Let no one say New York City hasn’t a low-brow scene of its own! Sure, compared to the West Coast, it’s small here. But its doyen—Aurel Schmidt—has been making quite the splash this last half-decade.

Schmidt is an illustrator with a penchant for mixing anti-capitalist sentiment with ancient mythology. Her work is smart, sexy, and pop-obsessed. Illustrations of art-world “produce,” from the aurulent banana (below) to the vegetative floret (above), update Warhol, Arcimbaldo, and O’Keefe to contemporary tastes in all things lurid. Santa Claus is seen in one of Schmidt’s new drawings seated lotus on a pink flamingo; its back leg stands like a tree stalk, a slithering snake wrapped around the base. It recalls Mark Ryden, an artist whose use of religious icons as pop culture has no shortage of imitators.

Schmidt’s last two exhibitions were both titled New Gods, an ode to comic book genius Jack Kirby‘s psychedelic ’70s title. Elsewhere she draws collage-like odes to murky pop-culture mutants like Swamp Thing and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

A new show—Blast Furnace of Civilization—debuted this week at the Half Gallery on E. 78th Street. It continues Schmidt’s confluence of fantasy and commercialism. Other artists have worked recently in this field, most notably Anais Mitchell, whose folk-opera Hadestown (2010) transformed Virgil’s classical Orpheus myth into an anti-capitalist morality tale. The conundrum with Schmidt, though, is how strongly her work is embraced by the establishment and the blue-chips.

First exhibited at the uber-trendy Dietch Projects in 2008, she featured in the 2010 Whitney Biennial and has shown at major galleries from London to Venice to Moscow. The fashionable Impose magazine featured a Schmidt interview, with affiliated pictures of the artist posing in her skivvies. None of this is inherently problematic. After all, an artist’s popularity is hardly reason to call them hypocritical. Yet there is something about her, or her art, that sets rather easily where other radicals might not. Why is that?

A good guess might be that the public is still not over its vulgar mania for art stars. A better one is that Schmidt just isn’t as radical as her many press releases maintain. Her work is variegated in subject-matter and her taste for the ephemeral and mystical is impeccable. If the work causes members of the upper-crust to do a little naval-gazing (a doubtful proposition), all the better for it. Yet its overall sentiments, while perfectly progressive and intellectual, lack a certain something. Maybe you can put your finger on it? If so, write me a letter. Signed. (Brian Chidester)

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