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Recent Works of Kenneth B. Schnall…. A Brief Stop on a Continuum Toward Even Greater Truth by Barbara Bertschy 2005
As with so many prolific creative people, Ken Schnall's current work has grown out of all of the work that has come before it. My unique perspective of knowing the artist and witnessing the evolution of his art during more than twenty years of collaboration and friendship has proven to be both problematic and beneficial in arriving at a place where totally objective comments and criticism can be written. Ultimately, the work stands on its own merits, but it is sometimes difficult to separate the creator from the creation.
The terms "work" and "art" are deliberately used here to describe Schnall’s “pieces” instead of more specific terms such as "paintings" and "drawings" even though, for the most part, the works are suspended from the walls, in much the same way paintings and drawings are hung. However, it is very clear that the artist's goal here is the pursuit of the painted object and, perhaps, the idea of painting as an object.
More than existing as only an object, this work is a thing that is constructed and built prior to being infused with even greater complex associations through the application of painting and drawing on its surfaces. The "thing-ness" of the work is not unlike an altarpiece from the fifteenth century for example (Figure 1).
However, unlike the altarpiece, which serves a religious function as well as an aesthetic one, the physicality or underlying form of Schnall's work is much more subtle in its purpose as it integrates itself into the unfolding drama that is the complete work. It is precisely this perceived sense of wholeness or completed truth that renders the current work so engaging and successful. The structures are made from wood, foam board, canvas, papers-- both handmade and commercial--, plus other materials that create weight and a mass that breach the planes of the flat walls upon which they hardly rest with an energy that is both active and passive. Not only is there actual bulk and heft to the pieces that scream substance, the methods and materials used to apply paint to the surfaces create the visual sensation of entirely different materials such as leathers, metals, stonework, and other ingredients much heavier than the linens, canvases, and papers they actually are. The finishing touches of a clear glossy polyurethane varnish richly intensify the colors and the contrasts within the work providing additional light-catching drama. Still, there remain shadowy recesses that add a sense of balance and complete the many wavelengths within the work. In many ways, all is not what it appears to be.
The seminal inspiration for the earlier pieces of this body of work is that of a book. In fact, until some of Ken Schnall's more recent efforts, the so-called "readability" of his work was almost always a left/right or center out orientation (Figure 2 and 3). The physical form, which is the literal foundation for all of the works, itself, suggests a widely opened book. All it could possibly reveal to us spills out in thick ribbon-like waves off to the right or left while to one side of its “spine” or the other it remains very much like a tablet or a flat page, still ripe with content, but much less kinetic.
When one considers everything that a book as a thing connotes, it is certainly a worthy reference within this body of
Schnall's work. A closed book is just a thing, but an opened book informs and communicates. It is shared. There is
connection. It is interactive. A moment, or moments, in time are suspended, yet there is action. Reading a book is
personal, yet its truths can be universally understood. Its existence implies history and continuance. It can be safe
or dangerous like Pandora's Box.
The scale of Ken Schnall's work generally is very human in that each piece feels as if it can be held although much larger than a real life novel would be. The breadth of some of the larger ones approximates the arms span of a man or the wingspan of one of his heavenly counterparts. This fact makes for an object that is embraceable. It is somewhat evocative of a Torah or any other revered scroll. These are objects that within themselves demand a kind of reverence by their sheer existence. There is a religiosity--with a small "r"-- about them. One wants to be in close proximity as the magic of these works presents itself, but, at the same time, each requires space around itself and distance between it and the viewer to be fully appreciated. They live on all the levels that can be attributed to a physical object yet, at the same time, they only have one true primal purpose and that is simply to exist in our world.
So much for painting as an object. In spite of what else can be written about all of these related physical pieces, the reality is that they are painted. Moreover, in this post-modernist world
they are painted with the eye, the mind-set, the training and the interests of a conventional painter. The beauty of this apparent contradiction is that we are rewarded with something that feels
traditional but is, in fact, fresh, new, and original. All surfaces of the objects that face the viewer are painted. In some of the recent works, there are areas that are drawn. While we know that
the objects are built or constructed, the hand of the artist in doing so is not so obvious. Nevertheless, on these painted surfaces there is no denying the unique mark making of the artist/creator.
The painting is painterly. It is rich, buttery, at times thin, other times thick and textural, layered, glazed, and utterly gorgeous.
The Schnall palette is un-muddy and very primary although there are certain works that can be described as “cool” or “warm.” The application of the paint, the layering, the selection of hues, and the use of glazes call to mind Italian painters, specifically Tiepolo. In addition to the use of color, echoes of Tiepolo are found within the energy of the composition itself. The swirling, spiraling activity mirrors some of the undulating form found in the physical construction as it simultaneously evokes chaos theory or the theory of change. The mathematically inclined will appreciate the mathematical sense of nature explicit in Schnall’s work whether it is intentional or not. His work can certainly be described as being illustrative of natural systems that self-organize out of chaos. These systems can only survive within limits by staying open to the constant flow-through of energy and material. There is an actual feeling of flow to the work especially in those recent pieces where Schnall pushes passed the boundaries of his object and abandons the straighter edge (Figure 4).
Consider that the vortices in rivers and streams typically emerge out of the swirls of turbulence produced downstream from obstructions in a fast, deep current. Each vortex has a definite shape,
but is in reality composed of the material constantly flowing through it. (Seven Life Lessons of Chaos, Spiritual Wisdom from the Science of Change by John Briggs and F. David Peat). If chaos can be
said to be nature’s creativity, then, Ken Schnall seems to be a conduit for it. He is on to something big, and even he may realize this for his recent works have taken on a larger, grander
Schnall’s painted or drawn marks create not only a sense of space but also a sense of place. The object occupies its own actual space while its painted surfaces open up gates for us to experience its interior space, or sense of place, according to the artist’s plan for us. It is a journey, and often we are not alone. Amidst abstractions that are usually organic and naturalistic, we can bump into fellow travelers in the form of figures.
The viewer’s eye travels along the pathway of painted imagery as well as along an implied narrative. We are drawn into an experience that seems to have a story but there is no beginning, no
middle, and certainly no end. It appears to be about change, but not me merely the change of transition, which implies simply getting from one place to another. It is about transcendence, which is
more about the kind of change that is the consciousness-altering or life-altering event that catapults a soul to a higher level. One can say it is evolutionary. On a more spiritual level, one can say
it is about the epiphany of the ultimate freedom. It is never without grace. It is about truth.
It is not a truth that is imposed on another as an absolute, but, rather, it is a truth defined as something lived in the moment and expressive of this artist’s unique connection to the whole. This is a truth that takes us all home (Figure 5).