‘Lothar Schmitz: Survival Strategies’ at Cal State Long Beach

Outside In
The bubblicious world  of Lothar Schmitz

You will love "Survival Strategies," Lothar Schmitz's new exhibit at Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum. But I'm afraid you may not love it for the right reasons. I'm pretty sure I didn't.

Schmitz creates installations that look like miniature sets for those classic, dystopian, hippie sci-fi movies of the late '60s and early '70s. His little worlds call to mind the blighted futures of films such as Logan's Run, Silent Running and Sleeper, ones in which humankind has encased itself inside city-sized, transparent domes, and everybody spends their lives having loveless sex and doing weird, futuristic drugs in a plastic, air-conditioned purgatory, never seeing a real sunset, smelling a flower, or feeling the pitter-pat of raindrops falling on their heads. Schmitz's work, like those movies, seems designed to make us weep at the arrogance and foolishness of man as he bends nature to his will and, as a result, becomes a prisoner of his own artificial reality.

Unfortunately, the problem with all this is that Schmitz's work, like the production design for those sci-fi movies of old, is just so damn cool. After all, who the hell wants to get sunburned, suffer from hay fever, or get pneumonia from standing around in some freezing winter storm, when we could all be living inside fantastic plastic domes with robot servants and entire meals in pill form? It's 2008 already, so where the hell is our dome home? Where are our weird, futuristic drugs? Where's the loveless sex? iPhone, shmiPhone—where the hell is our Orgasmatron, Mr. Jobs?

Schmitz is a research physicist as well as an artist (if he could just learn to play the bass, he could join Buckaroo Banzai's band), and his work has more than a touch of the old-school mad scientist to it. Ecotwist is a real delight, simultaneously reminiscent of an M.C. Escher print and an "artist's rendering" of a lunar colony from the pages of a vintage issue of Popular Science. The piece depicts a lush, green park all twisted up into a zero-gravity loop, so you could throw a Frisbee to your dog from down on the ground, and he could run way up over your head to catch it. Now that would be a great way to unwind after a hard week, even if using the pooper scooper could get pretty grim.

Versuchsgelaende (feel free to call it Testing Ground if speaking German makes your tongue ache) features a lush, mini-landscape dotted with Schmitz's plastic domes. The domes are clearly meant to suggest contagion—but are they keeping it out, or holding it in? To my eye, they also suggest giant drops of dew, glittering in the first light of dawn. See, I told you I took away the wrong things from this exhibit. You're supposed to walk away sobered about this grim vision of things to come, not humming about our great, big, beautiful tomorrow.

Of course, there are some undeniably disturbing aspects to Schmitz's work. Large Organism is a full-sized environment that will give you the major creeps. It looks like a lab where Schmitz is in the process of cooking up something that will inevitably get loose on the CSULB campus and end up tearing the spleens out of a string of sorority girls, until the desperate campus police call in Fox Mulder to take the wretched creature down with a hypodermic needle full of battery acid—the only thing that can kill the beast.

Biomorph also scores high on the creep-o-meter. It's a room with artificial plants and a video showing actual nature stuff that looks like trippy CGI. See, the real plants are fake, and the fake stuff in the video is real! It's all rather restful—until you have a flashback of Edward G. Robinson being euthanized in a room a lot like this in Soylent Green, and then you start to wonder when they're going to pump in the painless, odorless gas. But for real evil, there's Permeation, a big, extremely tactile salt-flat thing that you are not allowed to touch and most definitely not allowed to walk on. Schmitz, you bastard! What kind of sick mind games are you playing?

Until our airless, bubble-encased future finally arrives, we'll just have to content ourselves with Schmitz's incredible simulation. O, brave new world!

"Lothar Schmitz: Survival Strategies" at the University Art Museum, Cal State Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-5761; www.csulb.edu/org/uam. Open Tues.-Wed. & Fri.-Sun., noon-5 p.m.; Thurs., noon-8 p.m. Through April 13.


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