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ART : Schnabel: Messing Around With Myths

December 06, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

NEW YORK — A huge black tarp that looks like a winding sheet for a giant ghoul hangs lettered in white with the name Ignatius of Loyola. Somehow it tells you a lot about the guy who made it. He's a gang kid from the Bronx, a character out of a Martin Scorsese film or a novel by John Dunne.

Darkly handsome in a doughy way, he talks with the oozing sincere mocking rap of New York street-smart kids who can never quite get their razor intelligence to cut through their superstition and vulgarity. One part of him is John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever," another is an updated Dead End Kid who made the graffiti either as a gesture of defiance after rolling a drunk or as an act of contrition for sleeping with a virgin. He could be either Catholic or Jew, but for sure he had some kind of religious upbringing to load him with that much guilt and rebellion.

Actually, the painting was made by Julian Schnabel and the character that comes out of it may or may not be contingent with his own. It's part of a 38-work survey visiting the Whitney Museum until Jan. 10. The show has been much anticipated because it is the first time most people will have any sort of in-depth look at a young (36) mega-star spawned by an art world widely regarded as having nourished an unprecedented demand for art with the thin, overblown spawn of the least-talented generation to come along in living memory. The gossip columnists who pass for art world commentators have attacked Schnabel's egotistical self-promotion and critics have drubbed his gallery exhibitions.

Now comes this acid-test survey, organized by London's Whitechapel Gallery, and we face the unequivocal evidence. (Well, almost unequivocal. When I saw the show, about a third of the works had failed to arrive from London and others had been substituted. Since the artist pronounced himself delighted with the selections, there seems no reason to argue.)

Take a fast turn of the galleries or a surgical scrutiny, either way it is clear that the ensemble effect represents the outpourings of an extraordinary sensibility. It's as if the gang kid, goaded by some vague longing, one day bumbled into a musty thrift shop piled with detritus covered with dust and honey. He rummages through heaps of broken crockery, strewn antlers that were once proud hunters' trophies, flyspecked wrecks of plaster copies of classical and medieval sculpture, arcane volumes full of recipes for witches' brews--and slowly his sense of the rites of gangs and churches with clergy that smell of cheap whiskey and boiled cabbage joins a sense of history he never knew he had, and life takes on the proportions of epic poetry. The thrift shop becomes a philosopher's cave oozing stalagmites and dripping stalactites.

"The Sea" is a trademark Schnabel where a painted tide washes in an ocean of broken dishes, the rubble of an ancient, failed civilization tumbling toward a charred piece of driftwood, perhaps a giant burned oar. In "The Raft" we become part of the deluge, staring down into the wreck of history returned to nature.

The modern cast of the work that scoops up everything from Abstract Expressionism to the classic Pop of Rauschenberg, guerrilla street art and intellectual word-works never lets you forget this stuff is being made by a present-day castaway who has been put miraculously in touch with Jung's racial subconscious, the place where every individual remembers the ancient myths. Spookily, Schnabel seems to be remembering specifics, like a guy in touch with past incarnations. Shirley MacLaine would love it.

Back in the years of bohemian wandering I traveled through Spain with Shelley from the Bronx, who could wax any guy on her block because she was 6 foot 2 and brooked no bull. She kept talking about how her Jewishness was giving her flashes of the past in Spain. Flamenco songs sounded like rabbinical chants and she was fascinated how Spain had been a crossroads where Islamic, Judaic and Catholic cultures had battled and intermixed. She was obsessed with the Semitic cast of the place.

Something like that seems to be happening in Schnabel's art. "Tina" and "Silvie" are as personal as portraits of lovers, but one suggests a toreador and the other a tomb portrait. "War," painted on an immense, grimy tarp, sprouts with a dog-monster sprung from Goya's imagination to leap across to Mexico where it miniaturized in the art of Jose Luis Cuevas and returned to Goya as the horned beast in Schnabel's "Helen of Troy." Moors and Arabs appear on black velvet in "Ethnic Types," and here and there a flayed torso is like a souvenir of the Inquisition.

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