Julian Schnabel: Every Angel has a Dark Side
Dairy Art Centre, London
April 25 - July 27, 2014
By SOPHIE HILL May 2014
Every Angel has a Dark Side is Julian Schnabel’s first solo in a UK public space in fifteen years and, following his marked success as a film Director, Schnabel proves he is still an artist first. Made up of recent works that are barely left dry (a self-portrait, amongst others, from 2014), as well as paintings spanning the last two decades, the exhibition is a window into a very painterly painter’s mind. From canvas to canvas, one sees style and subject fluctuate from favour, distinctive elements of inspiration change; hung in communication, this spanning of time allows each work to consider the other in a conversation that is still very much on-going.
Founders of the Dairy, Frank Cohen and Nicolai Frahm describe Schnabel as “a modern day Renaissance man”, embracing many art forms, and this is certainly the impression Schnabel gives as he takes us round the exhibition – the all-encompassed artist. It is clear that Cohen and Frahm have been intrinsic in putting this exhibition together and, as Schnabel describes his work, he often turns to Frahm in particular for words. Their dialogue is thick with ideas and explanations, laden with the fruit of hours of previous discussion. There is something charged about the atmosphere, Renaissance even, and it becomes infectious as we begin to look at the paintings.
The surface of Schnabel’s paintings are covered in a thick resin, a glassy and illustrious layer. Thus the texture of the paint below is carried – shimmering as colour in water – to the surface, as the resin holds droplets of paint above one another in a layering that gives each work a boundless depth. As Schnabel explains, “resin affords each mark its autonomy”; it suspends each mark, allowing the process of painting to unfold before us. The care taken in building each layer, in accenting each brush stoke, is mirrored in Schnabel’s overall approach to composition, which is keenly dependent on process. Many of Schnabel’s canvases are begun in print, enlarging an overlooked detail from an image, or indeed another painting, and printing it on canvas as a starting point. Barely recognisable beneath the layers of oil and ink that Schnabel builds upon them, these reproduced images become a statement of an age that is entirely dependent on the immediacy of a digital image. They are Schnabel’s starting point, yet, unlike the world’s endless repetition, their reproduction sees them encompassed into something entirely original that cannot be reproduced; as Schnabel tells us, his paintings don’t photograph well.
Schnabel’s layering of different media and processes leaves these paintings fuelled with a collection of found details that are Schnabel’s inspiration. These details are littered throughout the works – a cushion at the feet of a sculpture of Jesus makes the background of Untitled, (Amor Misericordioso III) (2004), an image of the Queen of Qatar in The Unknown Painter and The Muse He Will Never Meet (2010), or the title of the exhibition itself: every angel has a dark side. These words can be found hidden behind Grotto (2013) that Schnabel explains was inspired by a gift of postcards of black and white photos. The effect is to have the desk drawer of Schnabel’s mind spread out before us, making the exhibition incredibly personal; an accumulation of what has moved or provoked him.
Regardless of what details begin these paintings, their power in colour and impact is clear. Schnabel’s painting is painter’s painting, thick swathes of colour that move and melt luxuriously, carried in colour that is bright with energy. In Untitled (Chinese) (2011) paint drips solidly across the soft ghost of a woman in colours evocative of the East. Strokes are heavy and textured up close, raised from the surface of the canvas, yet delicate from a distance, as each fibre of the brush becomes a thin vein of colour, rippling across the stroke. The rich earthy colours of Landscape (1997) are lush in the wet green of a jungle, hot in the dry yellows of a desert, only interrupted by the flat oozing shape of colourlessness. Landscape (1997) epitomises Schnabel’s embrace of the abstract and the figurative; he is defiantly both in his work, letting each approach play to the strength of his subject in harmony.
As the resin closes each work like a glaze, the beginning action of construction is just as important to Schnabel. David and Goliath (2011) is a terrific work; imposingly large with life-sized figures, the picture is a theatrical stage of light and shadow. Dramatic, as David’s shadow is cast ominously up the wall, Schnabel tells us the painting itself was painted by candlelight. Indeed, the flickering light of a flame appears to illuminate the paint, as if Schnabel’s action of painting in such light took down the atmosphere with each stroke. The evocativeness of Schnabel’s technique is felt throughout, perhaps particularly acutely when looking at the two contrasting self-portraits, 10 years apart. Colour is treated completely differently; blocked and flat in the oldest (2004), the brown of the easel imposes across the composition, covering Schnabel himself. In his 2014 self-portrait, Schnabel’s whole body is in view and centred, the canvas pushed to the side. Colour is fantastic, rainbow-like, moving and morphing from green to blue to red to pink; textured and triumphant as it swarms about Schnabel, dressed in white. This colour is teeming with imagination and, as it clings to the back of his canvas, it is clear that Schnabel is channelling it; there is a control – if a slightly mad one – that is absent in the first self-portrait.
As the fight continues for painting Every Angel has a Dark Side proves originality can be teased out of a canvas. As Schnabel states, work must “either enforce or destroy paintings that were made before”.
Sophie Hill is founder of postcardwall, an online publication about art inspired by postcards. Sophie has curated exhibitions for galleries in London and New York, and regularly writes text for artists. Sophie graduated from the University of York in 2009 with a BA in History of Art & English Literature; she lives and works in London.
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