Julian Schnabel on his U.K. show

May 02, 2014, 7:39 AM EDT
Julian Schnabel, 'Untitled (Self Portrait)' 2004.
(Courtesy the artist and The Dairy Arts Centre)

LONDON — Although Julian Schnabel’s art has attracted its fair share of controversy, there is no doubt that his reputation as an egoist precedes him.

In the text accompanying his latest London show at the Dairy Arts Centre, “Every Angel Has a Dark Side,” the gallery’s founder Nicolai Frahm describes him as “the wunderkind of the 1980s art scene.” Yet both Schnabel and his work are still thought by many to epitomize the worst superficiality, greed, and excesses of that decade.

Since his last UK solo show in a public art space, 15 years ago, Schnabel has won a Cannes award and an Oscar nomination as a film director for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” He also directed “Miral,” which was criticized by the Israeli government and Zionist groups for portraying Israel negatively. In response, Schnabel retreated on the film’s position: “I love the State of Israel. My film is about preserving it, not hurting it.”

Now, “Every Angel Has a Dark Side” feels like a desperate attempt to establish Schnabel as a “serious artist” — something that the exhibition ends up constantly telling, but never successfully showing.

The show centers on a series of caricaturish self-portraits; in the earliest one, from 2004, the artist is shown in heroic stance, shirt unbuttoned, clutching a large housepainter’s brush and staring at a canvas thoughtfully. The work’s surface has been coated in a resin gloss, which has the unfortunate effect of causing glare from the gallery lights.

Still willing to give the paintings the benefit of the doubt, I spoke to Schnabel to see if he could tell me a bit more about them and why he felt now was a good time to exhibit. His response: “No. What else.” He then offered some tips on journalism: “Just look at them and make it all up as you go along.” This did little to dispel his reputation.

Fortunately, this hostility eventually subsided and he explained: “Nicolai [Frahm] has been looking at trying to do this show for a couple of years. I have quite a few shows on at the moment — in New York with Larry Gagosian, and at Dallas Contemporary Art Museum — so the timing made sense. With these paintings, you will find different techniques and ways of dealing with materials, but the essence of what they are is the same.”

Speaking on his film career, Schnabel said, “Actually everything I am as a filmmaker comes out of being a painter. There’s a part of my brain that’s a storyteller, and I like to write. It’s one way of dealing with myself.”

“I never made movies or paintings to make money — I never saw either of them as a career. It’s a practice,” he added.

In two of the paintings, both called “Untitled (Bez),” 2011, Schnabel worked on top of an image of the Hindu god Shiva. Over the deity he painted abstract shapes and “BEZ” in large lettering, a reference to Mark “Bez” Berry, a member of the ’80s rock band The Happy Mondays who was known for his crazy dancing.

There is the potential to make a controversial connection between the destructive dance of Shiva and the stage moves of Bez, but when asked for the meaning behind this image Schnabel simply said: “I was in a yoga class and there was a poster on the wall of Shiva. I thought it would be a good background for a painting.”

The lack of consideration that has gone into this casual cultural appropriation unfortunately reflects a theme that is common throughout the show: the works have not been thought through. There is no real investment in the paintings and they hold little aesthetic appeal — the only real draw of the show, it seems, is the star power of Julian Schnabel himself.  

But perhaps public opinion is of no consequence to the artist. Concluding our interview, Schnabel said: “Having your autonomy and the freedom to do whatever you want the way you want to do it is everything. There should be no compromise.”

“If you’re good, you’re good; if you’re bad, you’re lousy. But at the end of the day, I’m interested in painting, and it seems like there are a lot of people who are interested in looking at paintings. So, it’s OK.”

Julian Schnabel: Every Angel Has a Dark Side,” The Dairy Arts Centre, London, April 25-July 27.

-- Ashitha Nagesh