Doin' the Hustle
Costumed as an eccentric artist, Julian Schnabel wore purple pajamas to the jam-packed opening of his exhibition "Amor Misericordioso" at McClain Gallery. In his sleepwear, he reportedly greeted the likes of Lynn Wyatt and Carolyn Farb. Houstonians should be glad he wasn't clad in one of his other fave sartorial affectations, the sarong -- that garment tends to offer a (shudder) glimpse of thigh. Schnabel, the dimmed '80s art star, is still making paintings. Meanwhile, general consensus holds that the artist, who directed the award-winning Before Night Falls, is much better off in the film world.
Schnabel's new show is something one art-world insider delicately characterized as "total dog shit." She went on to describe it as something you would expect to see in "the worst student show in Waco." A Houston collector said he was "underwhelmed by the work -- and I had low expectations to begin with," while a Houston artist recalled his reaction to seeing the work this way: "I thought, 'God, those are bad paintings, holy fuck.' " Not exactly glowing recommendations, but you have to keep an open mind. Art people can be overly cynical, especially when it involves a target as big as Schnabel.
Having inadvertently missed the spectacle of the opening, I went to see the paintings unobscured by crowds and middle-aged men in pajamas. Well, they're big paintings, I'll give them that. Yep, you can cover lots of wall space with one of those suckers. But the thing is, size does work to Schnabel's advantage; it creates an immediate aura of importance. Schnabel himself determined their elegantly staged and spacious installation. It's just that when you start to actually look at the paintings, things fall apart.
Most of them are done over giant photo reproductions from parts of a religious print containing text from the show's title. Amor misericordioso translates as "merciful love," a merciful love for the impoverished, sick and uneducated. How exactly that concept ties in to paintings priced at $300,000 and up escapes me.
The billboard-size blowup of Spanish Catholica is what provides the works their scant visual interest. Over the vastly enlarged partial images of a crown resting on a pillow that reads "Christ the King" Schnabel has sparingly smeared lines of white and cerulean-blue paint, scrawled and dripped magenta, and drizzled, dotted and squeegeed resin. This would be the artist expressing himself.
While appropriation can be a good strategy, Schnabel's use of a Spanish religious print just feels like stolen theatrics. He's using something he has no real cultural connection to (aside from having a Spanish wife and spending some teen years in Brownsville), and he's using it without critique or wit or a purpose beyond the decorative. The cavalier marks he makes over this image have no relation to the image itself, visually or conceptually.
For one massive work, Schnabel has pasted a hefty swatch of the Spanish print on a gray stained tarp, painting an upper corner white and adding a vertical mark in white. On the canvas, he's written in faux-childish letters "too good for royals." It's thrown out there like some obscure yet profound comment. But the paintings are uninteresting, and there's no sense of purpose or conviction behind Schnabel's offhand choices and mark-making.
Schnabel is creating something big and dramatic that looks like it ought to be art. The works are like props for a stage set. The implication is that because Schnabel has deigned to swat at the canvas with a brush, a masterpiece has been created. These paintings have infinitely more to do with ego than they do with art. But as one Houston artist sees it, it doesn't matter if Schnabel's paintings are interesting or not -- they're branded objects, vehicles to convey the "heroicized mythology of the maker." Schnabel has consistently relied on his persona as a crutch for his paintings. If you act important, people will eventually start to believe it.
But Schnabel's sense of theatrics has served him well as a director. Film is about creating illusions, and Schnabel does that exceedingly well. It's just that he does the same thing with painting; he's creating the illusion of art.
I wish I'd remembered to go to the opening, because that was really the art. Walking into the empty gallery in broad daylight is like walking onto the stage of an empty theater with the houselights up. Without the actor, the audience and the dramatic lighting of a nocturnal opening, any magic is gone; Schnabel's paintings come across as dead theatrical props, waiting for another performance to give them life.
The opening, it seems, was yet another stop for the touring company of a once popular New York show with the star trotting out a frayed performance in his trademark role of His Jamminess -- the eccentric yet godlike artist. "I felt kind of bad for him," said a fellow artist as she described the opening. "He's havin' to hustle. It's not the '80s anymore."
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