The human body has, for centuries, been a major source of inspiration for artists, and Gary Schneider, who has for the last 30 years lived in New York, is no exception. The figure has been central to Schneider's work even before he moved to the States. Over the years, the artist has worked and re-worked many images, constantly refining his process. Recognition has followed, with examples of his 'portraits' being represented in several leading public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago . However, Gary Scnheider's work is not immediately accessible, operating on many levels. It is uncompromising and at times shocking.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to Amie, a first year student, about her project based on 'identity'. She had been taking detailed photographs of her head and then sticking these passport size images on to a mirror, in a grid formation, leaving a gap between each of the photos. We talked around the idea of the fragmented 'recorded' image interacting with the fragmented 'live' image. Interesting work, and as I left I suggested that she should have a look at Gary Schneider's work, because 'identity' is very close to his heart. Obviously, I also mentioned his name not only because I felt it was relevant research in connection with her project, but also because Gary Schneider was soon to be our next visiting artist.
Later that day, I was in the computer room, where I hadn't spotted Amie hidden behind an eMac, when suddenly I heard, 'Ugh - that's horrible but I like it'. One statement expressing two opposing emotions. Amie had found an image of 'John in Sixteen Parts'. Amie's response was by no means pre-considered - it was truly a direct, honest response to the work that she saw on the screen. Schneider, like Goya, attempts to address the grotesque and the beautiful in the same image; and as Amie so accurately articulated, the two emotional responses are inextricably linked. Schneider, of course, is aware of this duplicity and revels in these contradictions.
In conversation with the artist, it's not surprising to discover that Schneider likes the work of the late British artist Francis Bacon. The links are obvious. Both are fascinated with the figure: one person, one image, a solitary figure floating in space. In both cases the images provoke more questions than they give answers. These are images that are uncomfortable, that for some reason never feel quite right - but one is never too sure why. And, of course, both artists, over the years, have worked consistently with a male muse: Bacon with George, Schneider continuing to work with John.
Similarities with Surrealism are also there to discover. 'John's Lips' (1999) looks exactly like an Oscar Dominguez gouache and ink study on paper. In the Schneider work he plays with scale and separation, calling to mind Dali's transposition of May West's sofa lips. And 'visually' I see echoes and traces of the 'close up'- so close up they are out of focus - blurred photographs of Cy Twombly's 'Roman Statue' series.
But I can't talk about Gary Schneider's work without discussing Helen Chadwick, one of the most influential British artists of her time. I am particularly thinking of Chadwick's 'Viral Landscapes' and her strange marrying together of materials. Chadwick's work was highly personal, often involving aspects of performance, self-exposure and self-exploration, photographically examining parts of her own body, her very own cell and DNA structure. Her work was at times highly erotic and very tactile. In an interview Helen once suggested that her work was "gorgeously repulsive, exquisitely fun and dangerously beautiful".
Looking at process and technique, there is a similarly strong connection with Serse, the Italian artist, who starts by covering the whole (often large) piece of paper in charcoal, and then proceeds to erase some areas to expose the white ground. The ground that Schneider works on is darkness itself.
His models are not photographed standing up or sitting down. They are asked to lie on the studio floor. This change in position affects the very form of the muscles in the body and the face becomes flattened by gravity. The camera is bolted to the ceiling. The model is made comfortable, propped up with pillows and cushions. When all is in order the studio lights are turned off. The room is dark and the camera shutter is opened. Schneider then turns on a small flashlight, which is his eraser for removing darkness, and proceeds to carefully and systematically light the whole figure inch by inch. The process can take hours.
The resulting images, as you can see, are eerie but at the same time breathtaking. Schneider, wearing his 'cloak of invisibility' is ever present, but unseen in all his images. Painting with light, deciding how and where the light should travel, Schneider is the choreographer of light.