AS WE approach a contentious election season, we’re reminded that art is political.
Art has the power to change minds, and if you want to get really meta with it, the creation of art can be a rebellion in itself.
For painter Todd Schroeder, his abstract work carries an inherently political meaning.
“There’s a lot of stuff about abstract paint that certainly is decorative, and there’s a thing about it now with pouring paint and housewives are doing it,” says Schroeder, “but I also think that it’s still radical in that it ruffles people’s feathers. People get really tied up in this idea of what something is about, what it means. There’s a political aspect of abstraction that I’m also interested in.”
Of course, Schroeder has never been the kind of artist to shy away from politics.
Some of his earliest work was drawings of Time Magazine covers, including one of Oliver North, a conservative commentator from the 80s, and one of Manuel Noriega, a former dictator of Panama.
The renderings of the covers, omitting the words and including only the picture, were fairly straight-forward and almost ridiculous in their presentation.
Those covers would, perhaps unconsciously, inform more of Schroeder’s later work, the newspaper project. He uses pages of the New York Times as a canvas, blowing dots of paint onto the pages in a precise shape.
The pieces began as a reaction to the 2016 election; Schroeder remembers feeling “flabbergasted” at Trump’s win and needing an outlet to express that. He turned to the Times, both Trump’s hometown paper and his “nemesis,” to serve as the backdrop on which to paint “ha ha ha” in dots.
“No matter what the page was, I’d pull it out and blow ‘ha ha ha’ on top of it, which was sometimes really funny and sometimes really not funny at all,” remembers Schroeder.
He made about five to 10 pieces every Sunday, but as time went on and the presidency became less funny, Schroeder shifted the series to be more objective.
For Schroeder, who moved to New York City the day after graduating from Ohio University, the choice of paper was fairly simple. In those days, reading the Times was a bit of a ritual for him.
“Depending on what era of my life I was in, I would get the newspaper every morning and get on the subway,” he recalls. “Then there was the ritual of Sunday morning. My wife and I would get the Sunday paper on Saturday night, then wake up and spend the day reading the New York Times.”
Schroeder is equally inspired by grids, which is fairly evident in the structure of the dots on the newspapers. That moment of realization for him came on a road trip with his wife, as they drove on the hilly terrain of Highway 40. From the passenger seat, Schroeder noticed the traffic signs, pre-LED lights, were comprised of lightbulbs. He drew it in his sketchbook, and the idea stuck in his head. It took root when he realized that he could tie the grid to existing work he was making.
“It seemed to me that the connection of the grid to the history of modernism and people like Agnes Martin and Sol LeWitt, it felt like an interesting place to play within that,” Schroeder says, “but also to undermine those a little bit, or bring some kind of pop or anti sensibility to it to play with the forms. It was one of those serendipitous things that triggered something about ideas I had in my head already.”
Akin to the grid structure is the X symbol, which Schroeder also uses with an eye towards its inclination towards the anti. He was inspired by Malcolm X’s autobiography and the idea of X representing a starting place that unified people.
The X is also, to Schroeder, very punk.
“It’s something you think about in terms of early punk rock music or anti movements,” he says. “I think that anti movements are a very positive thing as opposed to a negative thing. I don’t think of them as being nihilists, even if they claim to be; I think it’s a way of restarting.”
If you don’t immediately associate Schroeder’s work with punk movements, the work is also accessible through the comfortable symmetry of a grid system, where the X is a nice focal point for the eye.
He’s also interested in layering, which is evident in some recent work. In one painting, Schroeder taped off an X and painted around it, subverting the ground and creating a neat effect.
“It becomes this formal play on figure and ground as well, because that X is actually the ground,” he muses. “There’s this formal tension of the line popping through or looking like it’s laid on top of this, but it’s also the same colors you see around.”
Another piece is four sheets of paper, each with one printed letter that collectively spell the word “shit,” making a literal pile of shit.
“What I’m excited about is the embedded joke, but also the elegance of it, the austereness of it—but it’s a pile of shit,” says Schroeder. “That quite clearly represents a lot of what I think about.”
Currently, Schroeder is working on two bodies of work: a show in Craig Drennen’s project space called “Spanish Is Hard” that plays with language, and a PDF show for Abrir Galería, run by his former student Gonzalo Hernandez.
For the PDF show, Schroeder riffs on his Times series by using a site that compiles the front pages of daily newspapers all over the world. He downloads the PDFs, runs them through Adobe Acrobat and changes small things about the page. For this series, he ventured beyond the Times, using his own hometown newspaper, the Toledo Blade, as well as a few others.
Another way he’s shifting the newspaper series is by replacing the “ha ha ha” motif with that of a heart. The heart motif originated when Schroeder painted the symbol on T-shirts, then soaked the shirt in epoxy resin to harden and then break them. Schroeder thinks of the broken heart shirts as a kind of protest sign, even putting them on sticks.
The hearts also appear on copies of the Times, as Schroeder has picked back up the series beore the election. The heart symbol is a reference to John Coltrane’s album, “A Love Supreme,” which marked a stylistic change for the musician—and maybe one for the artist, too.
“[The album] is about being open, opening up your mind to experience, fighting against your tendency to see things as good and/or bad,” explains Schroeder. “That inspires to me work within that, to push and explore those ideas for myself and also be able to present those things to the world.”