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Miniaturist Robert Schwartz finally gets his due in two local exhibits

Wednesday, Dec 29 2004
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Robert Schwartz's gouache and oil paintings resemble scenes captured from dreams -- assuming yours involve cat-suited jesters, shirtless guys lounging in trees, and forbidding Escher-like buildings. Fanciful imagery and brilliantly cheerful colors define the tiny works (most measure less than 8 by 9 inches), but given the ominous subtexts in the "Robert Schwartz: Selected Works 1984-2000" exhibition at the Hackett-Freedman Gallery, the painter's reveries were very odd indeed.

Like many artists, Schwartz was woefully unappreciated in his lifetime (which ended with his untimely death in 2000), yet now he's receiving a flurry of attention in the form of two retrospectives of his work, "Dream Games: The Art of Robert Schwartz" (at the San Jose Museum of Art through Jan. 16) and the Hackett-Freedman display, both of which expose an artist with a rare and compelling talent.

Rendered with painstaking attention to detail that belies their small size, Schwartz's pieces capture confusing tableaux, generally set within a framework of narrow urban passageways bisected by lush, incongruous trees. The artist's subjects often appear to be in distress -- in the unsettling Blowing a Cool Breeze Onto a Field That Roses Guard, a body (dead? alive?) lies supine on a couch improbably located beside a stream; in the sepia-toned All the Bother a man is collapsed in the arms of three people who seem to be checking his vital signs. Even those subjects not actively in danger look out of place: Nude men and women idle on a city street corner in Living on Grasshoppers; The Storm Across the Face depicts a serenely naked fellow enjoying a cup of tea as his neighbors rush to and fro around him. It all makes little sense, but since the artist can no longer shed light on the significance of his disturbing yet ethereally gorgeous paintings, we feel that the best response to Schwartz's work is an appreciation of its beauty without a deeper search for meaning.

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Joyce Slaton

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