New York

Julian Schnabel

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

Further south, a proliferation of sites for study. Julian Schnabel’s paintings threaten to divide opinion among the researchers. Secular or religious objects?

A friend, Jonathan Crary, remarks that Julian Schnabel’s canvases look “excavated.” What better description of an artifict? There’s something fetishistic about Schnabel’s treatment of the canvas: he digs holes, covers his tracks with paint, the terrain looks as if a dog’s been hiding a bone. Anything could be buried beneath those liberally painted surfaces. Schnabel’s color, apropos of artificts, is a rusty, musty oil.

He betrays his love-hate relationship with painting. These are about pleasure tempered with pain: he violates the painting’s surface by gouging it, then he makes nice to it by painting over the wounds he’s inflicted. I’ve never seen such petulant, moody work. His paintings (this, incidentally, applies to a lot of recent work—Denise Green’s for example) are charged with a defiance that finds a parallel expression in Punk music, an inscrutable soulmate in Punk style. This style seems to thrive on reheated boredom—that is, the plaintive adolescent angst recycled from ’50s and ’60s pop culture—and is more than a little menacing.

Schnabel’s menace is palpable in a painting like Vallensasca, Italian Hero, where a disembodied torso shares the canvas with a sword, the handle of which is blood-red. Or in an untitled painting on exhibition that resembles the crucifixion of an easel: the painter’s studio as scene of the Passion, the easel decked with an Eastern Cross.

It feels peculiar to look at these paintings for their iconographic referents, but Schnabel’s work invites such readings. The disruption of the canvas surface by gouging in or building up certainly alludes to a lot of formal concerns, but they seem best addressed in terms of the apparent violence of Schnabel’s images. The work has such pungent ambivalence—the either/or qualities of its “representation”: does it or doesn’t it?—that this seems to be the pressing consideration to make.

Yoking together formal and referential issues is, for Schnabel, a timely strategy. He swings both ways: to the viewers hungry for formal issues, his paintings swell with provocation: to the viewers wanting some expressive “thing” to sink their teeth into, he gives them nervous images. The deliberateness of their ambivalence, this carefully rationed aloofness, takes the bite out of the work. If Punk is reheated pop culture, Schnabel relates to it by reheating the false dilemma of form vis-à-vis representation.

Carrie Rickey