Aurel Schmidt Talks Art and Sex

Aurel by Terry Richardson for Purple mag

I recently interviewed Aurel Schmidt for Oyster Magazine. It was for their all-women issue, which also featured Lena Dunham, Tavi Gevinson, Shalom Harlow, Petra Collins, Stacey Mark, Cass Bird, Nite Jewel, Bambi Northwood-Blyth and a bunch more! Check it out, it’s on stands now. I wrote an advice column for it as well. I was really excited to interview Aurel because I’m a big fan of her art, and also partly because @DevHynes and I are always mentioning her in our weekly conversations about the “most authentically cool people in New York.” (Yikes, maybe keep it a secret that we actually have conversations like that…) You can read our chat about art, group sex and jerking-off below.

If you hang out in or around the New York art scene, you’ve probably been intimidated by the presence of Aurel Schmidt at some point or another. Her hyper-real pencil drawings, combined with her intentionally sleazy public persona and signature thick-rimmed glasses, have transformed Schmidt into a young icon. Her excruciatingly detailed artworks are typically decorated with the scraps of her life–stuff like condom wrappers, crushed beers cans, lipstick, Klonopin capsules, and her boyfriend’s chest hair. The result is something at once sophisticated, funny, girly and gross, powered by her incredible technical skill.

Schmidt is from the industrial city of Kamloops, British Columbia. Her career took off in 2006, rising to fame within a rebellious New York art scene led by artists like Ryan McGinley, Dash Snow and Dan Colen. She has since been handpicked by Jeffrey Deitch for a solo show, and was chosen as part of the 2010 Whitney Museum Biennial. At the moment Schmidt is working on a photo book of her husband, singer Donald Cumming of the band The Virgins, as well as creating a new body of work in preparation for her upcoming solo show, opening in London in the Spring of 2013.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve been making a new kind of art that’s very fast. Not many people know this, but I’m taking a year off from making the drawings I was making before, because it was getting too comfortable.

What’s the new work like?
I can’t really talk about it, because then it won’t be a surprise at the London show. But I’m having fun doing it, because it’s very immediate. Like if I feel sad and start drawing, right away I’ll be able to see this emotional landscape unfold, where with the old work, because it took so long to make, one part of a drawing might feel one way, and another part might feel totally different.

How much do you cater your art to what you know people want to buy?
It depends. I’m good at making money, but I’m also really good at saying no to people and not giving them what they want, which, paradoxically, I think is a key to making money and being successful. Because if you give people what they want all the time, then what’s left for them to want?

What else is integral to success?
You have to keep having goals. You can’t just hang around with people who think you’re cool; you have to constantly want to expand your peer group–to be around smart and talented people who challenge you.

Have you noticed in New York a common way to insult someone is to call them a “social climber”?
Yeah, everyone says that. I’ve been called a social climber since the first week I moved to this city. But if you’re interested in art, it makes sense that you would want to go to events where you can meet other artists, and become involved with a crowd you actually respect. I think every ambitious person in New York is in some facet a ladder climber, but I don’t think it’s bad. What’s the opposite: taking the moralistic path and waiting for some omnipotent figure to come down from the clouds and say, “I see that you are talented, let me take you to the stars”? That doesn’t exist; it’s a fantasy.

Something I’ve always admired about you is that you seem like a very sex positive person, and you’re confident in your body and don’t give a shit about being photographed naked.
I’ve always taken explicit photos. When I started getting press, I really resented that most of the press for female artists–and for females in general–was so sexualized. As a woman, even if what you do has nothing to do with what you look like, magazines and newspapers will try to create this image of you as the “cute” or “sexy” artist, because they want to sell issues. Whereas a male artist will just be photographed standing in his studio. That’s such a cheesy double standard, so I thought, “You know what might be better than trying to be cute?–just being complete slutty. You want a sexy picture of me? Well here, have a look at my vagina. I’ll just give you what you want right away. You don’t have to wonder anymore.”

Your public persona is hyper sexual, but you art doesn’t seem to reflect that side of you as much.
The art has sexual elements to it, like there’s some graphic sexual stuff within the drawings, like vaginas and dicks and condoms, but it’s done more to gross people out or make them laugh than it is to turn people on. If you want to get turned on by naked people you can look at porn–why would I try to compete with that? I would rather draw new ideas of what I think sexiness is. I love having sex, but glorifying how wonderful it is has been done many times, so I’m not interested in that as much. I’m more interested in the social complexities of things like gender roles, what people find sexy, the taboos around sex organs…

Sex as social commentary.
Right. And sex as something you can create an atmosphere around. I find it weird when people are so set on what they think “sexy” is, as if it’s carved in stone. The standard of what society deems “sexy” is so molded by capitalism–it goes in and out of style, just like everything else. But this freaks me out, because ideally sex should almost be sacred, because it’s free, theoretically. It’s not a commodity, like clothes. Or art.

Speaking of sex and money, is it worth it to buy a vibrator when you can just use your own hand for free?
Well, they can be really useful when you’re lazy, like when you just want to cum because you can’t get to sleep. But you have to figure out what works for you. Sometimes you have to put a piece of cloth in between you and the thing–you can’t just put in right on there.

Good advice. So you have a “type”, sexually?
Nope, I like all kinds of people. I’ve been with guys who are big, small, skinny, I’ve slept with multiple fat guys–whatever.

Have you ever slept with a girl?

That’s surprising, you kind of have lesbian vibes.
I know, people say that. I feel like I’ve had the opportunity to sleep with very beautiful women, but it just doesn’t turn me on to envision going all the way through with it. Kissing sounds fun, but when it comes time to go home I’d rather just find some dude to fuck.

Would you ever want to sleep with a girl in a threesome situation?
Whenever someone I was dating asked me to have a threesome in the past, I always responded by asking, “Could we have sex with another guy?” And they always said, “Eww, no!” But that’s how I would want it to be.

I don’t think guys understand that girls want that.
It would be great! Like when I see double penetration in porn–I’m down for all that. You’re just getting so much attention, and all parts of you are being touched at the same time, it would be such a turn on.

I think the issue with having a threesome with someone you’re dating, though, is that it can create problems within your relationship. I had one friend a long time ago tell me that you should never have a threesome if you’re really in love with the person you’re with, because the minute you look up and see them fucking that other person, maybe it will turn you on, but there’s also the chance that it won’t and then you’ll be stuck with that image forever.

In the past I’ve considered being with other people while in a serious relationship, like having an “open relationship”, because it seems crazy to try to maintain a monogamous relationship forever. And at first it seems great, but then you think, “But what about me feeling abandoned, or scared of being left?” It’s a psychological quagmire, because when you love someone it’s almost like they become part of you, and you project your deepest fears onto them, so it becomes hard to be really tough and cool about everything.

And even if you set rules and say, “We’re allowed fuck other people, but we can’t get emotionally attached,” realistically you always run the risk of falling for someone else.
Totally. Also, I think for guys it’s normal to want to fuck a girl one time just because she’s hot, even if she’s a total moron. But “hot” is very objective for women–it’s not just a physical thing. For girls, if we think a guy is hot it probably also means he’s cool and interesting and has good style–

And is a little bit famous…
Right. So then you’re like, “Wow, I’m sleeping with someone cool and hot and famous… I want to hang out with him more!” And that’s where it becomes dangerous.

In the 70s Germaine Greer promoted the idea that women should start fucking like men, so more objectively–an idea that Madonna adopted in the 80s. Do you think it’s inherently harder for women to view men as sex objects?
A little bit, but I’ve done that, too. For a while when I was single I just fucked under twenty-five year old skaters. Sometimes the young ones aren’t so good in bed, but they’re so energetic and excited to be fucking you that it makes up for it. Whereas some older guys are really good at eating pussy, but their energy spans are really low and they’ve had sex so many times that they’re just like, “Yawn…”

That’s true. Wow, I feel like this has been so insightful in both an art way and a “sex advice” way.
Great, I’m glad!