Speaking to Lola Montes Schnabel is like taking a crash refresher course in art history. Within a five-minute span of conversation the young artist, whose mentors include the legendary art historian Leo Steinberg, might mention Alex Katz in one sentence, allude to Giorgio di Chirico’s use of paint in another, and bring up a pilgrimage to Malta to see a Caravaggio masterpiece in a Baroque cathedral.
Her many influences are channeled through just as many mediums. On any day, she might be found hand-painting film, sculpting glass in Murano, Italy, welding metal, or painting with whatever materials are at hand. In her latest series, these include materials she first borrowed from a medicine cabinet as an adolescent because she couldn’t find anything else to draw with in her mother’s house.
Although not finding materials to create art is hardly likely to happen at the Montauk studio of her father, Julian Schnabel, where she often works, she has continued to use unconventional drug-store mediums similar to the Mercurochrome she first experimented with at the age of 13, such as iodine and gentian violet.
Her latest series of portraits, on view at the Tripoli Gallery of Contemporary Art, on Job’s Lane in Southampton, are revelatory in ways unexpected and sometimes profound. The iodine that she uses to define her subjects gives them a sepia tone, like something unearthed from an attic. The gentian violet lends a more modern, but still imperial, aubergine cast.
The subjects themselves may look like an old-time movie actor, such as Clark Gable (in the case of “Loren Kramer”), or somewhat papal (like “Julian,” the portrait of her father), or, as with “Damaris” and “Gray,” they can appear purely contemporary. At other times there is an air of island primitivism — see “Enrique” and “Nico,” which have elements of actual or suggested symbolism that make them seem to be votives of some kind.
A constant among practically all of them is the eyes. Deep, penetrating, confrontational, these subjects’ gazes evidence an inner life and spirit. Even when the image is faint, having been mostly washed out, the white traces of the eyes draw the viewer into their private realm.
Ms. Schnabel has said she is not attempting to create a straight likeness, but to capture some purer inner essence. There is a richness to the work that inspires the viewer to imagine for each subject a story line.
Iodine, of course, is a common disinfectant, and gentian violet is an anti-fungal when applied topically. Using these tools of healing adds a layer of metaphorical weight, too. As humans, we are all vulnerable to illness or disease; healing sometimes is required on a psychological or emotional plane, not just the physical.
Although Ms. Schnabel’s most well-publicized film work is on the commercial side — she has filmed a video look book for the fashion designer Zac Posen (a high school classmate) and a commercial featuring Steve Nash for Nike (called “Training Day”) — she considers herself an experimental filmmaker, as well.
“I started off at 16 making my first 16-millimeter film that was hand-painted,” she said in an interview with The Star, while installing her current Southampton show. “I cut the whole thing by hand in my mom’s garden in Bridgehampton and had the whole thing wrapping around all of the trees. I went along with a two-haired brush and basically made individual paintings on each frame, hoping that when they were projected all together they would make one big painting.”
Ms. Schnabel, who will turn 30 this year, is on the board of advisers of the Film Anthology Archives, a Manhattan center for the preservation and study of independent and avant-garde film. She has been working to raise money to digitize the films in the archive to preserve them for the future.
“There is this kind of brushstroke quality of disappearing ink, a kind of magical quality that I am looking for in everything I do,” she said. “It’s really about color.”
What she liked most about using Mercurochrome, she said, was that when drawing with it the line is red but the edges are green, creating “a kind of 3-D effect.” Of iodine, she said, “I really liked that amber color that then suddenly becomes a little violet when you add water to it. It’s kind of like this mildewed fridge door or a nicotine-stain color. I’ve always been drawn to that.”
In the Philadelphia apartment of her mentor Dr. Steinberg, who died earlier this year at the age of 91, there was, she said, a “golden amber light” that came from the vast number of cigarettes he smoked daily. “It’s an effect that takes thousands of cigarettes being smoked, but it’s kind of magical. Our lives are kind of transient. We’re here and then we are gone.