New YorkEdward Thorp Gallery
October 25, 2018 – January 12, 2019
Jenny Snider is a fiercely independent artist who is deeply steeped in film culture, which has inspired her way of viewing her own life and times as inseparable from political history and the lives of the cultural figures and film makers whom she admires. As Snider said in a recent gallery talk, her work has never been based on “what was in the galleries,” which is a way of noting her outlier status in the art world. This survey style exhibition is but a sample of Snider’s oeuvre.
In her 2013 painting, And I, An Old Man…II, Snider’s upright printed words on an exquisitely painted black background—suggestive of a well-used blackboard—are pleasurable to look at and painful to read. I asked Snider how she got the letters so crisp and straight, especially since she has long suffered from an inherited tremor that affects her hands. She said, “I kept painting the black and drew the white like it was a contour I had to get right. Back and forth, black and white until it looked right. I only use a ruler to draw the straight horizontal lines.”
The materials used in And I, An Old Man…II are acrylic, watercolor, and collaged canvas on canvas, producing a delicate matte surface worked up in thin layers. Tiny specks of white paint are scattered amongst the letters, contributing space and time to the ground, allowing the viewer time to look and think while reading. The top of the painting is covered by a collaged piece of canvas. The bottom edge of this piece of canvas is glued across the face of the canvas on a diagonal—a brilliant way to open up a reference to space. The sentence, “Everything else is superfluous,” is written across the edge of the diagonal. Larger words, ACTOR, DIRECTOR, V. MEYERHOLD, tumble through a shallow wedge of space, culminating in one bold horizontal word, TEACHER, and below, like on a tombstone, the dates of Meyerhold’s life. The letters at the top appear below a band of stylized blue figures, demonstrating a variety of hieroglyphic-like movements. The Vsevolod Meyerhold quotation at the top reflects his intellectual approach to the meaning of movement in theater productions. These grey letters on a mottled yellowish ground are not as bold as the white letters on black at the bottom, which tell of his last days in a Stalinist prison under torture. I looked down and up at the painting, reading the words at the bottom first. Thus, a mental image of total abjection and humiliation was followed by a contemplation of V. Meyerhold’s intellectual interests and life accomplishments. He was the teacher of the Russian filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, who wrote, “The God-like, incomparable Meyerhold, I beheld him then for the first time and I was to worship him all my life.”
Horizontal, diagonal, and vertical painted lines in blue, orange, and brown, representing an open constructivist stage set, activated by figures dressed in workers’ blue clothing, holds the center of the painting. This painting is both a celebration and a memorializing of a fabulously innovative theater man and an account of that man’s last days on earth in his own words, which extends V. Meyerhold’s creative presence all the way to the moment one beholds And I, An Old Man…II.
A second riveting painting that appears in this somewhat random survey of Snider’s oeuvre is Sergei Mikhailovich Contemplates his Masterpiece (2017). This painting features an image of the Odessa Steps that Snider took from a postcard. The Odessa Steps is the place where Sergei Eisenstein filmed the famous scene from Battleship Potemkin (1925) where the tsarist troops are marching down the steps, the people spilling before them; a baby carriage careens down the steps. The scene in Snider’s painting is silent and peaceful, especially so if you have seen the tumultuous scene in the film. Like the Meyerhold painting, this work is unusual in that it pays tribute to Eisenstein by referencing his creative process: the way the location of the Odessa Steps inspired him to reconstruct an important historical event in a powerfully symbolic manner. The Odessa Steps are narrower at the top than at the bottom, so when seen from the bottom of the steps, they appear very high. In Snider’s painting, the elevation of this massive stairway is wonderfully articulated by small figures scattered across its span. The steps are established by a succession of close set parallel lines, vigorously marked out with a dense, highly pigmented oil stick. The people on the steps are moving in different directions, but their stepped shadows all fall the same direction. The shadows mark time, the eternal present of Eisenstein’s creative inspiration and the eternal past of his great film, and the historical event on which it was based.
On either side of the Odessa Steps, brush marks and oil stick drawing merge drawing with painting in a thin painterly field of color patches and squiggly lines. Images of trees and buildings establish topography across the painting’s mottled ground.
Next to the door at the Edward Thorpe Gallery are schematic pen and ink drawings, on grid paper, made for Snider’s on-going project of creating an animated film featuring hundreds of her breathtakingly nuanced drawings, made from old films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing. These tiny images of dancers, accompanied by Snider’s notes, evidence her mastery of scale and her deep feeling for human connection across generations.
Dona Nelson is an artist.