Category Archives: guest post

A New Canadian Myth for New Canadian Times (By Sheila Heti)


image thanks to thirdi blog


The Globe and Mail—the newspaper I saw my father reading every day when I was growing up—published a profile of me this past weekend. In it, a familiar Canadian story was told: Canadian artist, neglected in Canada, finds acclaim in the States, and only then at home. While there is certainly some truth to this, and a lot of what I said in the piece seemed to corroborate it, I made a point of telling the journalist that my story feels different to me, as does the story of my latest book’s publication, and that I think it’s time for a new story.

Of course, what one says in an interview is always used to support the myth the journalist has—or in this case, that Canada generally has of Canadian artistic success. But it’s not precisely the case that n+1, or the article in the Observer, or the piece in the Guardian, caused the success of the book. Especially in a place like Canada, the ones who facilitate success are primarily the other artists.

While it seems from the article like I have been neglected, the truth is I have had tons of support over the years, more support than any artist could hope for – from writers, painters, musicians and poets.

It isn’t (and I suspect it never has been) the presumed engines of Canadian culture—The Globe and Mail, the Giller Awards, the Governor General’s Awards, etc.—that make Canadian artistic culture. My book was tepidly reviewed in the Globe three years ago. I have never received a Canadian award.

Meanwhile, during the seven years I was working on this novel, Margaux Williamson, my artistic collaborator, spent hundreds of hours reading drafts and giving me notes. I received feedback on drafts from the theatre director Chris Abraham, the novelist Christine Pountney, the artists Shary Boyle and Leanne Shapton, Coach House editor Alana Wilcox, Vancouver novelists Lee Henderson and David Chariandy, former CBC producer and writer Kathryn Borel, the artist Sholem Krishtalka, Geist editor Stephen Osborne, I could go on and on (the poet Ryan Kamstra, the essayist Mark Greif…). Rawi Haage lent me his Montreal apartment so I could finish an edit there. I have never received so much support in my life. These were people with their own work to do. But they helped me. As we all help each other.

The real story about my book and its “success,” it seems to me, is how it was supported by people who relied on their own judgments, without external validation, who influenced its shape.

The years I spent on my book weren’t years spent alone in my apartment, but a time when I spent weeks touring through Europe with the Toronto- and Berlin-based band, The Hidden Cameras (even though I’m a crummy musician, they still put me on stage with an instrument). I worked long hours in Margaux’s painting studio, travelled to the States to meet fellow writers and artists, and participated in the activist projects of Dave Meslin and the Toronto Public Space Committee, all of whom I learned from, whose work and thoughts developed my art and changed its direction.

We live in a place where the official rewards aren’t so grand, but that means something else happens: Artists slide between mediums, they work on each others’ projects, and new forms emerge. I often think of how the ethos here makes it easy to even find someone to rip tickets at the door of your show. We put hours into each others’ art, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the only rewards we can count on are the rewards of creating, the pleasures of doing it together, and the satisfaction of being in each other’s audience.

It’s a rich, complex, and intelligently critical world we inhabit: a world that produces great art, and that does not burn brightest when the CBC or the Globe take notice, or when the Americans or Brits do. It’s a world populated by writers and artists who give help and recognition without scoping the horizon for whether the arbiters are near. We are the arbiters. Whether the myth of Canadian achievement includes this world or not, this world exists. It’s true.


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Can We All Get Along!? (By Steve Kado)

Margaux Williamson: Steve Kado is one of my favourite artist people in town – who is sometimes not in town. He has startled and delighted me while standing on stage with a microphone and he is also very fun to talk to while not on stage.  He doesn’t write often and I asked if he would write something for Back to the World. He sent a post from L.A.




By Steve Kado

My friends and I were driving from Los Angeles to Tijuana to go to an art opening. Everyone in the car was involved in art to different degrees. One of our number was actually in the show we were going down to see. Three were from Australia and New Zealand; I was/am from Toronto. In San Diego we picked up Scott, a genuine American, who was in town visiting his mom – normally he lives in the desert where he builds his own house and designs books. At the same time, that weekend, there was a massive manhunt on for Christopher Dorner, the disgruntled victim of discrimination and racism within the LAPD who had had enough and gone on a cop-killing shooting spree. Confusingly, he did not exclusively kill cops, but also family members of cops.

Being that everyone in the car was from the arts, news-awareness was not always a strong point. Also, some people were travelling in America, not residents or even one-time-residents, and we all know how hard it is to keep up with the news when you’re on vacation. Unable, somehow, to bear listening to any news on the radio, we heard no broadcasts or music and tried to discuss the issue amongst ourselves. Earlier I had read that manifesto Dorner wrote. I would say that it was very easy to be sympathetic to him until he got to the killing part, and especially when he broadened the killing part to include family members of cops.

We were fuzzy on the excesses of the LAPD reaction. We had all heard something to the effect that they had shot up several (one? two? three?) different trucks, all because they feared Dorner was inside. In every case they had been wrong – Dorner was not in either of the vehicles they did in fact shoot at, neither vehicle was the make, model or colour of Dorner’s, and in one case the occupants were not even the right gender or number, being instead two Latina women doing a paper route. The asymmetrical and seemingly random armed response by the police force towards “trucks” as a category did, regrettably, seem to support aspects of Dorner’s manifesto.

Reflecting on it all now, one must also say that the silence about what happened to the police officers who reacted so excessively towards widely varying vehicles and people (at least in the news I’m getting) leads one to believe that perhaps nothing has really changed since the Rodney King and Rampart division scandals that Dorner mentions in his screed.

The mantra-like repetition of the phrase “cop killer” by others in conversation, before the car trip and during, led to the first attempt to hear music – Amy put John Maus’ Cop Killer on her phone. Playing out of the tinny speakers, all we could hear over road noise was the incessant repetition of the phrase “cop killer.” Scott put on the Body Count song of the same title but somehow it didn’t stick, despite arguably being more relevant to the specific situation and police force in question. All that night and the next day we would gloomily intone, a la John Maus, those two words.

After the opening we went to a very democratic dancing area. All types, ages and sizes were out there, giving it to the parquet flooring. We got very drunk. Then, around 2 am, a group of men with camouflage balaclavas, assault rifles and (perversely) GoPro cameras strapped to their heads trooped in. Taking one look at our half-antipodean gang the armed men (who seemed to be police) decided that we were of no consequence to them. They proceeded to ignore us while many of the other patrons in the bar were spread out against the walls, searched, forced to empty their pockets and line everything they owned up in neat lines on the ground and other such things. Finding nothing of interest, the armed men left, the music came on again a bit louder than before and things continued as if nothing had happened.

Back in LA, days later, Travis and I are walking from the Gold Line up to his house on a hill in Lincoln Heights. Every yard on the street he lives on is fenced in and contains between 2-4 dogs. These dogs are never walked, vary widely in size and do nothing but run in their yards and bark. The first day I arrived and woke up at Travis’, the first living animal I saw was the chihuahua across the street vigorously humping the terrier across the street. Choral waves of barking follow the passage of anything human or mechanical up or down the street. Acoustically, it is close, for me, to hell. Tonight, however, the dogs are quiet. “Cop killer,” we confide to each other, awed by the night’s silence. Almost immediately, a slow moving police car cruises by, checking us out with its search light. Neither of us match the profile of Christopher Dorner: Travis is a six-foot-something white beanpole and I am a less tall half-Asian person wearing a large backpack with huge glasses. Neither of us is an ex-reservist, neither of us seems interested in killing cops. The cops drive off but then circle back a minute later, just to make sure that we haven’t somehow merged Voltron-style into a cop-killing ex-reservist.

Later that week, the entire saga came to an end. Dorner was killed in a fire started by incendiary smoke grenades lobbed into the mountain cabin that he was hiding out in. He shot at and killed some more police before the fire got him. This was, more or less, how we all expected this to end. Watching CNN’s coverage of the minute details of one of Dorner’s police victims’ funerals in a Vietnamese restaurant, Travis and I try and make sense of a military ritual where a horse is led around with a pair of boots lodged backwards in the stirrups. It looks like someone had been riding a horse backwards and then vanished, leaving their boots behind. Neither of us can hear the CNN anchors explaining this over the din of noodles and slurping that fill the air. Everything from the emergence of a disgruntled ex-cop on a killing spree to the excessive reaction of the police once threatened and the inevitable Waco-like showdown felt grimly pre-recorded. But no one told us about the boot-thing that would happen at the end.

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Filed under events, guest post, music, other, TV/video, visual art

On the Subject of Artists Talking About Art (By Sheila Heti)

Margaux Williamson: A few days ago, I took a walk with the writer Sheila Heti. We got onto the subject of artists talking about art. She had a lot to say about this and I was curious to hear more. I asked her if she would write about it for Back to the World. I’m really glad I asked – my friend sent me this incredibly smart and dead-on post this morning:


By Sheila Heti

I am not sure how to set down my anger in a way that is coherent – this anger that suddenly hit me a month ago, or maybe a few weeks ago. I spent most of 2012 publicizing my novel, How Should a Person Be? – touring and doing interviews and whatnot. (If you had asked me, a few years ago, what a year spent promoting a book might look like, I would have said it was impossible to do. But I have spent the better part of a year doing just that – and my friends, oy vey.) Anyway, I just looked up a month ago from all this and heard some complaint that I had been deaf to – a common thread of criticism about my book which wasn’t so much about the book (I think) as a proposition the book was making: that a legitimate thing to think and talk about (especially among people who make art) is the making of art. Suddenly, all sorts of words flooded into my mind that had been repeated all year, but which I had not yet put together as the chorus that it was: that this activity is privileged, narcissistic and childish; something permitted to those at university, maybe, but even then, a bit far-fetched as an activity of real importance. Certainly to be put away – along with the other “childish things” – once one becomes a man.

A funny thing is that much of this criticism came from very smart people in populous American cities, where (it is implied) the more mature, less narcissistic, and less privileged thing to talk about is money. Money is a conversation for adults. Art, for undergrads.

I’m pretty sure the majority of people who complained about all the conversations about art in my book are the same people who bemoan the lack of reading in our culture, who bewail the death of the novel, and who wish America was smarter and greater. Yet how can one claim, on the one hand, to wish to protect the cherished art of novel-reading, and on the other, to denounce as childish, privileged and narcissistic a healthy and normal conversation about art’s importance and the best way to make it – especially when that conversation is happening among, of all people, artists!

I think it’s the wholesale infiltration of concerns about money and commerce into art that leads to art’s withering on the vine, not direct and serious conversation about how to make art now. Stop talking about Amazon, for godssakes! For one minute!

I have spent a lot of time among fellow writers in New York, and although I count many of these people as my beloved friends, I rarely have a conversation in that city about art that does not either begin, end, or quickly turn into a conversation about the writing business – about agents and advances and gossip about other peoples’ advances and complaints about not getting reviewed here or there. In Toronto (that childish, infantile place) – or the Toronto that I depict, and that I am and have long been a part of – to turn a conversation in that direction would feel embarrassing. Not because we have so much money or do not need money as much (I don’t know anyone with a trust fund here), but because it would mean taking time away from what is more important and more vital, and which should be at the core of what we’re doing, and which we want to be doing better.

Perhaps this is “uncool.” As Dave Hickey once said of Richard Serra: “He says, ‘Let’s go look at art,’ so that’s what he does. He’s kinda corny because he’s not hip at all. He doesn’t know anybody. He doesn’t know who got AIDS, he doesn’t know who got fired. But he’s a real artist to me anyway.” Richard Serra is one of the artists I was thinking about most intently while I was writing my book – so to learn this from Hickey (a few years later) made sense. Probably that’s why Serra’s art provides so much to think about. What place does cool or hip have in any of this? Looking over my bookshelf at my most beloved writers – Kierkegaard, Franz Kafka, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Vonnegut – this is not a club of cool people, but a club (if it is a club) of those who could never be considered cool. A person can only be cool about what they do not care about. And these people cared more than anyone.

I am not saying that my New York friends or certain reviewers don’t actually care about art. They must. What I am picking up on is the distaste for bringing that caring into public. Caring about art is almost illicit, something one does in the privacy of one’s home, like masturbation. Well, sex and orgies are much more pleasurable than masturbation, and talking about art with other people is much more pleasurable than thinking about it alone. In any case, one can and should have both.

Artists should think about art, and should talk about it together, the same way people agitating for social change should talk about social change together. Would Occupy Wall Street have happened if people didn’t finally decide to put their collective grievances into a public space and talk about them? Art is not frivolous. Art is not a luxury. It moves the world forward. Like Occupy, it speaks for the pockets of our culture and our hearts that the mainstream, commercialized world does not want to hear about; art elbows its way in. It’s about balancing – about justice. It allows our deepest grievances and sorrows to take centre stage. Art is an example of human freedom and striving. It defines and stretches our humanity, it clears the world of convenient lies, it touches the loneliness that plagues us all and replaces it with fellow-feeling. It creates models of possible worlds in opposition to the worlds we live in, which we cannot imagine our way out of without art.

If my book can be placed among those that create possible worlds, I suppose  it’s a world in which artists can talk about art with dignity, because there is nothing to ridicule there.

If conversations about art are “privileged,” then it is also a privilege to talk about injustice. And maybe it is! Yes, I suppose it is a great privilege to be able to speak about art and justice. It is a great privilege, also, to be alive. And yet we do not all stab knives into our chests. It is a great privilege to be so far advanced in human history that writing and reading exist for so many. Yet that these things don’t exist for all, does not mean that those who read should poke out their eyes with sticks. All these privileges are meant to be taken. And used.

Finally, narcissism is something that begins and ends with itself. The artist is not narcissistic; she looks at her self in order to talk about other selves. She then creates something and gives it to the world. Someone who does this could be considered narcissistic in her personal life; only her friends and family know for sure. Yet people who look at themselves in order to better look at the world – that is not narcissism. It is, and has always been, what people who make art do, and must do. You cannot do it blind. You cannot do it by looking at a toaster. We do not look at ourselves in order to bask in our vanity (do you think anyone writes in furs?) but to understand ourselves as human beings – so as to understand other human beings – the human: fiction’s greatest subject. If we as a culture hate art, and this past year has made me suspect we do, I can only think it is because we are afraid to look at ourselves. And we hate the artist because she can look, and does.


Filed under books, guest post, literature, margaux williamson, visual art

Somewhere (2010) – written and directed by Sofia Coppola

Intro by Margaux Williamson, text that follows by Sheila Heti

(I went to see this in a theatre in Los Angeles. I sat next to my friend Sheila Heti. Sheila and I can as easily agree as disagree about a movie we watch together, but in this case, when the credits started to roll and we looked at each other, it was clear it hadn’t worked its magic on either of us – even though it was interesting to watch a movie about driving around in Los Angeles since that’s what we had been doing all day.

I think the elements that were supposed to resonate with me didn’t. I couldn’t see the poetry or the power of the movie, and I had been holding out hope for these things till the end. When, before going into the bathroom, Sheila critiqued the movie, she talked about the main character in a way that I never think about, and I really wanted to hear more. The only thought I’d had about the main character was that it was it too bad they hadn’t cast Bruce Willis.

But when she came out of the bathroom, we couldn’t discuss it because we were late meeting someone for a drink – strangely, at the nearby Chateau Marmont. The Chateau Marmont was the setting of the movie we had just seen, a place I had been unfamiliar with before we stepped into the cinema. Our friend must have picked the hotel after we told him which movie we were seeing.

I asked Sheila if she could write about the film and character here so that I wouldn’t miss out. )

Somewhere covers a few weeks in the life of a 30-ish movie star named Johnny. Instead of acting, he goes to press junkets. He is offered sex at every turn. He drinks and smokes in his un-fabulous apartment at the Chateau Marmont. He feels and thinks nothing.

At one point, he is asked to look after his 11-year-old daughter, Chloe. Chloe’s mother can’t take care of him because she has to do something (we never find out what, or find out whether the mother is Johnny’s ex-wife or his ex-girlfriend or his ex-lay). So Johnny and Chloe hang around. Her beautiful, innocent pubescence returns him to feeling, somewhat. After depositing her at camp, he sees that he is empty. He sits on the floor beside his bed and calls a woman (we don’t know who) and asks her to come over. “I am not even a human,” he says. “Why don’t you volunteer?” the female voice asks. She doesn’t come over. A few scenes later, Johnny calls room service, asks for his apartment to be packed up, drives to the desert, gets out of his car, and walks off screen.

We have no indication of what he means to do off-screen (kill himself? take a piss? return to his daughter?) just as we don’t know why the mother left, or who Johnny called. But I didn’t struggle to find answers to these questions, I think because one senses that there are no answers – that even Sofia Coppola doesn’t know.

For most of us, the details in life matter, because it is the details we have to contend with; the details are the stuff on which our choices turn. In Sofia Coppola’s world, there are no choices, and nothing is difficult to contend with.

In her films, people aren’t deciding-beings or responsible-beings; they are, simply, their context — which they didn’t even get themselves into, but simply where they find themselves placed. Johnny finds himself in the realm of celebrity, so he’s a celebrity. When he’s around his daughter, he has a little more feeling in him, because being around daughters gives one a little feeling. In Lost in Translation, Scarlett Johansson looks about weirdly because Tokyo makes foreigners look about weirdly. Sofia Coppola is a filmmaker because she was born Sofia Coppola.

What separates a human from a light bulb is that a human creates her life. A light bulb is screwed in. If a human is not shown to make her life, but rather, is just this thing that has been screwed into place, there’s nothing to say about that human.

Sofia Coppola’s protagonists are light bulbs.

Charitably, one might consider that Coppola’s simply representing what it looks like when people have no experience of their own agency. But I actually don’t think the question of agency ever comes to her mind. In one scene I can’t forget, Chloe sits listening to her father play the piano, her arm draped unnaturally over the back of the chair. No little girl would sit that way, but it certainly looks good to place a girl that way. Sofia Coppola’s world is purely a visual one. She reproduces what she sees around her (in this case, one supposes, her friends) and human motivation and choice aren’t things one sees when one looks at people – these things have to be thought about.

What does Coppola think about Johnny? Simply that Johnny is Johnny because that’s how Johnnys are. She doesn’t ask why Johnnys are this way. I’m not sure why she doesn’t ask this. It’s probably because no Johnnys have asked her.

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Guest Post: David Wojnarowicz Gets It Better

by Sholem Krishtalka

By now, the It Gets Better campaign – spawned by sex columnist/gay avenger Dan Savage in response to a seeming rash of gay teen suicides – is an international phenomenon.

The user-submitted videos on its YouTube channel number over a thousand; both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have weighed in; an official response from queer Canadian celebs has been added to the roster. More pour in daily. And this is to say nothing of the splinter campaigns: there are, in fact, some It Gets Worse videos.

The more I look at these videos, the more I am reminded of one of my favourite artworks: David Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (One Day This Kid…). I’ve seen it numerous times, in reproduction and “in the flesh.” And each time I see it, its brutal honesty and cutting simplicity shake me to my core (it’s one of the few works of art in front of which I’ve cried).

It’s a gelatin silver print: a grainy school photo of a young Wojnarowicz (he can’t be more than 9 or 10), buck-toothed and gawky, smiling at the camera. The phrase “One day this kid will get larger” appears on the upper right-hand corner of the page, and from there starts a litany of the systems of casual and institutional oppression that will be brought to bear on this kid as he makes his way through life. It ends with the phrase, “All this will begin to happen in one or two years when he discovers he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy.”

Wojnarowicz himself narrowly escaped a viciously abusive family life to wind up as a homeless, underage street hustler in Manhattan in the early ‘70s. His artwork (film, writing, performance, painting, prints) channeled and attempted to exorcize the demons of his life; their chilling directness and hallucinatory power earned him success in the New York art world in the ’80s (he was included in the 1985 Whitney Biennial). He died of AIDS-related complications in 1992.

One Day This Kid… was made in 1990 and, twenty years on, I can’t help but think that Wojnarowicz, in a single print, has eclipsed the totality of the It Gets Better campaign. For one thing, each of the horrors that Wojnarowicz enumerates are still true, twenty years on (as I read through it, I can easily think of news items from the past year that bear these phrases out). Given his art-world fame, one might be tempted to infer that It Got Better for Wojnarowicz. But that’s not the point, and he knew it. (And, eighteen years after his death, conservatives are still attacking his work.)

The face of gay activism has changed radically since the 1990s. Since the 1960s, it always teetered, Janus-like, between assimilationism and radicalism: the button-down civic respectability of the homophile movement versus the disruptive streak of Harry Hay and the Mattachine Society; the Stonewall riots; the “liberated” hedonism of the ‘70s and ‘80s; the AIDS crisis, which spawned a hydra of queer activist organizations, such as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP), of which David Wojnarowicz was a member.

But a strange thing happened in the ’90s: AIDS activist organizations made significant victories. AIDS became part of the public discourse; its research garnered public funding; the Republicans, with their history of tacit denials (Reagan’s first public uttering of the word “AIDS” was in 1987) were out of office.

A decade of civil disobedience and activism (carried on amidst deaths of friends and lovers) had left many exhausted (I urge the watching of Gregg Bordowitz’s seminal 1994 video Fast Trip, Long Drop). And in the strange vacuum created by the semblance of victory and a spent, mourning people, a new brand of activism emerged: so-called pink-dollar activism, the marshaling of influence based on leveraging the queer community’s power as a mostly wealthy niche market.

There are those who would defend this brand of activism as efficient, and they are right in certain senses. However, it has ultimately shifted the queer community’s relationship to mass culture and politics (if one can even make such generalizations now). The goal of ACT UP was to prompt a sea change, to force institutions to recognize queers as citizens under the law, regardless of our habits and proclivities. Pink-dollar activism, on the other hand, speaks the language of these same institutions.

Clement Greenberg once said that art should never attempt to meet its audience halfway. I’m not about to go to bat for Clement Greenberg’s snobbery, but to paraphrase him wildly for my own ends, the mainstream of queer activism has gone more than halfway in meeting its intended audience.

There is much that is valuable about the It Gets Better project; I am heartened by its sustained success. But at its core, it is an emanation of this particular brand of late-20th-century queer activism, and thus puts its emphasis in the wrong places. It makes an ultimately misguided argument: Get through this immediate trauma, so that one day, you’ll have the means to live a comfortable life, and those comforts will compensate for past suffering.

Material luxuries and promises of tomorrows are a poor weapon against the imminent threat of physical and emotional violence. To my mind, it’s a strange kind of hope to offer a teenager, and one of the more remarkable things about One Day This Kid… is that it offers no hope, and yet is not nihilistic.

It’s important to remember that it was made in the midst of the initial onslaught of the AIDS crisis, the heyday of ACT UP’s furious civil disobedience. Wojnarowicz can’t offer hope, because he knows that hope itself isn’t a guarantee and, more importantly, neither is it its own end. Wojnarowicz only offers hope tangentially, indirectly (certainly, we want This Kid to escape the text that surrounds and suffocates him). Crucially, the enumeration of harms to which This Kid will be subjected is meant to incite rage.

Finally, this is what I find missing from It Gets Better, and what I still find moving about One Day This Kid…: The former tries to soothe with the prospect of escape, and eventual isolation within domestic, urban comforts. The latter bears unflinching witness, and as such, is a challenge and a call to arms. Outrunning pain is only the first step; it’s what happens after that’s valuable.


Filed under guest post, TV/video, visual art

Special Guest Post: The Julian Schnabel Paradox – Fine Filmmaker, Wretched Artist

by Sholem Krishtalka

Photo by Ian Lefebvre.

It’s not merely that Julian Schnabel is a bad artist; he’s the worst artist. In fact, if you were to ask me to create some kind of stereotype of bad artist, I couldn’t do better than Julian Schnabel. He’s the kind of awful you just can’t fake – an inept painter whose every deficiency, every technical lack, every conceptual gap stands in inverse proportion to his own ego and self-satisfaction.

As if his paintings weren’t evidence of his towering horridness, consider his unique contribution to the field of premature self-congratulation: an insufferable, ruminating autobiography written at the ripe old age of 35.

All this is on eminent display whenever and wherever a painting of his is exhibited, and it’s some small wonder that the 5th floor of the Art Gallery of Ontario hasn’t collapsed in on itself under the groaning strain of the pendulous load of Schnabel’s output. It’s difficult to describe the experience of walking through his new show there, simply because anything I can muster sounds too fun. The closest approximation I can venture is that it feels like being clobbered about the head by a pair of giant testicles. See? Too fun.

Perhaps another strand of metaphor is required. The overwhelming atmosphere of the show is bulimic: Walking through it, you are assaulted on all sides by vastness and enormity – almost all of the paintings clock in at the 20-foot mark; gargantuan things that ram their hyper-inflated claims to genius down your throat like someone force-feeding a duck for foie gras. I staggered towards the elevator desperate to somehow puke it all out of me, to wash myself clean of Schnabel’s oily presence.

Let’s be clear (because I was being coy up until now): Schnabel can’t paint. The two most difficult scales for a painter to tackle are the extremely small and the extremely large. Both highlight the importance of touch and of gesture.

In an extremely small painting, there is literally no room for clumsiness – everything has to be graceful and efficient; a weak passage in that tight an environment is disastrous. In an extremely large painting, the painter has to fill the canvas with their gesture, the entire body becoming an extension of the paintbrush. On a 20-foot scale, everything is amplified, everything is immediately available for scrutiny. And Schnabel’s gracelessness, his inability to do anything more than to stab and drag paint around in the most perfunctory way, is on full display. His marks merely and only fill space.

His conceptual capabilities are exactly on par with his technical abilities. This is a man who famously said of his plate paintings that the surfaces are meant to recall the destruction and trauma of Kristallnacht– which is why, I presume, they make an excellent support for portraits of pop stars and Beverly Hills socialites (one of his plate paintings is at the AGO: it’s garishly busy to the point of cluttered illegibility; it looks like sharp, shiny vomit).

The same staggering thematic blindness shouts at you from almost every wall in the AGO. Of a canvas stretched in the shape of a sail with nothing but the name “Jane Birkin” painted across its bottom, the didactic panel would have us believe that Jane Birkin not only evokes but summarizes Egypt. I’m sure Egyptians think so, too.

His homages to Bertolucci involve blown-up photo-transfers of surfers with a great splooge of white paint leaking down one side. I’d say this bit of oleaginous ejaculate is a recurring motif with Schnabel, but motif is too coherent a word, as this puddle appears almost everywhere, and is made to mean anything. The same 10-foot dribble appears on a painting made in immediate and heartfelt homage to his friend Jean-Michel Basquiat upon learning of his death. How much can this puddle of paint be made to signify? In the space of two rooms, it is reiterated to the point of irrelevance, celebrating the glory of Italian manhood and mourning the drug-overdose of his closest friend.

It doesn’t signify anything, of course, just as the plates don’t really mean anything. They’re bullshit nothings, lurching stabs at shorthand expressiveness from a man whose visual vocabulary is infantile at best.

Of his ego, this too is on eminent and laughable display. Painting after painting is choked with poorly disguised references to painters whom he imagines to be his peers: Goya, Bacon. Only Schnabel doesn’t actually have the wit to quote either appropriately or properly, and so it all comes off as cack-handed mimicry.

The show was mounted in cross-marketing with the premiere of Schnabel’s latest film at TIFF. And here’s the curious thing: Schnabel makes good movies. This has been owned up to by people whose critical natures and opinions I respect (one of my most impossibly demanding friends said that his movies “redeemed [Schnabel]”). I own up to it myself: I’ve enjoyed every movie of his I’ve seen.  How is this? How can he be such a horrible artist, but a good filmmaker?

I refer you to Gore Vidal’s 1976 essay, “Who Makes the Movies?” in which Vidal, drawing upon his years of experience as a “hack writer” for the Hollywood Studio system, tries to debunk the application of auteur theory to Golden Age Hollywood movies. In those times, he argues, the producer was king and the director was referred to by all and sundry as “the brother-in-law” – at best, an appendix to the phalanx of talent and business that were responsible for the picture.

The core of his point applies to Schnabel’s film career. Movie-making is not a solitary business. So here’s the question: How much can we really say that Schnabel himself is responsible for the excellence of his films? On each film, he had a cinematographer to actually do the hard craft of constructing his images; writers to draft a cogent script (though, granted, Schnabel is given a tertiary writing credit on his first two films); actors to interpret the script; editors to translate the raw footage into a cohesive film.

Even though his films are independent, Schnabel still operates at a level whereby he has a vast staff of very talented people at his disposal to construct his movies (he had enough lucre to hire Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s DP, to film 2007’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).

My loathing of his paintings (and my bafflement at his rise to art-stardom, even in the hysterical art world of the ’80s) makes it tempting to dismiss Schnabel the director as a mere brother-in-law, blustering and ineffectual, who, at the crucial moment, shoves everyone aside to don the mantle of singular genius, and bathe in the critical hosannas.

Still, let’s give Schnabel the benefit of the doubt, and assume that, as a director, he is perpetually present, guiding everyone at all stages, keeping a dictatorial eye over the exercise of his vision; his movies are his own. Still and all, there is a very basic fact that underscores all of this: a movie is photographed; a painting is built.

A movie involves arranging various elements (actors, locations, etc.), letting them do their thing, and recording it. Not an easy task, by any stretch of the imagination. But a painting involves not only creating those elements out of nothing, but also creating the world in which they interact, and then translating all of that from thought to gesture to image.

Schnabel cannot build paintings, but he can make movies. It’s the assaultive, egomaniacal failure of the former that compels these doubts about the latter. Still, these doubts are nothing more than conjecture (and mostly unproductive conjecture at that). So I’ll leave the question of who makes Schnabel’s movies open. But I know with certainty exactly who makes Schabel’s paintings.


Filed under guest post, movies, visual art