In Conversation with Marty Schnapf
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In Conversation with Marty Schnapf

Unit London is excited to announce the opening of the new group exhibition, Rites of Passage. Featuring nineteen artists, the exhibition explores notions surrounding the liminal space. 

The artworks engage with ideas of ambiguity and trepidation, conveying an existence set on the threshold of realities. To mark the opening of the exhibition, we spoke to exhibiting artist Marty Schnapf. As the first in a series of interviews with the Rites of Passage artists, we delve into the intricacies of Schnapf’s artistic practice and the works he has presented for the show.

UL: Can you explain your process, from the beginning of a work to the finished piece? 

MS: I'll do my best. I enter each painting like an unfamiliar forest. I understand a bit about walking in the woods from decades of doing so, but I haven’t a clue what I’ll encounter.  Paradoxically, the maker of this world and its explorer are the same. And, just as a dream can betray an attunement of which we were not theretofore conscious, so also a painting can, when allowed to unfold and in places supersede itself, bring forth visual effects that both perplex and reveal. To paint in this way, requires a perhaps foolhardy commitment to ardent unknowing. That is not to suggest that the decisions made along the way are in any way arbitrary. Rather, they are internally responsive. This is one of those slippery idiosyncrasies that distinguishes a painting from a picture that is painted. So when is the painting finished? When, half-delirious and muddied to the hip, I stumble on a rock, fall down a bank, and land heals over head in an unexpected clearing. Ahh, the traps we lay to catch the self.

UL: How does being a multidisciplinary artist affect your practice?

MS: Multidisciplinary…I use the term too, but it doesn’t really fit, does it? The mediums may change but the discipline does not, the drive does not. In the end, most boundaries are just agreed upon fictions. Maybe that realization has affected my work the most. Qualities assumed to be the exclusive purview of specific mediums need not be. For example, paintings are generally considered static objects (entropy aside), but art isn’t really about objects, is it? It’s about processes of exchange and transformation. Every art encounter is an ongoing, ever-transforming mental event, even if unconsciously so. With that in mind I approach every painting as time-based. I judge the success of a work not only by its ability to persist but its ability to persistently challenge. 

 Marty Schnapf, Par la Main, 2019, Oil on linen, 101.6 cm x 76.84 cm

UL: Your works typically feature fragmented and abstracted figures. Are these figures representative of real people from life or are they imagined?

MS: I find them in the charcoal and paint. Most undergo what some would consider significant transformation along the way – female to male, white to black... To paint the figure generously, you have to embrace its autonomy. 

UL: The figures in your works have been described as “hovering in a liminal state”. Can you pinpoint what draws you towards these themes of ambiguity and suspension? 

MS: Life itself is ambiguity and suspension. We pretend otherwise, but, from a consciousness standpoint, we have no idea what came before or will come after. So, here we hover, overflowing with memories, dreams, desires, all conspiring to grow that enigmatic seed we call self. When a painted figure begins to express some level of psychological intricacy, it approaches the liminal space between mere image and something like selfhood. This should not be conflated with verisimilitude. It is not the appearance of being real but, more directly, being real.

UL: Your artworks often blend representational elements with heighted abstraction. What do you hope to evoke through this particular visual language?

MS: This is one of those false dichotomies that I mostly don’t attend to. All paintings are simultaneously abstract and representational, and again, so is life. We are percipients of a world that is at once outside and within us. Even the concepts, outside and within, fall apart rather quickly upon investigation. But, let’s return to the question of what I hope to evoke. Never one thing alone. Take for example, the hardwood floors that have appeared in a number of my recent paintings. They are often painted as several floors overlapping or interrupting one another. They rarely follow the same rules of perspective. Here they are opaque. There they reveal a sublayer of dappled paint that appears elsewhere in an arm. The world is shifting beneath our feet. The space where we stand enfolds memories of other spaces. It also contains a vast potentiality of spaces yet untrod. There are formal reasons, musical reasons. I could go on and on but why take away from the viewer? The discovery of these elements and their infinite recombination with other aspects of the work are what give a painting duration. 

UL: Often your works feature multiple figures intertwined with one another in numerous layered positions. However, the works you present for Rites of Passage feature solitary figures in states of relative stillness, even repose. Can you explain this development?

MS: I regularly step outside of my comfort zone (large-scale, complex works) and try to condense the thing I’m doing into a much simpler, but hopefully no less powerful form. I feel like this keeps me honest somehow.

UL: After Rites of Passage, what lies in store for you? Do you envisage your practice changing in any way?

MS: Yes, my practice always changes, but at the same time, it remains inextricably connected to my life and whatever unique sensibility that offers me. I never really stop painting, and I am well into my next body of work. In addition, I just wrote my first film, a cross-generational love quadrangle between a writer, a painter, a composer, and a filmmaker. It is the closest I’ve come to bringing together the things I’ve learned from a quarter century of art making. Now I’m looking at ways to confound the distinction between cinematic narrative and real world art events.

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