“My work is about seeing. Ultimately, it’s about a way of looking at the world. I’m just painting what I’m seeing; I’m just trying to connect the dots of my own vision.” Julian Schnabel
In Julian Schnabel’s Hamid in Alcheringa, a support of luxurious velvet displays arabesques of black paint that surround the central figure of Hamid in a spectral miasma. Emerging through the haze in the upper left corner is a pagoda set within the clouds of a mountain-scape; is this reality or a dream experienced by the painting’s protagonist? Hamid’s position—with his head tilted upward to consider this ephemeral scene—suggests the latter, as does the painting’s title as the word ‘Alcheringa’ is taken from a language of indigenous Australia and refers to the Dreamtime that is so central to their culture. Schnabel painted at least one other painting with the character Hamid as the subject—Hamid in a Suit of Light from 1982—and as such, the artist’s Velvet Paintings are a small but important painterly exploration that adds to his ever-expanding exploration of the materials of painting.
In addition to velvet, Schnabel has worked with a range of innovative materials to construct his paintings. Though born in New York City, the artist would come of age in Houston, where he trained at the University of Houston and would have his first solo exhibition at the city’s Contemporary Arts Museum in 1976. Upon returning to the city of his birth and the center of the art world, Schnabel would begin painting on an enormous scale. The artist worked first with encaustic techniques by layering wax with paint into burnished surfaces. Next came the plate paintings that would earn him his reputation as one of a new cadre of artists known as the Neo-Expressionists. Alongside artists such as David Salle and Eric Fischl, Schnabel would reinvigorate the language of painting after its proclaimed “death” following the reign of Conceptual Art and Minimalism. His vibrant colors and monumental scale would inject the medium with a new sense of vitality.
Schnabel’s contribution to the Neo-Expressionist agenda became more and more important as his painting career developed. Materiality is at the core of the artist’s process, resulting in a variety of unexpected choices, such as the velvet support seen in the present work along with wax, and the broken plates he would affix to the canvas and ultimately become most known for. As critic Raphael Rubenstein has written, “Seen up close, the painting turns into a chaotic abstraction as brushstrokes skitter across the jagged range of ceramic outcroppings, jumping countless tiny gaps, sometimes coagulating into hardened globs of paint, blithely ignoring or else artfully echoing the shapes and decorative motifs of the broken plates. Consciously or not, Schnabel invented a format that made achieving recognizable images intensely difficult. This self-imposed challenge may be exactly what keeps the plate paintings, which began in 1978 and taper off around 1986, looking so fresh when many other Neo-Expressionist paintings have become period pieces” (R. Rubenstein, “Julian Schnabel,” Art in America, March 2011).
Around 1980, Schnabel made velvet his chosen material for supports, a material that then, perhaps even more than now, conjured kitsch associations. In these works, Schnabel was continuing the high art/low art discourse that Warhol, among others, had begun in the 1960s when he had taken everyday advertising images, Campbell’s soup cans, and Brillo Soap boxes etc. as the inspiration for his artwork. Marcel Duchamp, the French Dadaist, set the stage for Warhol earlier in the 20th century by introducing the concept of the readymade, or found art object, into the lexicon of modern art and revolutionizing the ways in which the way objects encountered everyday were considered. Schnabel’s choice of velvet as the support for his paintings upends the upper echelons of the art world by entering a velvet painting into its hallowed halls.
Julian Schnabel is an artist not afraid to experiment or innovate, and throughout his career he has mercilessly pushed the boundaries of what constitutes an artistic medium. The unconventional support he used for Hamid in Alcheringa exemplifies this highly original approach and forces us to reconsider the normative procedures of traditional easel painting, and which in turn led to significantly reshaping the art worlds of the 1980s. As Schnabel proceeded to paint against the rules, his distinctive innovations led him to abandon the traditional confinements of painting, and this progressive artistic development restored painting to its pre-abstraction status, a status that had—only a few years before—been declared obsolete.