Julian Schnabel was introduced to Londoners at the Royal Academy’s legendary 1981 exhibition ‘A New Spirit in Painting’. Yet thanks to his 1979 New York debut, in which the then 28-year-old introduced the world to his bad-boy broken plate paintings, his reputation preceded him across the Atlantic. Schnabel quickly came to embody not only the ‘new spirit’ of American painting, but all the empty excesses of the era as well. Arguably, the association has dogged him ever since as a painter, even though as a filmmaker he’s been given a smoother ride by the critics.
Shrinking the vast Dairy Art Centre to the size of a Mini Milk, these recent megapaintings riff on the subject of artist and muse, memories of friends (including Lou Reed in ‘I Always Thought of Myself as Taller’, 2002), the plight of fashion models and even make reference to maracas-wielding Happy Mondays dancer and anti-fracking wannabe MP, Bez. Two elegant ‘X-ray paintings’ made shortly after he filmed ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’, prove that the less he does the more convincing Schnabel is. For unforced chuckles, though, try any of his overblown self-portraits, or the brilliantly bombastic ‘David and Goliath’ (2011) in which a bespectacled businessman holds aloft the severed bonce of poor Julian (apparently as played by Ray Winstone). Schnabel doesn’t really do small, or subtle. But his monumental self-belief is leavened by glimpses of self-awareness and humour. Imagining how these new works will wind up his po-faced detractors only adds to the fun.