Julian Schnabel

Skyscrapers, British architecture critic Deyan Sudjic notes, are subject to the law of diminishing: creative returns: Extra stories make buildings taller, but they don’t generate any more aesthetic interest. Three unfeasibly large (twenty-two-foot-square) works in Julian Schnabel’s recent show seemed to suggest that the same is true of size in paintings; or, at least, paintings that attempt a unified composition—as opposed to, say, enormous Baroque blockbusters that are effectively aggregates of many separate incidents. Whether it’s twenty feet or two hundred, once a painting is too big to appear coherent to the limited human field of vision, all it can do is swagger.

Back in 1990, David Rimanelli fairly observed in these pages [AF, March 1990] that Schnabel’s works “are not without pictorial virtues,” but in all his oversize pieces, whatever painterly skills the artist possesses have been sacrificed to scale. In the three largely abstract works on view here, the colors are dreary, the handling of paint slapdash. By adding heavy black or red diagonal lines in the later stages of painting, Schnabel has tried to counter, with limited success, the loss of formal control caused by improvising on such a scale. Only Anno Domini, 1990, comes close to being a well-balanced composition. However, to engage in this art-schooly type of technical critique is to strain at a gnat while swallowing a camel. Bowing under their own weight, Schnabel’s awe-inspiring erections are so big they jam up against the room’s cornice; they are bombastic props and nothing more.

This show, plus the talk Schnabel .A delivered at its opening, have got me thinking about a particularly priceless scene from the movie Titanic. Kate Winslet learns that Leonardo (no, the other one) is an artist. Leafing through his sketches, she pronounces, “You know, these are really very good,” her air of connoisseurial authority prettily enhanced by rapt urgency. A major talent discovered! This, one suspects, is Schnabel’s imaginative universe: a place where innate brilliance will out, where young genii defend the spontaneity and integrity of their personal vision against the machinations of envious teachers and bilious critics; a place, in short, stuffed with the late-twentieth-century culture industry’s pantomimic stereotypes of artistic production and reception. The meanings of Schnabel’s “neo-expressionism,” his art-historical eclecticism, were hotly contested in the early ’80s. On the basis of this show, his historical returns look like a case of “double mimesis”; the Big Modernists that he acts out are not those furnished by mainstream art history itself, but the doubly mythic versions purveyed by the mass media.

The five “Velasquez-style” portraits of Schnabel’s friends also exhibited reinforce this reading. Framed in wildly kitsch pale pink or white fiberglass, cursory in execution, and glossed with a thick layer of resin, these paintings show a cavalcade of Hollywood Spanish exotics, redolent of Charlton Heston and Anthony Quinn. (There’s a whole thesis to be written on Schnabel’s “othering” of the Hispanic, both in his practice and his persona.) Here’s Jorge Galindo, the proud, hot-blooded toreador; José Ramón Antero, the scheming courtier who listens at keyholes; Amada Nazario, the timid, devout servant girl. Albert Oehlen, dainty in his lace surplice, plays the inscrutable, casuistical deric while tousled, pouting Olatz Schnabel is the headstrong heroine in the balconette bra. With the exception of this last image, these pictures have, for some reason, been adorned with giant spurts of white fluid. (So it’s enamel paint—but a guy’s allowed to dream.)

Location scouts looking for “multimillionaire villain’s subterranean hideout,” will find that, with the addition of some Persian rugs and ostentatious antique armchairs, the South London Gallery is the perfect spot. I can’t deny there’s fun to be had at this show—but it’s largely at the artist’s expense.

Rachel Withers