’t just be born into the world and then do nothing but fuck, make babies, eat food, and seek shelter. It can’t be that simple. You spend your life trying to take care of basic needs, but in a very complex way. There’s property and ownership and power. The system is so complex that basic needs aren’t met, and that’s frustrating. Not that those are the things I necessarily want, but if I did, it’d be nice to know that I could get them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did your becoming an artist stem from a search for beauty? Can people still believe in beauty?
AUREL SCHMIDT — I believe in beauty. I appreciate art that’s not beautiful, but I do need beauty. I try and find beauty in ugly things, in ugly emotions. I remember reading a psychology / evolutionary biology book that talked about fucking and that it isn’t perfection that’s sexy, it’s the ugly part that is. Ugliness can make you laugh; it can be attractive. Things that are angry or disgusting can prompt you to care about life. Finding beauty in ugly things. Your negative emotions can keep you going.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you consider your work to be, sculpture?
AUREL SCHMIDT — I’m doing drawings right now, although I consider them more like paintings. I layer things, like you layer paint. It creates an idea that’s not so simple. It’s more like expressionism, a type of process art.
Black silk jumpsuit STELLA MCCARTNEY
OLIVIER ZAHM — A lot of your works are self-portraits.
AUREL SCHMIDT — They all are. But they’re about everything, really. I hope they say something to everyone who sees them, whether people see them as a positive or negative thing, or if they remind them of something they feel guilty about. Or they’re just funny. I want to make people feel something. But all my pieces have me in them. I’ve never made anything totally separate from myself. I’m like everyone: half the time I hate myself and half the time I love myself. I can’t stand it and I love it. It’s beautiful and it’s ugly. Those are the highs and the lows of living a life in the world, you know?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you strive to distance yourself from the viewer or to communicate directly?
AUREL SCHMIDT — I strive for intimacy. I’m a people person. I like the world. I like the viewer. I like making art objects that are seen by people and I hope they’ll feel something from them. I hope to draw people into something in which they’ll see something of themselves. I don’t want to keep people at bay. I want them to experience the beauty, to share something with me, a common experience of the world. An amount of my work deals with taboo subjects like drugs, sex, dirty secrets — things that a lot of people have in their lives. I want them to find something funny, or embarrassing, or silly. I want to bring people in, not push them away.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So a viewer needs a certain sense of humor.
AUREL SCHMIDT — Yeah. If the viewer is at all like me, I think they’ll like it. You can’t touch everybody, but even if people hate my work, that’s something. I just hope to have some kind of communication with the viewer. A sense of humor might make them see it the way I see it. A blog reviewer of my last show said, “I don’t get it. What’s she saying? It’s pointless. Is she mad at something?” That was the gist of it. But I’m not mad at anything. I’m not saying the things I draw are bad. I have anger, but I’m not angry, you know? I’m full of anger, but I’m not mad. Does that make sense?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, because I know you like to play, to go out, to dance.
AUREL SCHMIDT — I like to play. I like people. Anger is an underlying driving force, like a passion. Anger can keep you going. I came to New York from a small city. I couldn’t have done that if I just wanted to have fun.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What made you leave Canada for New York?
AUREL SCHMIDT — I was driven out of my hometown because I was a little slut. I really was. Everyone hated me. Not because I was a bad person. I was 17. I partied a lot, drank a lot, and was hooking up with other girls’ boyfriends. I’d make out with someone, not really caring what people thought, to the point where I wasn’t accountable for anyone else’s emotions other than my own. It was like my playground and in the end their attitude was “Fuck you. Leave!” I no longer talk to anyone I grew up with because of that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So the boys wanted you and the girls were jealous?
AUREL SCHMIDT — Yeah, but when boys know that other boys want you they hate you for it. I used to write graffiti, just characters and stuff, and before I left town someone wrote “slut” across one of them. [Laughs] Very small town stuff.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A girl going from man to man?
AUREL SCHMIDT — I used to be like that. As soon as I knew I could get something from sex or from sexuality I started dressing sluttishly — high heels, bikini tops and short-shorts, fur coats with halter-tops. I got kicked out of school because of my clothes. Really sleazy, trashy, small town. [Laughs] Because I could get attention from doing it. But I was really interested in it. At the same time I was reading feminist literature about the empowerment of women and I got really mixed-up, like, “I’m empowered, I’m empowered!” Playing around with sex and sexuality was fun and interesting.But I’m a very liberal person. I’m very open. I don’t think a lot of things are bad, you know? Other people don’t feel that way.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Sexuality can be a weapon for a woman.
AUREL SCHMIDT — Yeah, something to use to your advantage. But then people can think you’re a witch if you do. Burn you at the stake!
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s getting worse. There’s no freedom to play with sexuality. It’s taboo. Dangerous. Terrorism, even.
AUREL SCHMIDT — When you read about the ’60s, ’70s, or even the ’90s, it seems like monogamy wasn’t cool. It wasn’t cool to tell someone they couldn’t fuck whoever they wanted to. Which isn’t necessarily the best thing to do, but now I feel like it’s super-conservative, that young people are going back to the way it was and monogamy is the way to go — and that you’re a slut if you don’t feel that way.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your generation does seem to be very conservative.
AUREL SCHMIDT — Yeah. My boyfriend is 19 and he’s unbelievably conservative. He thinks it’s evil when women hold hands with someone or kiss someone in a bar. He doesn’t like it when I kiss my friends on the lips. Like, “You’re in a relationship now. You’re my girlfriend. You can’t do that.” And I’m like, “You’re 19! What are you talking about? Are you so experienced?” But it’s not just him. A lot of young people are conservative and have traditional values.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do young people become more conservative than their parents?
AUREL SCHMIDT — I don’t know. It’s very strange. Maybe having a conservative government for so long had an effect on young people. They were tricked into believing in it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The Bush Generation?
AUREL SCHMIDT — Maybe. Young kids now are like, “Fight for what you believe in! Integrity! Honor!” It’s not about live and let live, it’s, “That guy’s wrong! That guy’s gross! That guy’s evil! That guy’s a coke-head!” I didn’t think being judgmental was something to strive for. I see a lot of that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Hopefully you don’t see Terry [Richardson] and me as typical ’90s types.
AUREL SCHMIDT — Isn’t Terry’s monogamous? He’s a good boy. He seems pretty straight-laced to me. But I don’t know about you!
OLIVIER ZAHM — We tried to rid Terry of his repetitive addictions.
AUREL SCHMIDT — He told me he was trying to stop eating so much ice cream. Like that was his greatest vice!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you move straight to New York after you left Canada?
AUREL SCHMIDT — I ran away from my hometown after high school. I did a few crazy things, and then I moved to Vancouver. I feel like I formed myself as a person in Vancouver. It has a very strong artistic community. Really young people — 18-to-25-year-olds — live in the same buildings, share bathrooms, do everything together — go to the park or the beach together. I lived in a building called Bad Manor. [Laughs] My friend Tim Barber, who lives here now, told me a room was available. I lived there on and off maybe four different times. I’d move out, and move back in. But it was a very liberal community. It wasn’t about formal art or money. It was nice, you know. We had our own style, we read, we talked about books. It was kind of Utopian. But eventually I got sick of it. It was soft andI wanted something harder. So I moved to New York, by myself. I didn’t know anyone. I thought, “Fuck it, I’m just going to move.” I had one suitcase. I found a shared place in Bed-Sty. I asked everyone I met, “Got a job?!” I worked seven days a week at these jobs, all under the table because I’m Canadian. I ended up as an artist’s assistant at the Deitch Projects. That’s where I met Kathy Grayson and I got my work into some group shows, like one that Tim Barber did. In my first group show, at the Spencer Brownstone Gallery, I sold two pieces to a really great Greek collector named Dakis Joannou. That was really the starting point. People starting expressing interest in my work. And since then it’s kind of history. Kind of amazing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s your latest work like?
AUREL SCHMIDT — The last piece I did, for the Miami Art Fair, was kind of an angry piece about someone I know personally. But we patched things up, so I turned it into another thing. It’s got a huge face with burnt-out eyes, burnt-out nose, and a mouth that’s all flies and maggots, and it says, “It’s over.” There’s money over the eyes and tears coming out of them, but the mouth is smiling. There’s a necklace that could have “True Love” written on it, a wedding ring, car keys. It’s a cliché, but it’s for the art fair. I do consider the audience. It’s part of my wanting to draw people in. I might not make a piece that’s specifically about the recession, for example, but I might do one about people’s dreams coming to an end. Like, “Oh, I thought I had a house, a car, a girlfriend — and now it’s all gone! It’s over! My dream’s over!” Kind of like things you rely on not even being real in the first place. But for the art fair the piece was perfect. It’s such a slimy, funny mall. It’s a funny negative piece for the mall, basically.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you actually burned the paper you drew this piece on?
AUREL SCHMIDT — Yeah, I cut out the eyes first and then I burned it all. Then I drew on it with pencils and crayons. And I painted on it and put beer on it. I use beer a lot now. It leaves such nice stains. I drink beer, so it’s always around. It’s a great natural material. So there’s lots of beer coming out of the eyes, dripping down the face. I use wine, Pepto-Bismol, ammonium, urine, my menstrual blood. A lot of people do it so seriously, like, “This is my cum! This is my blood! This is serious!” But I just think it’s funny, like, “Hey! Boy, isn’t this funny?!” — because it’s so gross. It’s on-hand! It’s not meant to be taken so seriously. I save my menstrual blood. I put it in bottles.
OLIVIER ZAHM — No way!
AUREL SCHMIDT — Yeah. Blood is so cool to work with and I did a piece I needed tons of blood for. Each month there’s a little less than half a bottle of beer. It’s a little bit witchy, I guess, but it’s so practical. I’m not going to cut myself and bleed — I try not to be too romantic about it. Your period is just a practical way to get blood. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re not self-destructive, then? Cutting yourself, and so on?
AUREL SCHMIDT — No, I’m more self-destructive in my relationships. But I like life. I really do. I’m moody — up and down — and when I’m down and angry I may be a little self-destructive. But a lot of my work deals with the body. I did a piece with something like vagina eyes, and I did drawings of my vagina. It’s not meant to be feminist — like “The Sad Vagina” or “The Empowered Woman” — it’s just a vagina. Or a dick. I’ll take a photograph of my boyfriend’s dick and double it. I’ve been using porn a bit lately, too. You can get incredible dicks in porn. I try to draw as realistically as possible, without being obsessive about it. If I can get good porn images off the Internet, I’ll use them.
It’s just practical. I don’t care if it’s some vintage catalog. If I can Google it, great. If not, I’ll take the photo myself. The simplest way to do things is often the most pure way.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I like how confident you are about your art. You don’t seem to question yourself too much.
AUREL SCHMIDT — Well, I think the fact that I didn’t go to art school has a lot to do with it. You’re critiqued a lot at art school — like, “Why are you making this?!” I could question myself, like, “Why am I doing this? Why make a drawing? What does it all mean?” But I find that if I can just find a little idea to start with, the final idea will be more complex and interesting. Rather than trying to make sure the idea was perfect to begin with. The surprises and mistakes — and just putting yourself into it — end up being more interesting. In Vancouver there are these very strict conceptual photographers, like Rodney Graham, Jeff Wall, and Roy Arden. They’re all much older than me. When they make a work, it’s almost like a history project — like, “Let’s look at history, let’s look at Greek mythology. Let’s make a statement about something and have our image reflect our concept.” The work becomes secondary to the idea. But when you’re young and seeing people doing that, it’s almost like, “Fuck you, I want to do it differently.” But those people probably don’t think my work is that good. Like, “Oh, that kind of work. It’s not smart. It’s just like painting.” But the simplicity of using my own body parts or the things that are lying around my bedroom, and redrawing them, is for me very interesting.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You like using little objects that you find, like cigarette butts, don’t you?
AUREL SCHMIDT — Yeah, things left in your pockets after a night in a bar. Cigarette butts are beautiful. They have a lot of detail, like really intricate writing. I use cigarettes a lot, almost like I’d use the color yellow — as a tool. But a cigarette is like a small death — people know it gives you cancer and they shouldn’t smoke, but they still do. It’s a slight indulgence. It’s like the Dutch still-life paintings that have all these objects — like a plate of food that’s been eaten, a watch to show that your life will end at a certain point, a skull, which is an obvious symbol, and a bubble to show that life will end. A cigarette butt is also an obvious symbol of life and death. It starts out whole and then ends up discarded. It’s a ritualistic thing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are there people in the New York art community who you relate to? Do you feel part of a group?
AUREL SCHMIDT — I’m still working that out. Like Dash Snow is about a year older than I am. And even though it’s not about age, I feel like he and Dan Colen and their group belong to a slightly older generation than I do. There’s not much difference, but enough of one that when I moved here, and was still working in bars, they were already successful and showing their work. They’ve been a big influence.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you like your style?
AUREL SCHMIDT — Yeah, I do. It’s kind of nerdy-trashy. But it changes according to my mood.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you’re sexy at the same time.
AUREL SCHMIDT — Well, since I hit puberty I’ve been interested in playing around with what people think is sexy. But I like the idea of not being traditionally good looking — I don’t shave my armpits, for instance — and I like taking things that are kind of gross and making them sexy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s a serious challenge.
AUREL SCHMIDT — Well, it’s not for everybody. The pictures from the shoot turned out just the way I wanted them to — dramatic, funny, campy. Like the way John Waters is, you know? His films are stylized and the people in them are sexy and trashy and gorgeous and disgusting. It’s a theatrical version of fashion, of sexuality. There are layers of interest.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your boyfriend is very young.
AUREL SCHMIDT — I like all kinds of people. [Laughs] I’ve dated old people, young people, beautiful people, ugly people…
OLIVIER ZAHM — You don’t want to date a rich art dealer?
AUREL SCHMIDT — A rich art dealer?! What’s the point of dating a rich art dealer if you’re an artist? The great thing about being an artist, being self-employed and independent, is that you can do what you want. I’m not dating my boyfriend because he’s young; it’s because he’s cool. He’s beautiful. He’s an artist. He goes to Cooper Union. We fight a lot. We talk a lot about art. There’s fire. There’s anger. It’s interesting, you know? Different.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you interested in film?
AUREL SCHMIDT — Yes, I’d love to make short films. Maybe not full-length movies, but something like Kenneth Anger’s videos — short but powerful, filled with collages of images and feelings. I’d like to do sculpture, drawing, and video. And maybe painting — but that’s a big tradition to step into. I still want to do everything. I’m just starting, you know? I mean, I’ve been making art since I was a little kid, but the kind of art I’m doing now — getting my concept straight and really knowing what I want to do — only happened in the last two years. It’s like you make art your whole life, but there’s a moment when you find the key to the lock and you can open the door and know that that’s it, you’ve found it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s been really fun to interview you, Aurel. Thank you so much.
AUREL SCHMIDT — Thank you. You’re a great interviewer — not everyone gives you beer and cigarettes!
Seth Goldfarb and David Swanson, photographer’s assistants — Charles Manning, Marcus Chang and Richard Aybar, stylist’s assistants
Cigarettes, beer cans, donuts and tampons accessories all made by Mel Ottenberg and Aurel Schmidt
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