BETTY CUNNINGHAM GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 16 – OCTOBER 30, 2010
As might be expected of any grande dame, Joan Snyder’s recent paintings are extravagant, dramatic, sexy, and somewhat at risk of becoming sentimental caricatures of themselves. A Year in the Painting Life confirms Snyder’s mastery of the stroke and drip while undermining her reputation for disarming emotionality. The consistency of approach dissipates the intensity and unpredictability of these recent works.
Snyder began her artistic life as a feminist renegade. In contrast to the reigning Minimalist sensibility of the time, her paintings were “maximalist”—aggressively feminine and unapologetically bursting with imagery. From the first sensuously colored stroke paintings, raw emotion oozed from her flesh-and-blood palette. Their imagery included protruding, bloodied, dripping female body parts. Some works were dark, expressionist efforts with thick layers of impasto. Later, brighter feminine colors and the grid returned. Written phrases, natural materials, and fabrics such as burlap and silks also appeared. Sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s her vocabulary settled, and what we see today is a refinement of that.
The elements of the current work are skillfully executed, but fixed. The rectangular grid of strokes provides the underlying structure of every painting in the show. Lush flesh-tones, pinks, and reds prevail, but purples and lavenders also make multiple, repetitive appearances. Collaged silk, gauze, glitter, and organic materials such as rosebuds, straw, and dirt are integral to the composition of each piece.
The problem is then two-fold. Her once-shocking brand of organic abstraction has become so influential and widely imitated that the paintings now seem familiar and sentimental, not to mention out of step with our postmodern, post-9/11 world. Further, many of the canvases are too formulaic to capture the imagination anew. So a painting like “Are Mine,” with layers of scratchy burlap and shiny, wet pools of paint, may be a well-constructed exercise in contrasting color and texture, but it seems to have been done before by the master herself. The words “ARE MINE” and the heart outlines suggest a valentine of sorts. I’m all for the undiluted expression of love, but this painting is a bit sentimental. Surely there must be another way to express love than to draw a heart? “The Other Side of the Mountain” suffers a similar fate. Swathes of rich, purplish blues and triangles of magenta silk seduce the eye. But the ubiquitous hearts and rosebuds (however bleeding and crushed) have become a cliché. The intensity of color and confidence of stroke do not sufficiently mitigate the feeling of over-indulgence here.
The drama and grace of a few canvases save the day. Almost 18 feet long, “Oh April” evokes the panoramic vision and perspective of Monet’s water lilies. A darkish horizon rests at the very top edge, and the foreground unfolds toward the viewer into a striking abstract field. The large scale loosens the constraints of the grid, which is instead subsumed by an undulating rhythm of color and texture. Bold red and orange circular gestures offset raised stripes of burlap, seeds, and dirt, as does the introduction of an acidic cadmium green against the warm range of pinks and peaches. The tonal combinations convey a light-hearted joy at the arrival of spring, or perhaps a special person? Here is some real audacity, subtly conveyed through color and material.
With a palette evolving like the seasons over triptych panels, “Summer Fugue” most directly evokes the passage of time referenced in the exhibition title. This painting is most original, primarily due to the presence of an intriguing rope that hangs in the middle of the center panel and adds an unexpectedly sinister note to the image. Although more likely meant to evoke a vine or plant form, it drapes like a menacing noose over a vibrant landscape of bright colors and deep shadows. A scrap of white silk at the bottom is not a summer bridal veil but a shroud, foreshadowing the dark impasto colors of autumn’s death and decay in the final panel of the triptych.
The finesse of a few excellent paintings helps one forgive the minor sins of overindulgence. It may be a sign of the times that it is possible to take love, loss, pain, and the cycle of life for granted. Joan Snyder is, at her best, one of the few artists who could make us view these things afresh.
CORINA LARKIN is a painter and writer who lives in New York City. She is also an editor of the Rail's ArtSeen section.