Advisor Lisa Schiff Maps the Arts’ Return to Nature

The Ridiculous Sublime space, featuring Rodolfo Abularach, Serie Volcanes No.3, 1989 Jonathan Trayte, Lemon Bug, 2020. Courtesy of Friedman Benda and Jonathan Trayte.
The Ridiculous Sublime space, featuring Rodolfo Abularach, Serie Volcanes No.3, 1989 Jonathan Trayte, Lemon Bug, 2020. Courtesy of Friedman Benda and Jonathan Trayte.

In the not so distant past, Lisa Schiff spent her spring putting together Leonardo DiCaprio’s summer gala in Capri where private planes, mega yachts and their owners gather to raise money for Mother Nature. The art auction items were Schiff’s domain—a gargantuan, high pressure task whose silver lining was an opportunity to scour the world for new talent, online and off, and the chance to put up-and-coming names directly in front of the people who can support them. This spring, the art advisor missed that part of her former, party-filled, pre-COVID life and in its place, found an altogether more wholesome use of bandwidth, a group exhibition dedicated to art’s current strain of naturalism and its entanglements with transcendence, hosted in her Tribeca storefront office, SFA Advisory.

installation view of ridiculous sublime featuring work by Rodolfo Abularach and other artists, with ceramics and paintings
Installation view of "Ridiculous Sublime." Pictured: Rodolfo Abularach, Flor Cosmica, 1977.

“The figuration trend doesn't pay mind to its fringes where I think actually a huge group of artists have been returning to the landscape,” Schiff says in the doorway of the show, “Ridiculous Sublime,” whose roster includes the likes of Trevor Shimizu, Cy Gavin and Nicole Wittenberg. Nailed to the wall above her head is a small painting of fronds. She points to it saying, “This is a painting by Soimadou Ibrahim; they usually make images of people, but I’ve always been more into the plants.” And then she hints at a possible follow up solo show to come in November before introducing me to the show’s greenery designer Tom Colletti who erected an exotic plant-filled living wall in the entrance to the group exhibition at Schiff’s behest. The whole room smells heady and fresh thanks to the oxygenating interior design and its impressive, root-hidden irrigation system. Plants pop up repeatedly throughout the show. They are depicted in paintings and dripping over the lips of ceramic vessels. Colletti comes to tend the latter weekly.

installation view of ridiculous sublime by lisa schiff with large greenery wall by tom colletti
Installation view of "Ridiculous Sublime." Pictured: Tom Colletti, Ridiculous Sublime, 2021.

Schiff takes care of them in the interim as the exhibition space doubles as her workplace, minus the towers of books she removed to make room for delicate sculptures by artists like Lilla Tabasso. “I love chatting with everyone that comes in but at my heart, I’m not cut out to be a gallerist,” Schiff says. “I self-identify as an advisor first and foremost.” I ask her: why, then, are we standing in an exhibition? “That’s a bit more complicated,” she admits. “I promised myself when I opened this space I would never host shows and now here I am doing it. I know it can be confusing for people who want to label everything, but the idea and the work really drove me to it. During the pandemic, I noticed this return to nature and needed to get that out somehow. I don’t regret it.”

It feels like an organic evolution. Private viewing rooms, the original intention for the office space, are so often programmed by advisors yet the public has no access to the work. Here the fruits of client research can be enjoyed by the passerby as well as the purchaser. Discovery is key. Mine is Simone Shubuck, whose small erotica-riddled drawings give off Tetsumi Kudo meets Egon Schiele energy. Scattered throughout the show, the flora depicted in Shubuck’s images offer a delicate foil to the more blunt depictions found elsewhere in the show, like in Camilo Restrepo’s The Great Curve Off Wuhan (2020), which imagines COVID’s spread as a gigantic wave with razored teeth.

textile work of large green wave reflecting themes of pandemic
Camilo Restrepo, The Great Curve Off Wuhan, 2020.

It’s the works’ range that delights Schiff and underlines her intuitive premise that there is some kind of a return to nature happening in the arts (maybe it's the same one that is driving them to tennis and the North Fork). “I think there is a renewed interest in beauty that cannot be denied. For so long, conceptual underpinnings trumped everything, now there is this kind of naughty return to the unapologetically gorgeous,” Schiff says. “I remember that was the feeling I had when I first saw Matthew Wong. I called my client and said we need to get on board. There is something unabashedly beautiful here going on. That’s the same feeling that I got putting together this show.”

installation view of ridiculous sublime gallery show featuring work by trevor shimizu of forrest, the painting surrounded by other works including ceramic and paintings
Installation view of "Ridiculous Sublime." Pictured: Trevor Shimizu, Sunset through trees and dirt road, 2020.

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