On a sunny day last week, George Schmidt was in a blur of activity as he readied his gallery for an opening. The paintings going up were his latest from a new series focusing on racehorses and racing fans, the denizens of the Fair Grounds. Like a lot of local folk, Schmidt saw the reopening of the track as a giant step toward the restoration of order in the cosmos. Actually, his new series was begun before Katrina, in anticipation of the 2005 season. But then came the storm that changed everything -- and may have even changed everyone as well, at least a little.
"I am still a reactionary," Schmidt announces, as if in anticipation of some such question or perhaps to explain the influence of the 19th century French Academy on the somewhat realistic style he's favored for most of his career. Or maybe it had to do with one of the paintings he was taking down -- a vast, 15-foot-wide canvas depicting John McDonough being rowed across the river by a slave. Originally commissioned by the Hilton Hotel as part of a series of local history scenes, it was removed after a patron said it was insensitive. That happened years ago, but Schmidt still seems shocked. "I'm a history painter -- how can you paint history and not paint how things were in the past?"
After the storm, he toyed with the idea of painting the looting of the Saks Fifth Avenue at Canal Place, a scene that recalled an earlier series based on ancient Rome, but he now plans a prudent wait before tackling that one.
In these racehorse paintings, notable differences crop up among the ones painted pre- and post-Katrina. Castor and Pollux is a pre-K slice of life at the track, a scene near the winners' circle with two racehorses and their attendant red-coated postillions. Ostensibly a view of the horses, this coincidentally offers some views of colorful humans as well, and while painted in his characteristically realistic style, no one would ever mistake it for anything even remotely connected with the French Academy. What Schmidt really excels at is portraying quirky New Orleans characters in all their glory, people whose demeanor has been formed under the atmospheric pressure of decades spent in places like Liuzza's, the Parkview Tavern back when it had live chickens, Markey's Bar or Bud Rip's back in the old days when it still had Bud Rip.
On Thanksgiving, it became clear that many of those characters are still with us, and in truth the city would not be the same without them. But what's changed is Schmidt, or at least his painting style. Instead of his typical realistic compositions with their manic attention to detail, his most recent work features manic, near expressionistic compositions with very loose, atmospheric detailing. In other words, things are suggested rather than being visually spelled out. The tone ends up being pretty similar, but the look is more abstract, and at first I wondered if Leroy Neiman had sneaked into Schmidt's studio at night like some errant, cigar-chomping elf, but then I noticed his predilection for Tuscan tonalities was still totally intact. And his characters still have lots of character -- more than Neiman's ever will -- albeit of a more inferential, or ambient, mien.
One Jockey Up, an informal, broadside view of a horse and jockey near the paddock with other jockeys and characters milling about, epitomizes this approach. Here, the slashing, staccato brush strokes successfully suggest the restless, perambulating patterns of movement that permeate the track, a beehive of activity consisting of mostly small gestures made, mostly indirectly, in propitiation of its reigning divinity: lady luck. To her, offerings large and small are made as horses and jockeys compete. Yet in the midst of all this competition is the unlikely cohesion of a profoundly democratic culture, or subculture, in which everyone in attendance regardless of race, class or economic status, somehow belongs in equal measure.
Schmidt has described New Orleans as "the capital of an empire that never was," an assertion that has an odd ring of truth to it. If so, then the Fair Grounds must be our Circus Maximus, and Schmidt a kind of Tacitus with a brush and palette.
- George Schmidt's oil painting, Castor and Pollux, conveys as much about the Fair Ground's habitus as it does about the racehorses that are its namesake.