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Trapped: The subjects of Robert Schwartz's paintings often find themselves hemmed in by buildings and streets, as in 'A Narrow Way.'

Small Worlds

Robert Schwartz's paintings roil with mystery; SJ Museum of Art celebrates its 35th

By Michael S. Gant

IN A SNOWY woods, a tracery of deep footprints leads to a brick incinerator. Three men have stopped here—one leans against the chimney; one collapses backward onto a snow bank; one hunches forward, his face in his hands. A fourth man, separated from the others, stands and stares upward. Robert Schwartz's 1999 oil Would That I Didn't Know reads like a panel from a storyboard for a thriller—A Simple Plan maybe (that standing figure in his red watch cap conjures up Billy Bob Thornton's character). This gang certainly looks guilty of something—unauthorized cremation at the very least. Of course, that interpretation is wholly mine; Schwartz's surface is as devoid of narrative depth as it is of spatial depth. The implied story is as much an illusion as the tricks of perspective and shading used to create an image that implies three-dimensionality. Schwartz, a prolific but relatively unsung San Francisco-based artist, finally gets his due in the San Jose Museum of Art's superb new show, "Dream Games: The Art of Robert Schwartz"—and in the excellent coffee-table catalog by Barry Schwabsky and museum curator Susan Landauer. Sadly, this recognition comes only after Schwartz's untimely death in 2000 at the age of 56. Painted with exquisite clarity and detail, Schwartz's works in oil and gouache belie their small size (most are no more than about 7 by 8 inches). Whole worlds seem to open up within the frame as Schwartz's subjects pursue strange and troubling missions.

Using a technique borrowed from early-Renaissance painters, Schwartz often paints whole cities in extreme miniature far from the main action. In It's Nothing, They'll Be on Their Feet in Seconds, a 1995 gouache on paper, two well-dressed men wrestle on a bramble-covered river bank with expressions of deadly intent at odds with the placid title. Beyond the dark tangle of creepers that are closing like living tentacles around their bodies, we see in the upper-left a clearing with a village bathed in the light breaking over a far-off mountain range. Did these two antagonists flee from this sanctuary of civilization to carry out their Cain-and-Abel battle? In The Quickest Way (1993), a man reading a book crawls along some moss-draped rocks in front of a massed wall of vegetation that shields him, perhaps forever, from a bucolic hillside where people fish, farm and stroll along wide paths. He is doomed to know life only in the pages of his book. The city, which crowds around Schwartz's protagonists in many of his paintings, offers no more succor than the wilderness. In The Shapeless Street (1997), a man perches precariously on a tree trunk watching a torrent of muddy flood water carry away fragments of demolished buildings. The artist looks down on a crowded chunk of city from an aerial perch in I Let a Minute Pass (1997). Apartment buildings spiral in on the Lilliputian pedestrians at street level with the claustrophobic tightness of a maze.

"Dream Games," which runs through Jan. 16, is part of a rich spate of shows culminating this weekend in the museum's 35th anniversary. In "It's About Time," the museum will show off some 200 new works in its permanent collection. The event will be marked by a black-tie party on Oct. 2, followed by a Sunday brunch at 11am at the Fairmont. The museum will also offer a community day on Sunday, noon-4pm, with music and dance by Lyrical Discipline, Capoeria of San Jose and the Marcus Shelby Septet. For details, call 408.294.2787.


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From the September 29-October 5, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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