Big Girl Paintings
555 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10022
March 14-April 20, 2002
There are six very big paintings in this show and one tall ugly sculpture. If critical judgment must be reduced to “You get it or you don’t,” then I guess I don’t. Five of these paintings are based on a picture of a blonde haired girl that Schnabel allegedly stumbled upon while visiting a thrift store. These enormous canvases range in size from 10 to 13 feet in height and 9 to 12 feet in length. There are enough large patches of sky blue in this room to make you queasy. In each of these paintings a drippy band of paint stretches from the right or left edge of the canvas across the part of the face where the eyes would normally be, but does not quite reach the opposite edge. Schnabel has left the eyes out of every image. These paintings are painfully self-conscious. Schnabel, using wax and oil paint, attempts to emulate the painting style of an amateur. The lips and noses recede, the shadows and highlights float above the surfaces, the flesh tones are smeared on to faces like rouge. The modernists used the visual vocabulary of the insane and primitive cultures to put the final nail in the coffin of academicism. Since we are in the age of “anything goes” I am not sure why post-modernists, including Schnabel, still think that bad painting is interesting or necessary. By aping a distinctly naive painting technique Schnabel tries to elevate the marginal to a higher plane, lending his name to the whole process. According to the press release Schnabel left the eyes out of these giant paintings of faces “as a means to force the viewer to look at the paintings and not the eyes.” I for one never felt that the presence of eyes in a portrait interfered with my ability to enjoy the formal qualities of the whole. Removing the eyes undercuts the psychological impact and diminishes the viewer’s curiosity. If the eyes were painted in and then scratched out these images would be more unsettling. Judging by the amount of time each gallery-goer I encountered spent looking at these monstrosities, (if you consider spinning around slowly with a smirk on your face and hurrying out of the room to be looking) one wonders if they would have held more interest with the eyes left in.
Also, why bother doing a series of these images? If he spent his time painting one really good portrait of a giant girl it would have greater artistic value then these self congratulatory tributes to bad painting. I can’t help but imagine Schnabel whispering in my ear, “Look at what beauty I found in the junk shop.” On a formal level, the color schemes are abysmal, the opposite of intoxicating. The forms, self-consciously ill proportioned and insensitively rendered, are as unimpressive as they would if encountered in a much smaller and more modest format in the thrift store racks. The painting and sculpture in the west gallery (Ahab, 2002 and Anno Domini, 1990) are thoroughly unappealing. The bronze sculpture looks like a spiked phallus from hell and the uninspired monument to expressionist brushwork on the wall behind it is a typical Schnabel song and dance: a splatter here, a dry caked up area there, some obscure fragments of text thrown into the mix for good measure. The pointless Latin title really irked me. All that is really impressive, at the end of the day, is that Schnabel owns a big enough warehouse in which to create these half-hearted attempts at great painting.