Reviews

'Can We See Better?' In conversation with Marty Schnapf

In conversation with Marty Schnapf about his solo exhibition 'Santa Ana Winds'
Alice Black Gallery, London, 2018

Written by Gabriella Sonabend, originally published by After Nyne online

‘California Wildfires’ 2017, Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 101.6 cm

‘California Wildfires’ 2017, Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 101.6 cm

Marty Schnapf’s work may exist within the confines of the canvas but the world he depicts is one which is forever shifting beneath the surface, the space between the image we project and the multitude of emotions, experiences and facets of identity which linger beneath. In an age of finger-pointing cynicism the art world (myself included) is enjoying re-excavating art history and looking for the misogynistic bastards who forced the female to be seen in a binary, disempowered way but not everything relating to gender is so simple and in our search to politically correct and out-woke one another we often miss the profound and simple messages that long to be spoken.

Marty Schnapf's work was recently included in an article challenging whether a male painter should be allowed to address the female form and Marty pointed out that just because his figure had testicles its didn't make them male. Schnapf’s painting are about much more than gender. They are about much more than base sexuality, depravity and desire. Although ‘Catamaran’ depicts a threesome where the spectacled male protagonist stares at the viewer whilst trying to pleasure a woman who seems to be disappearing into the ether, this is not a painting about power structures and I’m not even convinced its a painting about sex. Something else is going on here and its not easy to pinpoint what it is or what the intention is. This is where Schnapf hooks us, in this moral ambiguity and refusal to take a stance, he tells a story which is timeless and plotless. We dive into the centre of a feeling, a memory, a glitch and stare almost blankly in the same way we do when something totally uncanny happens which we cannot compute. 

Even if we have never had a threesome, never shared a bed with a strange spectacled man, never touched ourselves in an overly bright and oddly plain room, we all know the feeling this painting conveys. It is a feeling of, whats really going on here? Do I really understand the world I am inhabiting? Am I acting out of choice? Does this body represent the thoughts of the mind that inhabits it?

‘Catamaran’ 2017, Oil and charcoal on canvas, 121.9cm x 152.4 cm

‘Catamaran’ 2017, Oil and charcoal on canvas, 121.9cm x 152.4 cm

In ‘California Wildfires’ two women draped pre-Raphaelite style with iridescent skin reminiscent of Kolomon Moser’s glowing Viennese nudes, sit intimately in a seemingly large room, one inhaling the smoke of the others cigarette. The cigarette smoker feels as if she's arrived from a dream, her friend whose back is curled and whose head has entirely dissolved has become at one with the passive smoke and the grand architecture.  This is a not a painting about showing off female sexuality, the body language is natural, one woman hunches, whilst the other extends, it feels like a painting about the way women share experiences and ultimately a painting about empathy. It strikes me as tender, embracing and highly conscious, aware of the way the we tell a story we don't always tell the truth, the way we can be intensely intimate and yet still removed.

I asked Marty some questions about his work and practice, which gave a deeper insight into the complexity of his work.

We talk about this feeling, which I would describe as journeying between multiple possible timelines and I probe at whether morality and ethics are being challenged here:

I believe we are always navigating enfolded dimensions but that we tend not to recognise this because we interpose ideas about experiences between ourselves and the actual experiences. Still, I don't think it's fair to hold the mind accountable for trappings without also recognising its capacity for deliverance. So what are trappings actually? Perhaps they are simply an insistence of the ego to establish some foundation upon which to build identity. This grounds us, which is great for trees and awful for birds. Sometimes we need to be more like trees and sometimes more like birds. 

I'm not a big fan of moralising artwork, even and maybe especially when I agree with the message. I think work that is enigmatic shows a greater respect for the intelligence and competence of the viewer. I don’t see enigma in this sense as a cryptogram to be decoded or as an aberration to be dismissed. I think of is as a kind of animal honesty.

When diving into the conversation about gender and referring to previous articles I asked the following: if we are looking at a world in flux, the merging of the dream and the waking reality, why use gender at all? What does gender tell us about the lucid dream state?  

Actually, gender tends to be fluid and bodies are often co-located in my work. The borders are rarely defined. But people are so sure of that what they think they see. This is what I mean when I say the idea of experience gets in the way of the reality of experience. 

I don't think gender tells us much in the lucid dream state. When lucid dreaming, you are essentially conscious and making conscious decisions in an unconscious space. Gender dynamics in other forms of dreaming may be more interesting precisely because of their instability. If you assume that dreams are largely, if not entirely, self-produced, they provide a nightly reminder of your infinite complexity. Every part of your dream is you. You are male and female, young and old, alive and dead. You are the love you seek and the monster from which you run.


I guess what I am saying is what do these bodies become a signifier of and does that matter?

I don’t find the application of Saussure’s notion of sign and signifier very productive. I think people mostly use it with regard to art because they are embarrassed to risk the more loaded term, meaning. For me, meaning is more useful because it describes, not only a static concept, but also, an active process. Viewers are not objective instruments and paintings are not fixed terms. The viewer and the work mean together actively. Their engagement begins with encounter and continues through memory, conversation and reconsideration.

I want to understand Marty’s own mind-frame, whether he’s projecting a personal narrative. Are these paintings about the crisis of being a human but wanting to be more? What would happen if the figure disappeared? Is this ultimately a comment on the self-perpetuated human state?

It would be closer to say that these paintings are about how much more there is to being human than our personal mythologies admit.

Often, the figures do disappear, but yes, something remains. I don’t think a figure is necessary to the description of metaphysical or psychological content, but currently I enjoy the apposition of abstract and representational forms in the same way that I enjoy the pairing of dull ochre and fluorescent pink. They don’t ask the same questions alone as they do together.

 I see numerous references in Schnapf’s work, it is clear he is very well versed in modern art, contemporary painting and literature. I see iconography and religious imagery and want to know how much he has intentionally referenced other artists?

I don’t intentionally reference other artists but my intake of art history is far more intentional and studied than might be implied by a passive absorption of collective imagery. To the extent that my works call to mind the works of other artists I welcome their presence.

What is your relationship to religion?

I was raised Roman Catholic.  My relationship to that could best be explained through a quick read of the collected works of James Joyce. I'm grateful for having spent my youth wrestling with its more mystical teachings. I believe those endure in me today. One need look no further than the concept of a one and only god that is also three.

Looking at Schnapf’s colour palette which is vivid and playful, I wonder if the vibrancy of California and perhaps even also Asian and South Amercian landscapes have influenced his work.

I’ve travelled as much as opportunity has allowed. Yes, California, Mexico, Guatemala, Italy, Southern Spain, Taiwan. Each of these places has a particular luminosity. But I’m also sneaking in neon light, club light and astronomical light.

I reflect on my own time spent in LA and ask if his paintings are a reflection of its great multiculturalism and diversity?

I don’t think any group of paintings could fully reflect the cultural diversity of Los Angeles. The skin colour or features of the figures in my works may imply different heredity, but the universe in which they exist has very little cultural correlation to that of our world. While the psychological, physical and emotional relationships I work with are universally human, I recognise that there’s no universal figure through which to portray the human experience.

Sometimes I feel a painter has no control over what they paint, even if every element is meticulously planned the result is still often a surprise as if to say 'wow, I made that... really?' do you ever have this experience with your own work?

 yes

Of course I want to know if Marty has had an encounters with spirits from other realms?

yes

I asked him to share an early memory which was visually embedded in his mind.

The view from the back seat of my mother’s chevette of our house on fire.

 Finally I needed to know his relationship to death…

We talk all the time but I feel like I hardly know it.

Gabriella Sonabend