BY Andrew Gellatly in Reviews | 05 MAY 99
Featured in
Issue 46

Julian Schnabel

BY Andrew Gellatly in Reviews | 05 MAY 99

Basquiat (1996), directed by Julian Schnabel, wasn't a bad movie, but then it had a good cast: Dennis Hopper as Bruno Bischofberger, Parker Posey as Mary Boone and Gary Oldman playing Schnabel himself. He begins shooting his latest project, which stars Johnny Depp as Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, later this year, but news of his much-anticipated film about Jackson Pollock is still elusive.

Movies are clearly in Schnabel's blood, and, like Picasso, he has succumbed to the temptation to produce screen-sized paintings. For Guernica (1937), however, Picasso was satisfied with Panavision, but Schnabel has upped the ante with three towering 70mm IMAX-format pictures at the South London Gallery. This is his first exhibition in London since 1987, when his show at the Whitechapel Gallery was greeted with disdain and suspicion. Showing in a smaller, more beautiful space is strategically brilliant, taking his blustering self-belief right to the YBA heartland.

The three main works, originally conceived for the Maison Carré in Nîmes in 1990, could have been made for this space. Their bloated 7-metre-square dimensions stretch from the floor to the cornice. Schnabel frequently quotes Giotto as one of his influences, and somehow - probably by accident - what these paintings achieve is to narrow the gallery space into the dimensions of a chapel. It may not be the Scrovegni, but the craned-neck vertigo is familiar.

Unfortunately, the paintings - executed on stretched tarpaulins that Schnabel has distressed by pulling them along behind his jeep - are not Giotto. The central work, Anno Domini (1990), quotes the skeins of bull's blood in the sand at the ancient bullring at Nîmes. Schnabel has dragged the painting's raw surface with a bloody red cloth and written over it with swirling, giant brush marks, but its effects are awkward and incomplete. The white letters 'AD' in its centre could signify millennial anxiety or a reference to the central importance of marketing in his work, but it's the kind of bombast that makes British critics cringe. When Jake Chapman publicly remarked that Schnabel's recent interview with David Bowie was the meeting of 'a fat twat' with a 'skinny twat', Schnabel's characteristic reply was to offer to fight Chapman at the South London Gallery.

A second, untitled work includes a small, fringed bedspread glued to the canvas, covered with violet splatterings and dabbings; the third, also untitled, is painted with an eagle and some scattered, windblown birds. Perhaps because he wants to be a mogul, Schnabel has moguls on his mind. Five full-length portraits, the only recent works on show, hang above the entrance hallway. Sitters include Schnabel's wife Olatz, Albert Oehlen and a cast of acquaintances from San Sebastian in Spain, but look less like the Velázquez portraits with which they are often disparagingly compared, than a bad painter's chronicling of a Hollywood 'A list'. In fact, they owe more to Salvador Dali's seminal 1951 portrait of an oily, blue-suited studio boss, Colonel Jack Warner with his highland terrier. Here's Albert Oehlen (1997) as David Geffen, Olatz Schnabel (1997) as Sigourney Weaver with collagen-pumped lips and Macho Galindo (Portrait of Jorge Galindo) (1997) as Antonio Banderas. Each one is confined by a Koonsian fleshy pink fibreglass frame, cast from a 17th-century original, and coated with a thick, glassy, almost celluloid-like resin.

Schnabel likes to lay the art historical references on thick, which his admirers see as eclecticism and accumulation. To the maroon underpainting and echoes of Goya rewritten by Sigmar Polke, he's added another little twist: some spunked streaks of ejaculated white paint, chucked across the surface. In the case of Oehlen's portrait, the paint looks like a Nike swoosh. It's a détournement familiar to fans of Asger Jorn, but the Situationist was wittier in his choice of source paintings.

This then, is the hard-hearted world of Schnabel's late career: a three-way pull between the snakes and ladders of art history; his neutron star of personal vanity born sometime back in the inflationary 80s; and the West-coast lure of film.

Schnabel wants us to know that his largest works were the result of a life-and-death struggle in his wind-blasted, open-roofed studio in Long Island, when he was forced to spread-eagle himself on top of the blowing canvasses as they broke free of their stretchers. Recalling his Jackson Pollock-like torments he says 'I felt like Ahab beckoning from the dead', but if painting is like whaling for Schnabel, the ship in which he is sailing is the dream factory of West Hollywood.