For Esmé – With Love and Squalor, at Pace Gallery, Los Angeles (through 21 May 2022)
Reviewed by Eve Wood
How does one represent, let alone quantify hope, hate, grief, love, joy, tragedy, or anything, for that matter, which stands in opposition to something else? Throughout his illustrious career, Julian Schnabel has always been one to take chances, both materially and metaphorically, and this, his newest exhibition at Pace Gallery, Los Angeles, is no exception. Working with molding paste, oil and spray paint on velvet, these thirteen largely abstract paintings function much like a scream under water, their metaphoric power mitigated by abstraction. The result is that, when looking at them, we experience a wide array of emotional responses while all-the-while the deeper hidden content somehow eludes us, yet it is this elusive quality specifically that makes these paintings so ambitious and so unnerving. They are at once abstract yet perniciously narrative.
Schnabel quite literally utilizes various narrative structures in his work. The exhibition title, For Esmé – With Love and Squalor, is derived from a short story by J. D. Salinger. Set in Devon, England, in 1944, the story recounts a soldier’s meeting with a young girl before he is sent off to battle in World War II. On a deeper level, Salinger’s tale recounts the personal suffering that many soldiers experienced as a result of the war, specifically PTSD. At the end of the story, the soldier — Sergeant X — is so moved by the girl’s singular act of kindness that he decides not to take his own life.
© Julian Schnabel/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
For Schnabel, who named his baby daughter after Salinger’s title character, this central act of compassion, i.e. the girl sending the sergeant her deceased father’s watch, represents a moment of vulnerability, of trust and even hope in the face of human brutality. In terms of Schnabel’s visual vernacular, these paintings — and to some degree the exhibition’s sole sculpture — embody both the strength and fragility inherent in the human experience.
In some paintings, including “San Diego Serenade (For Tom Waits)” Schnabel repeats a central form: that of a wild arabesque set loose into the imagination, and therein the world. The work is at once violent and serene, much like Salinger’s story where violence is mitigated by the act of compassion. Other paintings, like “Pinocchio’s Last Ride,” suggest a figure moving violently through space. This work in particular is vaguely reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s slow, seething intensity where the suggested figures in his paintings are caught between two polarities, i.e. motion and stasis, or rage versus serenity. Either way, they recognize their own abject mortality, and are made, strangely, the better for it.
Schanbel’s work also echoes the complexity of Wassily Kandinsky’s Improvisation paintings, where the imagery correlates to musical notes, yet on a more universal level, they suggest a more pervasive spiritual yearning. Like Kandinsky, Schnabel’s paintings are also playful, and richly allegorical. Sometimes the shapes he creates appear almost anthropomorphic, as in the painting “Andrei Rublev,” where the central image is animated and appears to be scurrying away over the lip of the table. Are these the wayward legs of some apocryphal spider trying desperately to reclaim its lost body parts, or is this something even more sinister?
© Julian Schnabel/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Other works in the show also echo living creatures, such as “Waiting for Bread,” which could be an amorphous hummingbird come home to roost in the late-night eaves. Everywhere you look in this exhibition one thing suggests another, and nowhere is this made clearer than in the large scale sculptural work entitled, simply, “Esme,” where the artist literally reclaims scraps and pieces from other works. Presented in an outdoor setting, and comprised of cast silicon bronze with a stainless-steel armature, the work reads like a literal balancing act where several log-like structures are poised in mid-air with what appear to be two chairs, which serve as weights at either end. The sculpture is painted white, with the name Esme hand-painted across the top. Again, as with the two-dimensional works, one association bleeds effortlessly into the next. The impulse behind this particular work feels lighter and more playful, and considering the text that inspired it, this could be a makeshift playground for a highly precocious child, or it could be the leavings of a long-forgotten world where life was simpler and hope was possible. The handwritten name is evocative and strangely childlike, as if it were something a thirteen-year old girl might hand-scribe on the side of a building to record her presence there.
Finally, the works in this exhibition are supremely humanistic, which is entirely refreshing given that so much of the art being made today, at least to this aging critic’s mind, feels flat and uninspired, or worse, bloodless. These paintings are dynamic and necessary, especially in light of the current war in the Ukraine. It feels like Schnabel is making a case for the resiliency of the human heart, as in Salinger’s great story where a single gesture of kindness contains the whole world.
Featured Image: Julian Schnabel, detail of The Chimes of Freedom Flashing (2022). © Julian Schnabel/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Eve Wood is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Wood’s poetry and art criticism have appeared in many magazines and journals including Artillery, Whitehot, Art & Cake, The New Republic, The Denver Quarterly, Triquarterly, Flash Art, Angelino Magazine, New York Arts, The Atlantic Monthly, Artnet.com, Artillery, Tema Celeste, Art Papers, ArtUS, Art Review, and LatinArt.com. She is the author of five books of poetry. Also an artist, her work has been exhibited at Susanne Vielmetter and Western Project and Tiger Strikes Asteroid in New York. Wood is currently represented by Track 16 Gallery in Los Angeles.