Small, visibly handmade sculptures comprising crafty materials—polymer clay, store-bought felt, fake pearls—are having a moment: see works by emerging artists like Em Kettner, Sean-Kierre Lyons, and Jenine Marsh. This past year, many artists were working in their bedrooms instead of their studios, and some told me this brought them back to more childlike materials and methods. Mindy Rose Schwartz, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is something of the progenitor, having made work in this vein since at least the 1990s.
Before I arrived at Schwartz’s Interstate Projects exhibition—the final show at the nonprofit space, a fixture of Brooklyn’s art scene since 2011—I made peace with the fact that her 2017 solo at Queer Thoughts, also in New York, couldn’t be topped. There, in the central ceramic fountain sculpture, Plucked: The Fountain (2017), a daisy splayed on a rock like a dying fish. Schwartz carved a face into the flower’s yellow center, and its rounded mouth spit out water a toxic shade of green. Cheap gold chains with crystal pendants, now Schwartz’s signature accessory, dangled above the fountain. The artist neither altered nor disguised them, celebrating, as she often does, their pageantry. But she lit them so that they glistened gorgeously. Four years on, even in photos, this work still makes me giddy.
Mindy Rose Schwartz: In the Balance, 2005, foam, resin, paint, and wood, 60 by 48 by 36 inches.
Courtesy the artist
In Interstate Projects’ courtyard, Schwartz installed In the Balance (2005), a large sculpture of an opalescent egg in a nest atop two silvery faux rocks. Finding the glowing egg hidden in Bushwick was like winning a game I didn’t know I’d been playing. Inside, six 4-foot-tall incense cones were meant to evoke scents and memories of head shops past. Above the cones dangled Charm, Star Shine, and Pearl (all 2021)—assemblages of spindly, glimmering twigs adorned with golden spiderwebs made of metallic lamé cord commonly used in crafts like macramé. At times, the twisted twigs outlined eyeball shapes with golden, meshy irises and little mirrored pupils. The same kind of necklaces Schwartz used in 2017 dangled too, yet here they were so firmly part of the artist’s total vision—playing off her gold cord and twinkling in light that slowly shifted from purple to blue to white—that it took me a moment to recognize them. Schwartz’s maturing ability to divorce objects from their intended use without actually altering them reminds me of the way a cat might recognize something like a window box for flowers as a comfortable bed, brilliantly oblivious to its function and thinking only of its form. For this show, she brought together so many different materials that I momentarily forgot how chintzy they all were—that is, until I noticed the dainty fake flowers sprouting from a couple of the branches.
Schwartz’s engagement with kitsch reads as earnest, not ironic. She doesn’t self-righteously position herself as more educated or critical than a middle-class crafty housewife, even though she certainly is. Her works aren’t tchotchkes with a twist, nor are her techniques “elevated.” Her press releases and rare interviews contain none of the grand statements about gender or class that often appear when artists take up crafts. Instead, she revisits the skills she learned growing up in the ’60s and ’70s: the twig sculptures, for example, look like more ornate versions of God’s eyes, those string-wrapped sticks kids make at summer camp. It’s usually more apt, therefore, to describe what her work evokes rather than what it is “about.” In Interstate Projects’ basement, under soft spotlights and surrounded by small figurative sculptures made of bronze and costume jewelry, Schwartz displayed The Canary Music Box (2021), a small ceramic bird “singing” amid an arrangement of clay coal. I can’t say what Schwartz’s warning is exactly, but given her ability to see so much in the everyday, I’m inclined to proceed with caution.