Inventive. Vulgar. Sardonic. Is Ludwig Schwarz really the most sensational artist in Dallas? Critic RICK BRETTELL has some thoughts
I remember the first time I saw an exhibition of the paintings of Ludwig Schwarz. It was in 1995 at one of the earliest exhibitions at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, a space that is now a fixture in Uptown. Then, it was new for Dallas, and most of us who went to the opening thought that the MAC’s brilliant founding program director, Victoria Corcoran Neal, must’ve brought a little-known artist from Berlin to Dallas. The works we saw were so fresh, so raw and in such delightfully bad taste that they felt utterly at home in Dallas — and for a reason. Schwarz was not born in Germany, but in Dallas in 1964. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Southern Methodist University. And in spite of periods of art training in Chicago and New York, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the School of Visual Arts, he has spent most of his life in his hometown. We all know that local heroes are usually unsung, but Schwarz’s career is a confounding combination of local fame in the arts community and complete anonymity in the larger Dallas world. And his work is about that very ambivalence — it is inventive, vulgar, deadpan, ironic and steeped in a heady mix of variously low visual cultures. Whether he evokes pit bulls, Dirk Nowitzki, Rent-A-Center, cheap beer or funky patterns from ’70s mass culture, he brings a high-wire sensibility to their juxtaposition — daring the work of art to be good as it revels in being bad.
A visit to Schwarz’s Exposition Park–area studio is to enter a world in which it is often difficult to tell the works of art from the detritus, until we begin to look carefully enough to notice the sly interventions the artist has made in the resolutely ordinary materials around him. (A broom with a segmented handle, for example.) Although he excels as both a sculptor and a maker of semi-useful objects that resemble what museums call Decorative Arts, he is most at home as a painter. A large series of pit-bull-head portraits fills one section of the studio, while a small cardboard box sits on the floor, filled to capacity with smaller paintings of similar dogs, each wrapped as if it was a precious object. Opposite is a row of larger square paintings propped against the wall and stacked on the floor. Each is resolutely different than the others; each challenges the viewer to think of what painting means today; each forges a new visual language with respect to the others. Their flat surfaces alone link them.
When I walk out the studio door through a smaller room filled wall-to-wall and floor-to- ceiling with stacked paintings, I am surer than ever that Ludwig Schwarz is a major artist. Indeed, he is quite possibly the most important painter who has lived in our city in the last generation — even though his most recent exhibition is devoted completely to sculpture. His art is the opposite of easy, but with work on our part, it teaches us about the visual, social and political world of the city in which we live. —Rick Brettell
The Oliver Francis Gallery is hosting the first retrospective of Schwarz’s work, “Ludwig Schwarz: Retrospective (1990 — 2014),” through April 5. 209 S. Peak St., Dallas, 817-879-8231; ofg.xxx