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Schnabel and Spain: Anything Can Be a Model for a Painting

Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga

April 8 - June 12, 2022

Curated by Fernando Francés and Cy Schnabel

Installation view: Schnabel and Spain: Anything can be a Model for a Painting, CAC Málaga, Spain. Photo by Marta Salado.

In entering the exhibition, the first painting one encounters is a reproduction of Queen Maria Luisa on Horseback (1799) by Francisco de Goya (p. 23); an official copy of the original hanging in the Museo Nacional del Prado authorized by the museum itself for Schnabel’s personal collection. The artist with one succinct gesture, has intervened covering the full len- gth of the picture with a white painted mark; making a direct link with this historical masterpiece. To have this painting at first sight might be construed as a highly symbolic decision. It puts Schnabel’s work in a context with Spanish painting, an art historical dialogue, that is one chapter of a greater story. This conversation with Spain does not undermine the autonomous and contemporary nature of the works on view. Schnabel’s contribution is yet to be discussed.

This exhibition includes a selection of Resin Portraits he began while living in Spain in 1997, with more recent work that covers aspects of his artistic production from the last 5-10 years; including Portrait of Tatiana Lisovskaia As The Duquesa De Alba I (2014; p. 25) and Portrait of Tatiana Lisovskaia As The Duquesa De Alba II (2014; p. 27) which are being shown in public together for the first time.

This survey in Málaga, the city where Picasso was born, explores Schnabel’s general attitude towards making art and some of the main themes that have characterized his artistic practice, that began in the mid-1970s: challenging conventional notions of sur- face in painting, addressing the relationship between the pictorial and what is the object, interventions on found materials and appropriation of found imagery, an approach that does not conform to one particular style; a manifesto of various modes of personal expression, where no hierarchical distinctions are made between abstraction and figuration.

One day at Count Giovanni Volpe’s house in Venice, a friend who generously lent his palazzo to my father for a month, Julian had the impulse to paint white marks over some 18th century portraits of procurators who happened to be Giovanni’s ancestors. They were heavily varnished which attracted his attention as well. He knew he could not deface these ancestral portraits, but it led to the notion that he could make his own antique paintings alluding to another time. Places like Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, or Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, were always infinitely more captivating to him than going to a contemporary art museum. Something about the way Titian or Goya saw the world pictorially always mesmerized him. As a kid he always wondered why violence and other emotions felt so much more real in films than in a painted picture. I think he no longer felt this way once he travelled to Europe and saw pictures like Fra Angelico’s Christ Crowned with Thorns (p. 13), Caravaggio’s only signed painting The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (which he only saw once in Florence while it was being restored), Goya’s two pictures The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808. He didn’t need to travel too far either, Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had a similar effect to these other masterpieces of western art. The psychological, physical and emotional impact of these works is something that Schnabel has always yearned to emulate in his painted vision.

When Schnabel and other North American artists of his generation were in art school minimalism and conceptual art had a hegemonic grip on the artistic climate, and of course there was an emphasis on things that had come out of New York, loosely speaking an American brand of Modernism. This came out of the post-war concept of leaving European historical baggage behind in search of a fresh new American art. That was not Schnabel’s problem. In the wax, velvet, plate works and other groups of paintings leading up to the resin portraits, his gaze and sensibility always looked more towards Europe; and it seems to still be true to this day.

Started in the late 90’s, these Resin Portraits in particular create a dialogue with Spanish portraiture. Most of the subjects in these paintings are people the artist knows (Portrait of Amada Nazario (1997, p. 41), Portrait of Albert Oehlen (1997, p. 43), Portrait of José Ramón Antero) (1997, p. 39)); the pictures are painted as if they were from another time. Schnabel starts by painting the ground a burnt sienna mixed with dark umber and then painting the light in which allows the images to appear; a technique that Velázquez and Goya had employed. All of them have been finished with a thick glistening layer of epoxy resin; adding an effect where one clearly sees the autonomy of each brushstroke. The layer of resin gives the picture an antique and modern quality simultaneously. This particular aspect evokes Renaissance painters’ use of varnish. However, this liquid glass is a 21st century material that did not exist a couple centuries ago. These portraits come to life with an abundance of brushwork, color, and a profound depth. Each of these works show Schnabel’s masterful ability to make an authentic image from the past, while reinventing the present with something radically new allowing him to capture the soul and psychological complexity of his characters.

With the painting Christ (Victor Hugo Demo) (1997; p. 37) the artist had his friend Grillo Demo pose strung up to a makeshift cross in Schnabel’s studio in San Sebastián, Spain (p. 15). This particular depiction of Christ is inspired by Velázquez’s iconic painting Christ Crucified (1632), where the glowing dead central figure on the cross is engulfed by a pitch black abyss. In Schnabel’s homage, the central image of Christ on the cross has been preserved but instead he is surrounded by a celestial blue space as if he is ascending to heaven. The end wall of the rectangular studio where the artist’s model posed as Christ resembles an altar itself. A monumental stone wall covered with moss and other natural accidents that evoke a haunting religious beauty. Interestingly enough, Schnabel has an early 19th century copy of that specific Velázquez painting hanging in the living room at his house there. Why do most of these paintings have white marks on them? What does the white mark mean? These elements represent an eternal fleeting present moment, the real time of the painting when experienced by the viewer. With these works and their characteristics from the past, Schnabel is acknowledging that painting has always existed. Adding the white marks, whatever the image may be, evokes the present and reflects our transient nature as human beings. A confrontation between the past and the present, between life and death.

A handful which are painted with the same technique as the portraits of real people are based on found imagery from a bricolage store in San Sebastián: Las Niñas (1997; p. 45), El Cesto (1997), Milagros (1997). Old lithographs of cartoons meant to hang in a child’s room as decoration, extend the possibilities of a painting’s appearance.

On the opposite side of the gallery from the Resin Portraits, one can see two Goat Paintings from 2016 (pp. 32-33; pp. 34-35). Around the time Schnabel star- ted making these works in 2012, I wrote about the goats. This was the first time I wrote somethingabout my father’s work and anything related to art in general. My personal revelation was that these works were self-portraits, and that the figure of the goat was a surrogate for the artist. Like the Resin Portraits, these works are constructed out of many realities and layers of meaning. For these paintings Schnabel has employed an inkjet printing method. As a result, they have a strong component of digital painting which reflects the artist’s use of new technological media that could reinvigorate painting in different ways. This also embodies his indiscriminate approach when selecting materials that could constitute a painting. The first layer, a landscape split by a mass of water exiting to the sea, like a fjord, comes from an 18th century French Dufour wallpaper. This wallpaper has been printed on polyester and digitally manipulated so what one sees is only a fragment of the original image. The second layer is a taxidermy goat that belongs to the artist and has been superimposed onto the printed landscape. On top of the goat’s head is a stuffed bunny leaning over like a dead soldier still tied to his horse. The stuffed animal was originally included in honor of Mike Kelley when he started the goat series around the time the artist passed away. They feel like 21st century renderings of antique equestrian portraits – which Schnabel has mentioned in connection to this group of works. My father has a particular affinity to Velázquez’s paintings of historical Spanish political figures on horseback in the same room as Las Meninas (1656) at the

Prado, like the Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke of Olivares (1634).

This layering of imagery is not dissimilar to the overlap of different kinds of visual information one sees in the Plate Paintings. Decades later, the same attitude and philosophy producing radically different images. With the two examples on view, the last layer reveals Schnabel’s range of mark making. The artist has used a hose, his fingers, and a paint brush to execute the different kinds of painted gestures. With these distinct shapes and forms one sees Julian’s ongoing investigation into different ways of applying paint. The totality of this image reveals something deeply idiosyncratic and personal, a tapestry of already existing materials supporting his painted intervention. Its ethnographic quality preserves and activates its previous existence and other cultural associations of the selected materials which come from different places and times.

Paintings on found or discarded materials retain their original shape, meaning the previous use and functional character determine the paintings’ final shape of rather than conforming to the generic rectangle. The works on found fabrics from an outdoor market in Mexico and the Billboard Paintings, both present in this survey, are excellent examples.

When my father was 15 years old, his parents moved to the Texas border town of Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico. His preoccupation with surfing allowed him to travel through the north and south of the country extensively. Mexico has had a huge effect on him. He has a house on the Pacific coast of Guerrero where he paints outdoors regularly. As he drove past a town at the base of the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range, his eyes were caught by synthetic fabrics with radiant colors covering an itinerant fruit market. Unique tones of pink and purple, colors that aren’t commercially available but that come to life through their extended exposure to the sun, constitute the skin of his pink abstractions. Stains, holes, and an accumulation of accidents due to their usage become the perfect material to respond to pictorially. A surface with a charged history and layers of anonymous and unintentional authorship which exemplify his ongoing notion of composition as a time map. The earliest examples of these works in the show are from 2015 (p. 29-30). Light blue lines laid down with spray paint intersect at different points; delicate, loose and architectural at the same time. They feel like skeletal landscapes, illusive recordings of shorelines or the ocean’s sporadic movements. Solid white shapes sit on top of the material and almost act like blind spots that disrupt the picture plane. These works speak to Tàpies; abstract gestures that materialize through unconventional materials with reoccurring marks that behave like signs.

Ultimately for Schnabel, this found fabric reflects the environment that had always surrounded it, becoming the perfect receiver for his painterly vocabulary. He found his version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, one of his favorite movies. After Schnabel’s initial discovery through the color of the fabric, his idea of what to do with this material became more refined as he noticed the odd cutouts used to cover the stands in the market to create shade, as well as the irregular shapes that occurred when he tied the pink “lonas” between palm trees in his outdoor studio there (p. 8).

From the time of his first plate painting The Patients and the Doctors (1978; p. 12) and the second, The Death of Fashion (1978), shapes have derived from found objects existing within a practical context. With the Plate Paintings, the armature supporting the broken crockery has the same exact dimensions of a closet in a hotel room in Barcelona where he stayed during his first visit to Spain. With the Recognitions Paintings (p. 18), mostly white house paint on khaki green military tarps, unconventional shapes come from the way the material was stitched together in order to cover all sides of army trucks.

The Billboard Paintings continue Schnabel’s exploration into the possibilities of finding new forms that present paintings intervention into real life or real life’s intervention into painting. They are both sculptural and pictorial. These rectangular panels on stilts are replicas of billboards that were on the side of the highway near Capalbio, Italy. They look like found objects; advertisements and signs full of political in- tention that have become irrelevant, propaganda that has been left to oblivion and covered up with swathes of mineral violet. Iconic imagery that has lost and found its iconography. These redacted purple marks travel from the billboards across the room to the big girl sweeping past her eyes landing on infinite landscapes of pink.

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