Using personal material such as snapshots, drawings, broken bits of wood, ash trays, string, paper, and shoes accumulated from his own life, Eric Schnell has built a sculpture in the form of a boat whose cargo is his own fears, yearnings, internal conflicts, and desires. Schnell's poetic juxtapositions of form and formlessness, the pragmatic and the useless, provide visual metaphors for the evolution of the self as a fractured entity struggling for wholeness. Says exhibition curator James Elaine, "In Schnell's sculpture we see the central object and its surrounding materials...like a nervous system carefully removed and laid out for observation, acting in concert as one."
Hammer Projects are curated by James Elaine.
Eric Schnell was born in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1968. He spent most of his early years in the vicinity of Houston, Texas, and in 1996 moved to New York City, where he currently lives and works with his wife, Susie, and three cats. In 1995 he received his B.F.A. from the University of Houston, Texas, and in 1998 he received an M.F.A. from Columbia University, New York. He has made installations for Momenta Art, Artists Space, and Exit Art.
By James Elaine
And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.
—Hart Crane, from The Broken Tower
I remember as a child sitting by a short-wave radio and listening to what I thought was the sound of the universe-distant galaxies whirring and beings too wondrous and frightening for words. I would flush with fear at the unknown before me, and yet I could not pull myself away. It was as if I was being called by some strange force, being pulled into a dark sea and set afloat to drift, alone among alien stars, toward some distant shore.
Deep calls to deep, origin and destination are one and the same in the work of Eric Schnell. There is no map to help navigate this journey; at sea there are no roads. The journey is not a linear one. The future does not necessarily move toward us as the past disappears behind in a wake of turbulent water. Sometimes the future comes at us from the rear as we see the past ahead, unraveling before our eyes. Time skips, moves backward and forward, consciousness becomes material, mass becomes fluid, and we become the vehicle that carries us on this journey into ourselves.
How would you make an image of consciousness? What would it look like? And how would it look if it were stripped of all the elements that plague our psyches and our hearts: pain, fear, guilt, anger, confusion, desire, and the disappointment of life? Something pure and free. What would it look like? Where would you go to find this image? Where does it dwell? How would you get there? This struggle and quest defines the narrative within the geography and form of the installations of Eric Schnell. How does he get there, or how does he make that attempt? The metaphorical transport is that of a boat (that is not a boat). It is in itself the attempt to embody and manifest origin and destination into one moment, into one forever-metamorphosing mass: time, travel, struggle, identity, life, and death, all operating in this great and ever-churning waterwheel straining against an insurmountable tide.
Boats, normally, are transports that carry a person from one point to another that is usually inaccessible without them. Schnell's boats act in quite the same way but are actually windows that look back at us, desks with chairs for contemplation, entry points that set us off into that great mystery of self. If we were beams of light and were passed through a prism that separated us into our integral and individual parts and then those parts were presented back to us for analysis, the boats would be that type of prism.1 They are devices for sifting and analysis.
In Schnell's installations the central object and its surrounding and ensuing materials, like a nervous system carefully removed and laid out for observation, act in concert, a portrait of a psychological event, where one can observe a visual conversation between interior selves. The purpose of this dialogue is the hope for transformation through understanding, hope born out of a deep longing for sanity, peace, and happiness. The boat is a portrait of one thing that wants to be something else but doesn't know how to get there or even what it is that it wants to be. This is a human portrait: the dissatisfaction of knowing that there is more, and life's search to find it. We all experience this Möbius strip of idealism and failure and the heartache of its repetition, but we continue on. The failure of idealism (or the idealism of failure) is the most energizing component of Schnell's work; it is the open door to the continuation of the journey. It doesn't matter how weak or how frail we are; as long as the book does not close, we may still reach our destination.
What discovery in our lives would end all torment, answer all questions, and reveal what we sense is ours, our true identity, pure and free? We sense the possibility that we can somehow escape the madness of not knowing, the separation of selves, the sickness unto death. We sense meaning and greatness. It is out there, on the wind, across the sea, something that we cannot define but know is there.
Broken sticks holding torn photographs,
sails in an oval wind.
String trajectories, tenuous gossamer
hurled to describe its course.
A plaster hull and bow
flowing out of sinking memories
set sail to leave their homeland.
Brutal feet stand on deck
to catch a glimpse of heaven.
This is a daunting journey and task: to occupy a land that is untenable. Strength is worthless in this place; it is the wretched and those who have lost all hope who are given safe passage. It is difficult to communicate, and equally difficult, if not impossible, to really understand, but we must try. The wind that urges Schnell on is this attempt to try. Through a landscape fraught with the struggles and limitations of being human, Schnell navigates the commonplace using the insignificant material accumulations of life with the persistence of longing to give form to that which is so elusive and grand: How do I fit into this world that I live in? The fleeting answer to this monumental question for Schnell is found in a boat, a leaking transport, rising and falling under such a great weight, endless with the possibility of mystery, hope, and understanding.
1. All passages in italics are direct quotations from the author's conversations with Eric Schnell, 2002.
Hammer Projects are made possible, in part, with support from the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Additional support has been provided by the Los Angeles County Art Commission.