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Review: New and unimproved: the spectacle of Julian Schnabel

Not a shred of irony is to be found in the extensive Julian Schnabel show at Blum & Poe. Irony is such an aesthetic mainstay now that hunger for it feels startling, but the arrogance and bombast here are suffocating. Even a whiff of the sardonic would be refreshing.

“Infinity on Trial” encompasses Schnabel’s 40-year career, with emphasis on the last few years and the ‘80s, the decade of his ascending celebrity. In between those bookends, Schnabel directed significant feature films including “Basquiat” (1996) and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007). He can be a storyteller of sensitivity and exquisite restraint in that medium, but when it comes to painting, Schnabel is all grandiosity and bluster, striving and self-importance.

Consider “The Edge of Victory,” from 1987, an imposing work at over 11 by 16 feet. For a painting surface, Schnabel has used the heavy woven mat from a boxing ring floor, stained with sweat and blood, its frayed splits patched with gaffers tape that is cracked and worn, creating a pattern akin to an aerial plan. Three gesso-white painted lines hang like loose ropes from one side of the canvas to the other. Physically formidable, the work is nevertheless visually bland.

Schnabel’s toolkit holds an array of short-cut means to invoke the epic. Here he reaches for heroic scale, puffed-up title. The battle-scarred surface lends its weight, too, and reinforces the artist’s penchant for a theater of spectacle. For another piece, he paints on a large scenic backdrop from a Kabuki production. His breakthrough, signature works, such as “The Patients and the Doctors” (1978), incorporate crockery shards encrusted with paint: ancient mosaic meets modern-day tantrum.

Schnabel draws on themes and images from myth, religion, film and plenty of prior art, but the references only nominally thicken the plot. He memorializes the contributions of others in a self-aggrandizing way, advertising the vastness of his own reach, the scope of his own psychic arena.

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In most of the three dozen works on paper in the upstairs gallery, Schnabel adopts a given surface and disrupts it in some manner. He slashes pigment across old maps, spreads purple ink atop washed-out Polaroids, cancels out photo-reproductions of ancient Egypt with black spray paint. The gestures flail, failing to generate any evocative friction. There appears to be no high-stakes wrestling with meaning going on, just a base marking of territory.

Big, bold and brazen, Schnabel’s art and ego met the needs of a hungry, hyperbolic market. “Only a culture as sodden with hype as America’s in the early ‘80s could have underwritten his success,” sneered Robert Hughes, in 1987. Only a culture still just as susceptible to salesmanship would embrace him anew -- and without irony.

Blum & Poe, 2727 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 836-2062, through April 30. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.blumandpoe.com


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