Friday, April 1, 2016


And as Jesus Christ, of the house of David, took upon himself human nature in order to free and to redeem mankind who was in the bonds of sin because of Adam's disobedience, so also, in our art, the thing that is unjustly defied by the one will be absolved, cleansed and delivered from that foulness by another that is contrary to it.
--Raymond Lully, Codicillus

I paint paintings because I can't get the experience in any other way but there are many more experiences that are equally satisfying to me and equally inept at answering all my questions, but hover in exactitude in describing themselves and defying me to define their logic; it is the logic of the living, breathing, dying, charming world arrested at laughter and sex and compassion and horrors and unanswered horrors and acts and relics leading toward the light and back into the dark.
--Julian Schnabel

First there was the word, then silence, then emptiness. Then there was the calling of the seeing. The consuming darkness and the glare of light. The stumbling forwards and the intimations of vision.

Schnabel's original intention was to paint the Stations of the Cross, drawing his titles from Gaddis' novel The Recognitions. We have then what promises to be an obsessive re-reading Christ's journey along the Via Crucis, the spiritual suffering of a central figure in Western mythology, Schnabel completes this series, but, more and more, as the works proceed, the underlying arguments of Gaddis' text seem to permeate their web of 'meanings' -- the doubts, the ironies, the "faking" of the spirit--and the title succumbs to the seductive games and perverse pressures of The Recognitions. Schnabel is, of course, engaged with the communication of spiritual experience but he knows that it can be expressed only in a borrowed language, in the suspect rhetoric of expressionism. It is, however, precisely in this recognition of the inevitability of imitation that he finds the tattered remnants and unknown strengths of the spirit.


Schnabel uses gesture not so much as an ontological affirmation of self but rather as an effective coding system that comes with blood and gore intact, that knowingly embraces "accident", certain as to its results. He works with the impact of reality but it is an impact that points to our essential separateness. It is a place where the fragments come cluttering in and the universe reveals itself as a play of hostile energies indifferent to the needs of the consciousness they invade.


Schanbel is preocuppied with rites of passage, with the negative entry into experience, and with austere vision. He is also more substantially involved int he arguments of Gaddis than many critics have recognized. It is not simply a matter of haphazardly drawings titles from the text. --On Bees, The Flaying of the Unjust Judge, Trees of Home, Ignatius of Loyola, Henner, Blessed Clara, Pope Pius IX, Turba Philosophorum, La Macule, The Afflicted Organ, Pope Clement of Rome, Diaspora, Ritu Quadrupedis, Spinoza... The associations and interactions are more subtle than has been argued so far. There is the same saturation in religious sources and doctrines, the same questioning of genius, the same torrential exuberance. Schnabel spills out the words in black and white. He spits, dribbles and drips them over us. He asks us what convictions still cling to their reverberations. He asks us what is blindness and what is faith. These are large questions and Schnabel frames them dramatically within the broken fragments of the American dream--the trucker's tarps or the canvas of a boxing ring. He writes the names, evocations of presences and accumulated sensations with bold, bare strokes. He writes them in large letters with a mixture of defiant lyricism and clumsiness. We can feel again the puritan tradition and see Hawthorne's letters mixed with Verdi's sounds. They overwhelm us as image and as act. They come at us with a blend of ingenuity and magnanimity that allows Schnabel to get away with the most austere of statements. The names lie in their stains and, at a time of such wretched mediocrity, Schnabel shows that he is still willing both to risk giving and to risk posing, extravagantly and vulnerably, above the void.

Schnabel works with what has been left over after the feasts of time and use. He recognizes what Gaddis calls "the self-sufficiency of fragments", knowing that "this is where the curse is, fragments that don't belong to anything". Schnabel trusts the fragments and in doing so paradoxically surmounts the fragmentary nature of experience. He does not pull the fragments together but he does make them part of a work that stands in its own right. He uses what he finds and these things enter our stories on their own, in a pattern of constant, yet always incompletely, exchange. There is a gap between what they represent as names and how we can read them. There is a gap between "meaning" and calligraphy. What exactly is it that is left behind when Schnabel imitates Artaud's handwriting in L'Heroine? Is it an act that immediately recalls Wyatt's imitations of the Flemish masters, or Van Meegeren's (Wyatt's evident model) imitations of Vermeer? Does Schnabel enter the living hand and feel the traces of Artaud's life in the handwriting? Or are we simply witness to the entropic process and to the legitimate and inevitable pleasures of misreading? Is everything "sous-rature" in Derrida's sense? Is he confronting us with the question of "forgery"? Is imitation the only access to genius? What is clear is that we build on the ruins of understanding and misunderstanding, on the accumulation of fragmentary information, broken images, and frayed dreams. Schnabel appropriates directly, openly from history. It is not an aesthetic strategy but a "recognition". He takes his title from Gaddis, just as Gaddis himself borrows his from "the first Christian novel". And both pay attention to the theme of salvation, the issue of this early text:
"salvation is hardly the practical study it was then... Why, simply because in the Middle Ages they were convinced that they had souls to save... The Recognitions? No, it's Clement of Rome. Mostly talk, talk, talk. The young man's deepest concern is for the immortality of his soul, he goes to Egypt, to find the magicians and learn their secretes... It's really the beginning of the whole Faust legend" They are engaged in a spiritual wandering, in a struggle for expiation amidst doubt, destruction, the illusions of truth, and for the aching needs. Salvation becomes a giddy spiral as Schnabel seems to sense the importance of both stating and faking the emotion.


Imitation can, on occasion, become a means of access to a larger reality. Schnabel, like Van Meegeren, recalls Vermeer--a painter who knew so intimately about the way light falls on things:

We have no choice. We did not invent this situation but in the act of making love sometimes there is the same satisfaction, the same clarity of beingness that makes you think it was worth all the trespasses of being here. That is what I get from Vermeer's painting. I tried to make my painting like that. That is what I want them to be about.  Certainly not about the materials I use... I use anything to make the object that will give me access to this recognition. 


"All paintings are, in fact, metaphoric... it reminds you of something you might have seen, a key to your imagination. To those who think painting is just about itself I am saying the exact opposite.. a painting can't help but allude to a world of association that may have a completely other face than that of the image you are looking at. The concept of formalism poses false limits on painting under the guise of aesthetic purity, as if such a thing could exist in real life." 

He sees us modelled by difference, centreless, nomads adrift amidst the bruising.
"The saints were counterfeits of Christ and Christ was a counterfeit of God"

Gaddis' text is itself an encyclopedic pursuit of spiritual knowledge and Schnbale knows many of these same names before the overwhelming evidence of the bad-lands. Schnabel, like Wyatt, is not sure if he can play at being God and creating a Universe. Wyatt, as a meticulous recreator of Flemish masterpieces, avoids the temptation of substituting himself in God's role as an original creator. Schnabel, however, assumes the full romantic cult of originality but with an ironic distances that also allows him to debunk it for taking itself so seriously and neglecting the authentically creative, playful possibilities of endless repetition and imitation. He undermines his possibilities of endless repetition and imitation. He undermines his own statement as a means of expressing it all the more seriously.


Can we still sense the anguish of Clement XIV, or if his suffering is irrevocably buried, abandoned as a scrawled name on a stained "wall"? It was this same Clement who was forced to ban the Jesuit Order in 1772 that Loyola had founded in 1491. Schnabel clearly enjoys exploiting these juxtapositions and complicating the web of relationships. Ignatius of Loyola probably appealed to him as a man who had, at one point, given himself up to the vanities of the world but who had become converted to the ascetic life after reading the Life of Christ while convalescing from a serious wound he had received in his foot during a battle against the French. But do these names still provide ground of "recognitions"? Or are they simply relics as Gaddis ironically suggests when he presents us with an image of Loyola's right arm floating the water and tattooed with the word "mother"? Has the spiritual become simply a container for other "lesser" meanings, just as St. John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul ends up hiding a bottle of Schnaps in a cavity that has been gouged out of it! Schnabel's questioning may on occasion appear as youthfully arrogant or even cynically sophisticated, but one should also acknowledge its fundamental seriousness and its indebtedness to its own puritan tradition.

This desire to willfully complicate the field of reference, mixing memory, history, and autobiographical details and building them into a heavily charged energy-knot, gives power and density to the image that threatens to overwhelm us. It is worth recalling Gaddis' text has been referred to as a "diaspora of words" -- a loose system of discursive exchanges internally organizing itself. It is a concept that is transferable to Schnabel's works and it can come as no surprise to find that he chooses Diaspora as one of the titles in the series. The tarps are meeting-houses for meanings, even on occasion for signifiers that may have nothing left within them, that have been voided of their content but paradoxically find in that very act of voiding a spiritual tension. The sacred and profane come impulsively together in these works. There is a gleam in ashes of debasement, faith in the wearing of sackloth. Everything suffers the intrigues of contamination.


It is this chain of endless imitations that leads us on. We build forcibly on what there is, from the debris of the past and the clutter of the present. There are subcurrents, borrowings, promiscuous contacts between the works that are not central to understanding but that do nevertheless constitute an essential part of their pulse. "Papa Clemente" was one of Loyola's favorite texts. Or, "Trees Home" is a bestseller with a "deceitful" yellow spine, made up of fake and plagiarised material.


Blessed Clara is a gentle echo. Are the words by themselves enough to do the job? Do they acquire enough strength to function both plastically and metaphorically? Does it help if we know that Clara ran away from home to join St. Francis who placed her in a mean little house on the outskirts of Assisi, or that she and her community had neither stockings nor shoes, slept on the ground, observed abstinence from meat, and spoke only when they were obliged to by necessity? Does it help to know that in 1228 Gregory granted her order the "Privilegium paupertatis" so that "she might not be constrained by anyone to accept possessions". Perhaps not, but the tarps and the letters are images of this poverty. Her story is part of the humus on which Schnabel's own feelings have grown and looked for anchorage. Clara showed no doubt and this was the cause of her sainthood, whereas for Schnabel it is this same quality of doubt that confers benediction. These polarities are together within a highly orchestrated space and counterpoint each other without conflict.

Looking at these names we find ourselves before the fragmented data of history. They are the vehicles for something that has been lost. Memory tends to reassemble them in anecdotal fashion. We deal with them as bold scratchings that swirl through the mind as sensation. Life gets stuck to them. Pope Pius IX is recalled as responsible for the liberal constitution of the Papal States but also for his inability to maintain their unity. He was responsible for proclaiming the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin and the infallibility of the Pope while living his last years almost as a prisoners within the Vatican. Gaddis, in much the same way litters his text with fragments that bring glimpses of content to the names. Pope Pius IX signing the papal bull:

...granting pardon to the felon who devotes to pious uses three percent (3%) of his plunder, permitting him to "keep and possess the remainder in good faith, as his own property justly earned and acquired

Or the story of the Afflicted Organ (the Sacred Heart):

In 1864, Pope Pius IX was assailed with a petition asking highest recognition for the Sacred Heart (afflicted organ). In fact the petition itself participated in the miraculous, bearing as it did twelve million signatures coming forth from a country whose district records showed three-fourths of its brides and grooms unable to write their names. 

The tarps bring us up against the violence that has been done to words and to the distortions that have been performed on their "meanings". We face them as survivors. Schnabel has said that all he wanted to do was put the names down on canvas. To let them stand, in other words, by themselves. Yet he also names them as his station of the cross, as his own hard-won "recognitions". These works are the scars of the journey travelled, not only inwards towards the self but above all outwards into the world. Distortions are part of the truth. Everything relates. I am reminded of a phrase from Gass' "On Being Blue" where we are told that "every loving act of definition reverse the retreat of attention to the word and returns it to the world."

... entertain the notion that history, as currently conceived, is a kind of historical accident, a product of a specific historical situation, and that, with the passing of the misunderstanding that produced that situation, history itself may lose its status as an autonomous and self-authenticating mode of thought. It may well be that the most difficult tasks which the current generation of historians will be called upon to to perform is to expose the historically conditioned character of the historical discipline, to preside over the dissolution of history's claim to autonomy among the disciplines. 

The tarps surge with this dissolution, overwhelming us with their presence and their power to entertain widely divergent readings that provoke us into understanding that there is a radical uncertainty surrounding the processes by which meaning gets determined and not interpreted.

"All of a sudden everything was freed into one recognition, really freed into reality that we never see, you never see it. You don't see it in paintings because most of the time you can't see beyond a painting. Most paintings, the instant you see them they become familiar, and then it's too late"

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