The hidden cost of 21st-century convenience is that you are stalked by a muzzy dread, a feeling that everything you do inflicts some distant unseen harm. The extraordinary events of 2020 sharpen focus on the disastrous and racialized consequences of this estrangement. In Shifted Sims, his first solo exhibition at Petzel Gallery in New York, Schoolwerth gives form to the condition of being “remote” and retreating into masks—from the N95 to the quarantine selfie. What’s more, he pressures painting to catch up to the surge of online profiles, identities without bodies, that teem at the surface of this “once-removed” existence.
Schoolwerth’s psychoactive tableaus depict CGI avatars let loose in the digital froth: a Baywatch-y beach, a fashion-brand showroom, a furry orgy. He pulls these scenes from screenshots of The Sims 4, the strategic life-simulation computer game where anything goes—or does it? Trailing every avatar is an estranged silhouetted double, snapped into existence by the “shift” of Shifted Sims. Each composition has been superimposed, askew, over the photograph of a handmade 3D relief sculpture of the image. What appears is a shadow realm of vestigial matter, yanked into view on inkjet-printed canvases and parceled in paint.
It is a taut braid of formal practice and allegory, one that questions painting’s viability in the age of the internet. In the 2019 monograph Model as Painting, he delineates how these “forces of abstraction” conceal labor and infrastructure under a late-capitalist mirage of frictionless, disembodied connectivity. This schism plunges down to the scale of the individual, pitting avatar protagonist against human penumbra. Western painting tradition, with its claims to authenticity and representation, is pulled into this Thunderdome of online subject-formation.
The works in Shifted Sims question expressionism’s historical claims to transcendent interiority. Schoolwerth renders the Sims’ faces with striking impasto marks that “expressionize the avatar,” humanizing these subjects through visibly manual, painterly gestures. But these subjective punctures of the digital network may be fleeting. Appearing on the canvas next to perfectly raked furrows of paint—Schoolwerth’s proxy for repressed physical infrastructure—expressionism becomes one style among many, attenuating its status as exalted painterly communiqué. You’re left with the dark thought that De Kooning’s Woman would make a pretty good Snapchat filter.
Scrambling to address the malaise of social distance, a startup recently launched voice-controlled avatars for video meetings, a real-time Sim who wears pants so you don’t have to. Schoolwerth’s paintings of (often pants-less) avatars counter these riptides of isolation, approximating a shared affective experience of the present moment: the monumental, and the berserk.