seductive: Dean Snyder’s Amnesia.
Snyder: Almost Blue
Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, through Aug. 31
Wouldn’t it be great if the images sent from NASA’s Phoenix
Mars Lander looked like something out of Dr. Seuss? In my
imagination, the red planet looks less like a drab desert
of rock, crater and volcano than like the current exhibition
on the second floor of the Tang Museum. Dean Snyder: Almost
Blue is a dimly lit installation of nine sculptures against
a backdrop of brown walls. This was a smart move. Without
the moody, cavelike atmosphere, Snyder’s sculptures could
easily come across as kitschy and garish. Instead, the overall
experience is like being transported to another realm.
The sculptures included are from a new body of work that Snyder
has been making over the past year and a half. They are the
result of 10 years of experimentation, and represent a significant
mid-career shift. Snyder, who cut his teeth as a studio assistant
to Martin Puryear, has been known mostly for work using organic
materials such as wood, rawhide, and iron. This current body
of work is an eye-popping fusion of surreal yet organic imagery
with high-tech materials and processes. Think hot rod meets
high art. Snyder uses the same paint that is used to “kustomize”
cars, motorcycles, and boats. His color choices are seductive.
There are molten greens, deep reds, and shimmery purples as
well as shiny blacks and opalescent whites. While each of
the works could stand alone, they are meant, in this exhibition,
to be considered as a coherent group.
The title of the exhibition references Elvis Costello and
Chet Baker; however, there is no overarching narrative. Instead,
Snyder has created a variety of emotional responses that encompass
both childhood memories and current events, and that are influenced
by source material ranging from honky tonk to Bernini. The
intense, showy colors emerge from memories of summers at the
Jersey Shore with its bright lights, boardwalks, and arcades
coupled with seedy sideshows and strip clubs. The flamboyance
and tawdriness of Snyder’s summers contrast with his home
on a farm in Pennsylvania where he inherited a sensible work
ethic. These two opposing factors—pragmatism and rebellion—drive
his art. Other influences include cartoons, tattoos, and art
historical and mythological references, but ultimately, as
Snyder explains, it is “the realm of material possibilities
that motivate my alacrity to innovate form through idiosyncratic
processes.” Snyder, particularly with this body of work, is
committed to process and materials.
The materials Snyder uses in his new body of work include
carbon fiber, epoxy composite, cast optical resin, stainless
steel, metal flake paint, and urethane auto enamel. Color
has become an important element in his work, as has the way
it appears, whether applied or coming from the material itself.
In most cases, the paint process is labor-intensive and time-
consuming, requiring many layers and an even application.
While the work is mostly handmade, Snyder does use machinery
such as computers and laser cutters.
The very first piece one encounters upon entering is the site-specific
Arachna’s Arcade. This giant web hanging from a corner
of the entryway no doubt references Greek mythology, but also
the arcades of Snyder’s youth, and it sets the tone for the
exhibition. Cut by machine, it does not have the elasticity
or delicacy of a real web. It hangs ominously as if attempting
to deter us from the sparkly allure of the objects beyond.
It functions much like a fortune teller’s curtain used to
maintain mystery yet entice curiosity. It appears both alluring
and dangerous, much like many of the works included. Upon
entering there is Daphne’s Pendant, a graceful sapling
form protruding from a shimmery red blob and topped by two
red pitcher-plant flowers, a carnivorous plant. The shape
of this piece echoes Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. Its
delicate beauty appears both mournful and ominous. Its melancholy
is interrupted by HooDoo, just behind it. HooDoo,
despite its reference to a vertical rock spire, is sparkly
and squat and peppered with embedded eight balls. Off to the
side and contained within a glass walled nook is Amnesia,
a viscous, cloudy orange puddle from which protrude several
poppy stems and pods. Similar to Nepenthe in the next
room, it references the allure and danger of narcotics. Nepenthe
also sports a pitcher-plant flower, this one neon green. Nearby
is Oracle, a bright pink rock with gelatinous green
drips hanging off it.
Taken as a whole, the exhibition is visually stimulating.
The colors, forms, and materials are enough to engage the
viewer without what Snyder explains is the “complex and illusive
theoretical meaning” of sculpture. In a sense, there may be
too much to think about. If you do want to know more you can
go to Snyder’s lecture on June 24 at 7 PM. Personally, I am
content to have marveled at the construction of the work without
too much background information. This is unusual for me because
I am a big fan of making contemporary art accessible. But
this work is accessible on many levels. And it is also brave.
These days it is not easy for an artist to change his signature
style mid-career. Despite the economy, the art business is
booming, and according to Julia Chaplin in last Sunday’s New
York Times, it is “increasingly a blood sport,” as collectors
compete for work and dealers require that their artists continue
to churn out work that is recognizably theirs. Perhaps this
is part of Snyder’s narrative—that with decadence there is