Nests, Wounds, and Blossoms (the paintings of Joan Snyder)
Art in America, February, 2002, pp. 104-107
 

I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.
-Claes Oldenburg, 1961

Joan Snyder's paintings shouldn't work. There's just too much of everything: too much color, too much paint and far too much passion. Their roiling intensity is jarring, confrontational and so embarrassingly honest that they seem out of place in the cool, cynical caverns of Chelsea. Snyder holds nothing back. In her bare-all approach, she skirts the edges of both ugliness and beauty, often at her peril. Simultaneously rough and lyrical, her paintings are jagged emotional landscapes in colors that range from earthy to bilious, saturated to saccharine. Sometimes matte, sometimes shiny, the paint is scrawled, delicately washed or, like cakefrosting, squeezed straight from the tube, with straw, wooden beads, papier mache, dried medicinal herbs, bits of fabric and mud thrown in, as if by Anselm Kiefer on Ecstasy.

Snyder has never shied away from the thorny side of life. Over the course of her more than 30-year career, she has taken the emotions and events that have come her way and fervently documented each passage, with all of its anxiety and struggle, in her paintings. One of her ambitions as a young artist was to create on canvas the sweeping expressiveness of music, its ability to shift agilely from joyous to sorrowful to triumphant. As the obvious geometry of her earliest work fell away, around 1974, Snyder began to develop a vocabulary of marks, materials and colors that became symbols of her experience. Although autobiographical in nature, her reckless engagement with her process renders Snyder's paintings far from literal. Merging spontaneity and structure, she conveys her meaning through the use of loose brushstrokes, an occasional written notation and a wealth of abstracted images. Themes of life and death, resurrection and redemption, indicated by single or coupled cherry trees or by fields of flowers--usually poppies or sunflowers in various stages of blossom and decay--have appeared in her work again and again over the years, along with sexual images, often in the form of clusters of wooden beads made to look like tumescent bunches of grapes.

In "Primary Fields," her most recent exhibition at Robert Miller Gallery, Snyder showed 15 paintings from 1994-2001, her strongest work to date. Here Snyder pressed her luck even further with a group of eight craggy abstractions--coarse grids made up of circles that resemble, in some cases, birds' nests or pastry, in others, gaping wounds. These are difficult paintings to love, but one cannot help but admire them for their ferocious conviction. On the one hand, they appear to be all about life and its struggles; on the other, they are about nothing but an artist's determination to push paint and painting as far as they will go.

Monumental in scale and the most confrontational of the grid paintings, "Voyage" (2000, 72 by 78 inches) has a border of crusty white rings floating in a cerulean sea, the latter mitigated by intimations of reflected clouds and accumulations of algaelike yellow-green. Within the rings is a sticky indigo mass that threatens to spill out. The middle of the painting is a rectangular block containing nine similar rings that look as if they are being viewed through an infrared filter, so that the centers become gooey crimson scabs. For shock value we usually depend on images; it's not often that an abstract painting can be frightening in effect. By contrast, one of the first grid paintings, the small "Summer Painter" (1994), is purely light-hearted in tone. Here, colorful wooden dowels decorate the border like beach toys on sparkling white sand, and the central rectangle has gridded markings similar to those on a tennis court or the bottom of a swimming pool. Seen together, these two paintings demonstrate how Snyder can use the same format to express wildly opposed emotions.

While she was exploring the grid paintings, Snyder did not abandon her previous concerns, and if, during this time, she created some of her most disturbing work, she also painted some of her most beautiful. "Ghosts" (2000) is gorgeous, a landscape profuse with poppies, sweeps of sunny yellow and breastlike mounds. Even the dark areas are hardly ominous; instead they suggest the fecund richness of earth. Yet at the bottom is scrawled "the Dead," which, according to the artist's catalogue statement, is part of a longer quotation from T.S. Eliot that she otherwise painted out: "Do the Dead want to return?" Perhaps these words are an indication that the dark areas are graves. In atmosphere, this painting recalls the festive mingling of the living and dead that occurs when Mexicans observe the Day of the Dead, holding sumptuous picnics in the cemeteries of their forebears and decorating the graves with large bright flowers.

In "She Is the Earth" (2000), the light and dark moods come together in a landscape where blossoms float in the air like stars over water and earth. The words scratched across the painting's heavily textured surface--"She is the earth; dark formless mother, made beautiful by the night, darkly conscious of her instincts"--are from James Joyce's play The Exiles, but they also apply to the experience Snyder's paintings engender. Her art is all about being a mother, daughter and lover, and the intense sweep of emotions produced by such strong attachments. Under these circumstances, one feels both "in control and out," as she has said of herself in the studio. Snyder somehow manages to make paintings about love and beauty (or their absence) that are free of the taint of sentimentality, rendered in the brash brushstrokes and large scale usually reserved for more heroic subjects. While admittedly these paintings are aggressive, their energy comes not from anger but strength, and they reveal, beneath it all, an endearing vulnerability.

 

-Carol Diehl

"Primary Fields," an exhibition of recent paintings by Joan Snyder, appeared at Robert Miller Gallery [Apr. 25-May 26, 2001]. It was accompanied by a catalogue that includes a text by the artist. A show of new paintings is forthcoming at Nielsen Gallery, Boston [Apr. 27-June 1, 2002].

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