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Moving Pictures

Because it was made by an artist and is meant to portray America's recent art history, the film Basquiat, which opened a couple of weeks ago at the Mayan Theater, has sparked a groundswell of interest in the art community. Perhaps only a psychiatrist is truly qualified to interpret painter Julian Schnabel's debut as a director in a film that's supposed to be a biography of dead African-American art star Jean-Michel Basquiat (narcoleptically portrayed by Jeffrey Wright). But one thing is clear even to a layman: The film is really about Schnabel's own unselfconscious narcissism and megalomania.

Schnabel not only directed Basquiat, he did most of the musical score (a tepid impersonation of Tom Waits) and painted all the fake Basquiat paintings (the late artist's estate having shown the good sense to refuse Schnabel permission to use the real ones). Schnabel also displays three series of his own paintings and casts himself implausibly as one of the main characters, the pseudonymous Albert Milo, played with reverence by Schnabel's best friend, Gary Oldman.

Painter-turned-director Schnabel takes an appropriately jaundiced view of the New York art world of the 1980s, a milieu in which he was a main player. The icy arrogance of control freak and big-time art dealer Mary Boone, played by Parker Posey, seems right on. But Schnabel not only reveals through his tale the racism and homophobia that were--and are--the standard features of the art world, he also appears to share in these pervasive attitudes.

How else to explain Schnabel having stripped his Basquiat character of the self-conscious interest the real Basquiat had in his Puerto Rican and Haitian roots? Or what about Basquiat's exhaustive knowledge of art history, which taught him that there were no really important black artists and which inspired him to be the first? Basquiat was self-destructive, surely, but wasn't he more than that--more than just another junkie? If, as Schnabel's film would have it, Basquiat was nothing more than a beast in dreadlocks, then who did all those great paintings? (The real ones, that is, not the stand-ins.)

Then there's Schnabel's view of the gay men who played such an inordinately large role in the development of the New York scene of the time. He sees them as a bunch of nitwits--not just light in the loafers but also light in the frontal lobes.

Was Andy Warhol, one of the most intellectual of the New York School artists, really just a prissy dork, as David Bowie plays him? Was the premier curator of the 1970s and 1980s, Henry Geldzahler of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art--limp-wristedly played by Paul Bartel--simply a spaced-out weirdo in a skull cap? How about the art critic who discovered Basquiat, Rene Ricard, manically portrayed by Michael Wincott? Are we to believe that, aside from writing his column in Art Forum, he was just a leather-jacketed hustler cruising for sex and drugs?

It's easy to understand why Schnabel did this to these guys: What a sweet revenge it must be for the legendarily dumb-as-a-stone painter to get one up on those gay smart-asses. Too bad Warhol and Geldzahler didn't live long enough to share in the joke.

Interestingly, Schnabel pulls his punches when it comes to Basquiat's own biography. During his life, Basquiat was widely rumored to be gay, especially since he was joined at the hip for years to Warhol. The artist was also widely rumored to have had AIDS when he committed suicide in 1987. Schnabel hints at both of these issues but lacks the guts to do any more than that.

One scene makes it crystal-clear that this film is more about Schnabel than it is about Basquiat: While Milo/Schnabel waltzes with his daughter in a red-silk-lined throne room in his studio, Basquiat is glimpsed urinating on the stair landing a few feet away. And soon after, through a strategically placed bit of dialogue, we learn that Warhol, whose bizarre lifestyle the film so vividly portrays, was right then dying in a hospital of medical malpractice. See how redemptive it is to be white and male and heterosexual? See how Milo/Schnabel lives? He's way above those two.

That same subject--the privilege of white male heterosexuals everywhere, not just in the art world--is the unlikely topic of an art show right here in town: Mark Brasuell's 2, an exhibit of paintings now at the Edge Gallery.

Brasuell has long sought to create work with political content that carries the banner for gay civil rights and is at the same time both non-erotic and non-literal. "Homosexuals are the puppets of the heterosexual-dominated art community," he contends. That, Brasuell adds, is why there are hardly any openly gay artists--even though "we all know that gay artists have been an essential part of the backbone of the art world forever--and that throughout time many of the greatest artists have been gay."

Drawing a distinction between his approach to political art and that of most others who do this kind of work, Brasuell says he's "interested in making a beautiful painting first and only then incorporating a political theme." And in the new Edge exhibit, he has succeeded, with large and lush abstract paintings that are on one level a dialogue between visual push and pull and on another a subtle comment on the social struggle against homophobia.

The 2 show is the follow-up to Closet Painter, Brasuell's exhibit last year at Edge. That title referred to the fact that Brasuell had until then been known as a sculptor and an installation artist, having kept his efforts in the field of painting hidden. A couple of the paintings from Closet Painter are included in the 2 show, but you wouldn't know it to look at them, because they have been thoroughly repainted.

As he did in last year's show, Brasuell continues to drawn inspiration from the artists he describes as his "heroes"--the abstract expressionists of the 1940s and 1950s. But Brasuell's approach to the style is markedly different from that of his aesthetic predecessors because of his interest in infusing his work with political content--a definite no-no in the definitively non-objective world of abstract expressionism. Narrative content, especially political messages, is rarely attached to abstract paintings of any kind, and especially not to the kind of expressionist essays recently produced by Brasuell.

In the 2 series, Brasuell's vividly colored gestural abstractions feature certain shapes repeatedly, like vertical lines and circular forms. Stylistically, the shapes hark back to the work in Closet Painter. But in this most recent series, Brasuell incorporates a new element: fragments of the text of Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent from the U.S. Supreme Court's decision putting to rest Colorado's infamous Amendment 2.

Brasuell says he was angry when the 6-3 decision was handed down this past spring--not at the decision itself, which he calls "very good for gays and lesbians," but rather at Justice Scalia's scathing dissent, in which hostility to gays was described as entirely proper. "I could quote from the dissent forever," Brasuell says. "The dissent will always be there. It's a kind of law in a way, a backward law--like Amendment 2."

But translating that anger into abstract painting was not a simple matter for Brasuell, and it was harder still to incorporate specific political sentiments. Because Brasuell believes that the tendency of some abstract artists to ascribe thoughts and feelings to specific shapes and colors is hopelessly pretentious, he didn't even try to symbolically communicate his message. Instead, he got literal: He used Scalia's words.

Of course, the use of text in a painting is fraught with pitfalls. Brasuell didn't want the words to be too overt an element, so he painted and repainted the stenciled letters until their colors subtly integrated into the abstract grounds on which they were laid. As a result, viewers are never hit over the head with Brasuell's messages; in the acrylic-on-canvas "Fired," for instance, the only words from Scalia's dissent that appear in the painting are "The United States Supreme" and "political will."

Brasuell has divided the picture plane vertically in "Fired." One third of the frame has been painted yellow with a top layer of an orange-red in broad calligraphic explosions; the other two-thirds is dominated by various shades of blue and purple and lots of black. The hot yellow and red against the cool blue and purple--a juxtaposition that also corresponds to light versus dark--is the principal visual device Brasuell uses throughout the show.

All of these paintings are beautifully executed, but a few really stand out. The red, purple and black "Fence," which includes the words "racial and religious bigotry," and the blue, green and black "Cut," which incorporates the words "tolerant" and "hostile," are both triumphs of acrylic-on-muslin. The largest of the 2 paintings, "Sirens," is also one of the finest. A gigantic horizontal acrylic-on-canvas, it sets a large yellow color field against blue, purple, brown and black. At the top left, barely visible, is the phrase "official praise for heterosexual monogamy."

Because the text is so subtly rendered, Brasuell's paintings would look essentially the same with or without the political content. In fact, that's exactly what made up last year's Closet Painter show--abstract paintings without text. But Brasuell's attempt to make art that says something and is at the same time visually pleasing is nonetheless a noble--and in this case successful--cause.

2, through September 1 at Edge Gallery, 3658 Navajo Street, 477-7173.


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