Years ago in some forgotten context, I read that one technique used by historians to authenticate the attribution of a painting is the way the painter depicts the whorls of the ear. It seems, so the writer claimed, that painters — even portraitists — don’t look closely at the ears of their subjects; they simply paint a generic ear based on their own ears, pretty much the same one on every subject. I thought then and think now that, although artists may repeat ears, only jug ears like Prince Charles are likely to have any real familiarity with their own. We don’t see our ears easily in the mirror.
But that artist do inevitably depict themselves in their work is undeniable and has been noted many times by artists themselves. In the case of David Schnuckel, a Spring 2009 Resident Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America, the relationship of self to art-making plays out on several levels. In a practical vein, Schnuckel feels that his residency at WheatonArts is intrinsic to a conscious transition in his work and his relationship to glass. “I’m really trying to reinvent myself,” he said. “I want to grow as an artist who happens to use glass.” Up to this point, David has been widely recognized and successful being what everyone calls “the goblet guy.” His staple piece is not your typical goblet but a vessel with cartoon-based motifs on its sides. Text and image suggest Pop Art slightly distanced from the deadpan cool of a Warhol or Lichtenstein.
More recent Schnuckel’s vessels take the form of bottles, especially beer bottles, often oversize. He groups some in a context suggesting interpersonal issues, from the threat of a Molotov cocktail to international relations or one-on-one conflict of a chess game. His current series of precise oversize bottles reflects his interest in mass-production, also an aspect of popular culture print materials, like comics.
Schnuckel confesses a long time love of comic books that has matured into a fascination with the tragic hero. He is a comic book collector and a fan of Conan the Barbarian. “I like that kind of fantastical story,” he says, although he doesn’t actually read superhero comics now. Indeed, he cultivates parallels between the “big robust” heroes of Greek tragedy depicted with text on Antique vases and contemporary mythic superheroes in his own work. “Comic books are just the contemporary mythology,” he notes.
Schnuckel is himself as a character in these depictions in “a highly fictitious way.” A super dexterous, strong manipulator of hot glass, Schnuckel is physically impressive although he describes himself as “not very macho.” Comparing himself with a “rough group” of fellow workers in a sheet glass factory in Indiana, he recalls feeling intimidated by the possibility of conflict. “I couldn’t have any sort of physical engagement with [an argumentative guy] and so I did it in art.” This solution has worked for artists for millennia. In Schnuckel’s hands, such a vignette has the advantage of enduring long after the incident that initiated it and striking a chord in many a viewer’s psyche.
On the technical side, Schnuckel thinks of himself as a recovering control freak. His drawings have always been “nitpicky about details and numbers.” They look as precise as architectural drawings, but he says, “the tie (to perfectionism) has loosened quite a bit over the years.”
“I like to learn things by doing them over and over. “Can you do it well? Can you do it in quantity?” he asks himself. He has drawn “hundreds of vintage military guys and shrunk them down with Xerox and formatted them onto paper.” He sends them to a company in Minnesota to be transformed into fire-on decals. He brought some to CGCA. But now, as he blows abstract buoy shapes just to see what he will do with them, he also wants to understand the process of making the decals. Perfectionism and control have not been entirely abandoned. Today, Schnuckel says comic book “vigilantes are now mere mortals trying to do extraordinary things,” a description that might fit this young artist very well.