by Sholem Krishtalka
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.