Published on Friday, November 8, 2019
Close to Home: An Interview with Gary Schneider
Gary Schneider, Pieter Hugo, 2013
Courtesy Stephen Daiter Gallery
Thirteen photographs by thirteen South African artists sit on the walls of AIPAD member Stephen Daiter’s Chicago gallery. Despite their striking aesthetic differences, the photographs are part of the same collection. Each one is accompanied by a forensic imprint of the artist’s own hand, luminous, strange and speckled bright like heat-based constellations.
The handprints and the exhibit itself, entitled "Highly Personal: South African Artists and Their Handprint Portraits," are the work of photographer Gary Schneider. Though born and raised in South Africa, Schneider came of age in the New York art scene of the 1980s, where, among other things, he developed a close relationship with Peter Hujar.
AIPAD dealers often work closely with artists to help collectors come to a deeper understanding of their work and the person behind it. In that spirit, we sat down with Schneider to talk about South Africa, Hujar, and what it means to make a mark by making a print.
Where did you get the idea for “Highly Personal”?
It started with coming back home. I had left South Africa in 1977 at the age of 23. In 2011 I returned for my first exhibition there, “Skin,” at David Krut Projects in Johannesburg. I had not been back in between, except for a few brief visits. I never thought of myself as being truly South African because for a long time I was not proud of what that meant. The country I grew up in was extremely regressive, racist and homophobic. But upon arriving in Johannesburg, I found a liberal democracy with a thriving art scene. It was so, so different.
South Africa has a complicated present, but it also has a wealth of incredible artists, like David Goldblatt, who was so much the conscience of white South Africa. He chronicled the inequalities in South Africa before and after apartheid and once said that he hoped to show us ourselves through his art. He did, and so do many living South African artists, whose work I started to immerse myself in when I visited. For example, I was introduced to the LGBTQ activist art of Zanele Muholi in 2011, when I was making handprints at the University of the Witwatersrand, not far from Muholi’s exhibition at Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg.
Muholi’s work was astounding to me. It brought me back to the sad country of my youth where I grew up white, privileged, and gay under apartheid - and yet its presence showed that we were not in that country anymore. There are so many more voices being heard and I wanted to focus on them.
Over the three years I spent in South Africa, I did about two hundred of these portraits, though only seventy-seven artists appear in the book and thirteen in the exhibit. All of the artworks in the exhibition are self-portraits or set-ups in which the artists are using some part of themselves, or documenting a highly personal story.
You’ve been making handprints since 1996. What about the form compelled you to apply it here?
Each handprint follows the same format; it’s essentially an assisted self-portrait, whereby the subject is responsible for the information deposited in the film emulsion. There are a number of variables—performance and gesture, body chemistry, the physical shape of the hand, their relationship to me—that make the prints unique. In the private space of the darkroom, something very personal is exposed, to be revealed later: forensic data is imprinted into the film and a print is made.
I keep doing this format in part because it’s hard to read, when forensic data is often presented to be as identifying as possible. But the information is read metaphorically. The prints do not reveal race, gender, age, economic status…I feel they reveal more about the person than a portrait of their face. It is concrete information that becomes abstract by default, yet they remain documents. And that makes it harder to separate from the individual.
When I was doing one of the prints, one artist said to me, “You know that they take our fingerprints when we come into the USA, right?” And it’s true. But of course that forensic data is used for identification and that identification is used for control. These prints are something different. Nobody knows exactly how to “read” these handprints—they don’t tell you anything you can use in court, there’s nothing to put in a file. But like the anonymous ancient cave hand imprints, they are unique and, well, personal.
That intimacy is why I keep returning to the handprints, and why I did this project using them. It is so easy to other and dehumanize people that are different, especially in a country that has been so divided. I wanted the exhibit to capture as broad an approach as possible to the experience of living and working in South Africa. In focusing on specific artists, I hope the exhibit engages some of the diversity of practice and lived experience that enriches our visual culture.
You spent a long time in New York and you live there today. Looking back, what artistic relationships stand out to you the most from that time?
There are too many to name, but I will say that lately I’ve been revisiting the time I had to know Peter Hujar. Partly this is related to the incredible Morgan Library exhibit on his photographs, which is touring now. The other reason is more personal and a little complicated.
You see, I first met Peter in 1977, and I knew him from then until his death. He was really a mentor figure to me. In 1981 I had the unique experience of working with him as an artist. Peter appeared in a short 16mm film I made called Salters Cottages. The only other films he appeared in are the extraordinary Andy Warhol Screen Tests made into The Thirteen most Beautiful Boys from the early 1960’s.
I’ve realized in recent years that Peter’s influence on Salters Cottages goes beyond his physical presence on screen. I saw that especially clearly when working on a book of stills from the film, which I started doing in 2015. Looking at my own work in that new light so many years later prompted a remembering and rethinking, and I realized a mentor relationship never really ends. I've started feeling closer to Peter again through this process. The book of stills is coming out in November, published by Dashwood Books.
My relationship with Peter also continues through my printing his work posthumously. It is very difficult, but very rewarding. I approach it by asking, what would Peter do in this process? I have to channel Peter. How would this look exhibited alongside his own prints? The printing is always intimate in this way. No facsimile is perfect, but I try to come close, and that means reflecting on a relationship… I feel a sense of responsibility, even in looking back on my own, small part in Peter’s life, that when I make prints of his work and of his likeness, I am helping to keep him alive. I hope that my work can help shed light on the kind of person he was.
Postscript: AIPAD is committed to giving dealers the professional tools they need to collaborate and contribute to a body of professional knowledge. Its newest offering to this end, Paris Photo New York, will take place on April 2, 2020 at Pier 94.