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Artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel talks with visitors to his show "Julian Schnabel: Art and Film" at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. (Della Rollins/The Globe and Mail)
Artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel talks with visitors to his show "Julian Schnabel: Art and Film" at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. (Della Rollins/The Globe and Mail)

Visual Arts

Lights, camera ... wait, here are my canvases Add to ...

He's had his lunch delivered (arugula salad, vegan and cheese pizzas - medium). He's told his curator he wants a large wooden sculpture moved 14 inches to the east of its current position. He's given directions on lighting levels. He's grabbed a stapler to help installers assemble a collage of movie posters (posters for his movies, natch) to a wall. He's given Belinda Stronach and Hudson's Bay Co. president Bonnie Brooks a personal, guided preview of his art - even though, as he admits of Stronach, "I don't even know who she is. She just seemed like a nice woman."

Now, 45 minutes off-schedule, its seems Julian Schnabel is finally ready to talk about what all the hubbub is about: a monumental retrospective of his paintings, sculptures and photographs, opening Sept. 1 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It's Schnabel's first exhibition at the AGO, organized by the Toronto gallery's curator of modern and contemporary art, David Moos.

The show, which Moos first broached with the New York artist five or six years ago, takes up the whole fifth floor of the AGO's rear exhibition tower and focuses on the long-standing relationship between Schnabel's love of cinema and the passionate art he has produced since he shot to international attention in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

As luck and perhaps a dollop of cunning would have it, Julian Schnabel: Art and Film is opening just eight days before the kick-off of the Toronto International Film Festival, where Schnabel's latest movie, Miral, will have its North American premiere, and 11 days before TIFF's much-anticipated new headquarters, Bell Lightbox, becomes operational.

I'm not interested in awards ceremonies for my paintings Julian Schnabel

Miral's commercial release is expected between October and the end of the year, in the hopes the film will earn some of the Oscar attention Schnabel's last film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, enjoyed in 2007. Serendipitously, the AGO's exhibition is running through Jan. 2 of next year.

Schnabel is a big guy. Big in bulk. Big in appetite. Big of mouth ("I'm as close to Picasso as you're going to get in this [expletive deleted]life," he once said.). Big in effect (although today he's eschewed the pyjamas, sarong and bathrobe that have long been his haberdashery trademarks, replacing them with plaid shorts, a plaid long-sleeved shirt and black Vans).

He's gone especially big in his art. Many of the more than 70 works in the AGO show are downright Cinemascopic in scale, among them three interrelated oils, each painted in 1990 on a tarpaulin 6.7 metres square.

Schnabel, who turns 59 in October, easily mixes filmic and painterly conceits in his conversation. Sitting in one of the fifth floor's cavernous galleries, pointing to this epic-sized painting and that, he talks of how "people can walk into this space and all of a sudden they're in the film. They're engaged in the process of seeing, and that process is like making something. Here, they're not watching the paintings. They're being with the paintings. They're being invaded by the paintings. And if they allow themselves to be emptied out, the paintings will fill them up."

Schnabel acknowledges that until relatively recently, his films, in a way, "hurt interest in my paintings. Because people thought, 'Oh, the guy's not interested in painting any more; he's a movie director.' But that's because movies can go everywhere. To really get a painting, you have to be in the physical presence of that painting."

Schnabel doesn't make an either/or distinction in his approach to the film/painting "divide." It's more a case of both/and. "I make art in a parallel way to film, in that I have a very non-hierarchical sensibility which is sort of this Whitman-esque plane where everything is the same to me, and it permits me to use things of different kinds and treat them with the same value."

For curator Moos, "there's such a fluid interaction for Julian between the metiérs of film and painting that now they're inseparable. In our conversations that are in the catalogue, he says he could only have made the films he's made because he's a painter, because painting has really formed his visual sensibility."

"The fact is," Schnabel himself notes, "I've been painting and working on things pretty consistently throughout the [film-making]process, but there's less noise about it, less fanfare, you know?" He laughs. "I mean, I'm not interested in awards ceremonies for my paintings."

Schnabel numbers the rich, the famous and the trendy among his friends, acquaintances and collectors. (A large Schnabel self-portrait in the AGO show, for instance, is identified as being from the private collection of Johnny Depp.) And it's clear this twice-married father of five "needs a crowd of people," as Neil Young once sang, but "can't face them day-to-day."

At least not always. For the better part of August, after completing most of the postproduction on Miral, he has been at his summer home in Montauk on Long Island "just painting my heart out, just sitting around with paint all over me and not a thought beyond asking what colour should I pick."

Asked if he's fearful when faced with an empty 6.7-metre-high hunk of sailcloth or tarpaulin, Schnabel replies that he actually has "more fear in directing a movie. When I look at these" - his hand gestures to the paintings on the walls - "I don't have fear. It's like, 'Hey, I'm gonna take off on that big wave. I wanna drop in on it. I don't want to run away from it.' "

Julian Schnabel: Art and Film opens Sept. 1 and runs to Jan. 2, 2011.

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