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Now known more as the director of hit Art-House films such as “Before Night Falls,” “Basquiat,” (in which he cast Gary Oldman to play a younger version of himself) and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Julian Schnabel first became famous as one in a group of jet-setting bad boy painters from the 1980’s.

Julian Schnabel at Shinsegae


Now known more as the director of hit Art-House films such as “Before Night Falls,” “Basquiat,” (in which he cast Gary Oldman to play a younger version of himself) and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Julian Schnabel first became famous as one in a group of jet-setting bad boy painters from the 1980’s.

 Flying in the face of the dour art movements of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, Schnabel was then known for his large scale, flamboyant (often too flamboyant) canvases. Schnabel combined a garishly heroic palate and the aggressive brush work of abstract expressionist painting with densely layered iconic imagery that was more in line with Pop Art. The combination was stunning. Schnabel and his generation have often been credited with reviving the whole endeavor of painting itself at a time when serious artists had declared painting dead and over with. 

Considered a bearish presence in the art world (and sometimes even hyper-egotistical) Schnabel is part of a group of artists from the late ‘70’s and ‘80’s who brought painting back to the forefront of contemporary art. Until Schnabel & Co. came along, painting had been considered a long-dead medium reserved for stiff-lipped academics or Sunday afternoon hobbyists. Schnabel and Co. changed all of that with their groundbreaking, unsettling work. 

"Bob's World (2006) oil, wax, bondo, ceramic plates and horns on wood and canvas

Schnabel’s paintings are nothing if not roughshod. They can be garish, muddled, inelegant affairs of poured resin, palettes that are just plain wrong, hastily spray painted awkward lines and mysterious or completely oblique words and phrases on canvases or screen-printed vinyl. Though you have to keep in mind that the hasty, tilt-a-whirl experimentation typical of Schnabel was just what was needed for painting at the time. Painting then was at a dead end and had been so for a long time. 

Painters just before Schnabel had dove into the deep end of abstraction and were swimming deeper and deeper into the obscure depths until what you got was just a whole lot of nothing, a boring endgame. Garish, over-exuberant and overconfident to a fault was exactly what the doctor ordered. Julian Schnabel was just the man for the job.

Over the years, as the all-too-fashionable art world turned, critics and fans alike gradually turned their backs on Schnabel. For years the butt of several art world jokes, Schnabel doesn’t exactly make himself a hard target to hit. With such endearingly humble quotes as: “I’m the closest thing to Picasso that you’ll see in this *#@&ing life,” the gregarious painter turned filmmaker is not exactly a popular persona. 

The current show at Shinsegae is a nice, though hit and miss affair. The works in the exhibit were made from as early as 1985, right up to 2008. There’s basically four separate bodies of work in the show ranging from small prints and works on paper to large scale paintings. 

"Hopper" (1991)

The more ambitious paintings in the show just don’t quite work. There are some good passages here and there, some hints that Schnabel’s still got a few truly great paintings left in him yet, but as complete works from a well-respected master they fall just short. The smaller works on paper and prints are a bit more successful but less ambitious, more suitable for an artist whose time seems more and more taken up by his filmmaking and less devoted to time in the studio. 

Where he really succeeds is where he fails the most bombastically – in the newer, large scale paintings. Don’t get me wrong – these paintings, while failures, are interesting, telling failures. They are just the kind of failures that happen before a big success, the stumble before the rise. In works like “Untitled (Chinese,)” a diptych and “Untitled (Bez,)” a triptych, all painted in 2008, the old Schnabel begins to shine through. He might be a little diminished but at least the light is still on. 

All of the paintings in this series began with a single image printed on vinyl or canvas. The same image is printed on each canvas. In the diptych “Untitled (Chinese,)” the image is a reclining Chinese woman in traditional garb. In “Untitled (Bez,)” the image is of a Bodhissatva figure seated cross-legged with a beatific smile and prayer beads at the ready. Both images smack of Orientalist, curry-flavored exotica. Both are over-painted with the kind of slap dash heroics that made Schnabel such an anti-hero star in the first place. The printed image is both the center and the periphery of the painting. They are and are not its subject matter. 

Julian Schnabel's master bedroom, from a 2008 feature in Vanity Fair

Where Schnabel succeeds most is where he plays with the tension between the printed image and his destruction of that image, where he steadily walks the line between destruction and creation, between brusque heavy handed erasure and light touches, leaving an ever so subtle, elegant trace. He works and re-works the image, drawing it to the surface while also shoving it back down. There’s a lovely push and pull. The image is destroyed while also renewed, Schnabel works and re-works the image, burying it in emphatic paint, dipping it in smoky veils of transparent color or hastily caking yellow-purple-pink smears in arcs and folds elegant/inelegant/plastic/organic/veil/vandalism/ adornment. 

By comparison, the rest of the work in the show is just too polished, too easy. They don’t do much of anything. For a painter known to play the odds, these other works are just too safe. The real Schnabel is bold, refreshing, awkwardly beautiful. The Schnabel that showed up at Shinsaegae is mostly just awkward. There’s traces of the old master but in a lot of ways it feels like he’s quoting himself, like he’s just going through the motions. 

Sitting at the Starbucks just outside the gallery, making a few notes for myself and gathering my thoughts a bit, a pleasant though delightfully dull remake of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” came on over the muzak box speakers set up throughout the mall. It seemed a fitting soundtrack for the exhibit – another garish ‘80’s icon whose work was now somewhat neutered. 

If you want to see what Schnabel’s really up to lately, go check out “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” The brutal grace and creative force of Schnabel’s vision is everywhere at work in this film. Unfortunately, in many of the pieces at Shinsaegae, that vision is hidden or too often nowhere to be seen. 

Though at the end of the day, these works can and will delight with their velveteen surfaces and intriguing subdued imagery. Though, I do have to say, with all respect, having been a longtime fan, these works seem like the second rate works of a great master whose attention has turned elsewhere. My advice: see the show at Shinsegae, it’s still good though not exactly incredible. Even a subdued, distracted Schnabel is a good Schnabel.





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