first presented on September16, 2010, at the exhibition of Gerry Snyder’s work at Museum Gallery of Modern Art, Sofia, Bulgaria, as part of the Fortissimo Fest 2010.
The last panel painting Gerry Snyder made, prior to this current body of work, was entitled Last One Home (2009). In it a sumptuous evening sky dominates and silhouettes a tender narrative: perched at the edge of emerald land, a globular being waits on its airborne companion. The painting evokes a deep sense of family: family resemblance (that shared “genetic” bulbousness), the kinship of red, the steady vigilance of the one waiting (surmised through its grounded mass at landfall), the titular “home,” the raking light that suggests the time of family congregation. However, tugging at this reading of the painting is the ambiguity shaped into the “prodigal” blob. More directional, with a flapping capelike appendange, its strong axis charts a trajectory toward the upper left corner—out of the picture—almost more strongly than it suggests it is slowing for a landing. This signals a pause in the relationships between the characters, the narrative itself and the actual construction of Snyder’s work. All are poised to be mobilized; all are poised to travel away from the confines and safety of “home.”
Travel, of course, is yoked to an idea of family and home—that which is left—and that to which one returns. In Snyder’s earlier narratives, travel is circumscribed by the storyline (Lot et al: Main Feature, 2001) or by a landscape that itself refers to pictures before places. In Kansas Taliban (2006-07), a puppyish figure (among a crowd of others) surveys a (reversed) version of Thomas Cole’s The Oxbow (1836); and as curator
Lawrence Rinder observes in his essay “Divining Gerry Snyder’s Moving Images” (American Idyll exhibition catalogue, 2007), a tree from Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne migrates to Snyder’s vision of the New World, 2002-03 (4). “Travel” in all these cases, is illustrated/mise en scene but is not initiated by the characters or experienced by ourselves as viewers.
The Last One Home is a pivotal painting in that here Snyder releases his character from any prescribed story and untethers it from pictorial tropes (or the “umbilical” connections present in his other paintings, such as A.O.: Desire, 2006-07) to discover its own narratives beyond the scene depicted in the frame. He encourages the character’s (self) discovery through the pictorial devises previously mentioned, granting it the autonomy to traverse the “wild blue [and red] yonder.” The reaching landscape is also a pointing land-shape that invites or even propels the protagonist on/out.
This movement towards release has been evident in Snyder’s work for several years and creates the larger narrative arc of his whole oeuvre. Over the years, the figures have made their way from familiar, even identifiable landscapes to the edge of the ground (Casa Susanna, 2006-07). As they crowd to the edge, we anticipate their next move–that step into the unknown. The figures themselves grow, inflate and lift (without wings) (A.O. Chastity, 2006-07). Through their comportment on the picture plane, their figure-ground relationship, and the illusion of their mass, they levitate vertically, in the axes of space/place, but not yet of time, still affixed to the picture plane. Through these strategies of pictorial composition, Snyder first introduces us to a gentle tension between connection and distance, and ultimately desire and action. These relationships are fragile, somewhat elastic, supple and tender—the best of familial. We understand the depicted slender ties that bind; with them Snyder suggests a reproductive/developmental trajectory somewhere between graceful biological separation (A.O.: Love, 2006-07) and inevitable botanical dispersal (Week End, 2006-07).
One of the truly dramatic moments in the narrative development of Snyder’s work over the last decade is that the figures, when they left the promontories, went up and not down. Any suggestion of feet/pods—descriptive or narrative (walking, etc.)–atrophied at the same moment they discovered their increased inflation had given them an edge against gravity. What lucky circumstance! This is a significant moment of illustionistic ungrounding that anticipates the eventual material ungrounding of figures from actual ground. In hindsight, this is a step towards Snyder’s present work; yet the travel that does occur in these paintings where the figures have left the (illusionistic) ground cannot engage the full dynamic of a “haptic geography” that we experience in installations like the one in Sofia. The pressure of the intact picture plane suspends the action in time and space; the characters cannot truly travel. The forms migrate, but lack will or volition.
There is a small and exquisite painting by Goya at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles; whenever I visit it, I am reminded of Snyder’s paintings. I’m sure it is partly the effused color and the strong chiaroscuro, the deep and skillful commitment to painting as surface and process; it is also content. In The Straw Man (1791), four young women toss a straw male effigy in the air; the “man” is essentially a large toy, part of a game the women play to predict their future romantic life. The women focus on the figure they have just tossed in the air; the arc of release silhouettes his body against the sky at the very moment before gravity returns him to his (narrative) dependence on the women’s gestures. His body is somewhat awkwardly splayed but without muscular tension, expressed more convincingly than it ever could be if grounded without skeletal structure. [A pentimento reveals his left leg has been redesigned as air-foil rather than scoop.] He is animate for a moment, reinforced by his glance to the viewer. Snyder’s blobs share that lack of muscular impulse or skeletal organization and like Goya’s straw man, they complicate the idea of “play”/playfulness that they may first suggest. This is adult content—the human condition in its most vulnerable state, full of aspiration, desire, anticipation for the future. Unlike the straw man, Snyder’s characters have negotiated (or evolved) their way out of gravity and in so doing have increased their “hang time” and potential; theirs is a more optimistic world.
The limitations of Snyder’s panel paintings in terms of extending these narratives are not of course, limitations in terms of the paintings themselves. But it is the more traditional framing of painting space that circulates travel within itself—leaving home, one must return—it is always an odyssey. Compositionally, the figures in A.O.: Chastity rotate around a central (void) axis on the picture plane, even as scale suggests distance. Last One Home, with only two characters, challenges that visual containment and anticipates Snyder’s current reframing of his project. The protruding “snout” of a landscape exists as an appendage, a vestige of landscape presence in Snyder’s previous paintings. The form of the land is barely discernable from the figure and together their sharp contour flattens against the clouds. Snyder is already charting a course that dramatically and physically separates figure and ground; it is as if the material world (figures/land/paint) and space (luminous sky) are about to go their separate ways (a reversal of the creation myth–a story which Snyder has indeed also told!)
Last One Home is geographies—and generations–away from its predecessor, A.O:. Chastity. There is no atmospheric perspective to soften boundaries and integrate scene; there is no Leonardo-esque landscape to comfort or to literally fall back on. No middle ground; only choices and action. The characters, too, are more fully developed as individuals and their states more contrasted. Snyder replaces their “sameness” with relatedness. Suddenly their shapes express inner lives not biological defaults. The torpedo shape of the one airborne suggests a youthful urgency and velocity that ages the
more sedentary grounded presence. Like the figure ground relationship, the individuals have taken on independence and explore their separating generational identities.
The first published title of this piece was The Long Way Home (EVO Gallery website), but Snyder chose to deliberately reframe the work as The Last One Home. This conscious retitling addresses a shift in Snyder’s project (and not just the narrative) that was already present in the work when it was made and recognized by the artist later. The title says it best; in Last One Home, Snyder suggests this “one” has gone farther, but just makes it back before night falls—to home, to the painting, to the safety of the frame. The next time, however….
The next time occurred at Snyder’s 2009-10 exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In Final Daze Snyder first placed these characters directly on the wall, releasing them not just pictorially (as we saw in the former images) but also spatio-temporally. By contextualizing the narratives within architecture (the wall), Snyder introduced cinematic viewing into the installation. Cinematic narrative had long been present in his work, as evidenced in storyboard formatting and themes. As the viewer traveled the length of the continuous wall, the narrative unfolded in time. Snyder’s earlier exquisite narratives used the conventions of pictorial storytelling (both traditional and contemporary) to frame a moment or sequence of moments narrating the human enterprise. Only slightly less roguish than the picaresque, they relate adventures via simple plot lines (sometimes episodic), with an extra dose of compassion, in what might be termed the “humanesque.” Snyder’s current work, by opening the horizon(tal) line (literally, a “time” line) works unconventionally in the gap, or perhaps more accurately, the seam, between different storytelling media of painting and film. The characters retain all their corporeal grounded materiality of painting; Snyder skillfully models the illusion of “bodies” on shaped vinyl. The characters, produced in painting time (past) are actual and “intended” objects; the “blank” wall, to which they are affixed, is a site of (present and future) potential. The wall does not illustrate space, but instead initiates a practice of space by mobilizing the viewer. The act of travel is itself related to cinema.
In Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film, Giuliana Bruno discusses the mobilized viewing space of these three disciplines, even as she explores travel as a resonating and initiating impulse. Travel, as it developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as site-seeing/tourism, is a practice of view sequencing and “spatial consumption” (62). As such it was a condition that nurtured the development of moving images; actual travelogues and travel narratives, such as A Policeman’s Tour of the World (76), were popular in the early formation of the industry. Additionally Bruno traces the predecessors of cinematic spatial construction: the tradition of painting (panoramic and view painting) and architecture (the framing of views for a mobilized spectator) (60). Snyder sites his earlier panel paintings in just such view paintings, usually with a high panoramic perspective. American Luminist painting, such as The Oxbow Snyder quotes in Kansas Taliban, is in essence, a visual travelogue (progressing from the American east to west coasts), significantly edited to a tight storyline of continental spiritual endowment and eventual material consumption. When the characters leave the ground in Snyder’s painting, they initiate narrative travel; when painting leaves aluminum panel, Snyder expands the experience to include the physical space of architecture and in so doing, engages a mobilized viewer who frames and reframes pictorial relationships and events. Snyder pries open the scenic space not only for the characters, but more importantly, for the viewer. It is as though the sealed illusionistic space of the painting leaks into the room, around the viewer, tangibly incorporating him/her into the action.
Now we come to this project in Sofia, which I like to believe is informed, or at least partially fabricated, by the work’s actual travel far away from home—Snyder’s studio. At risk of sounding clever or cheeky, these painted beings were chaperoned by Snyder on the plane from New Mexico to Bulgaria. Snuggled together in a tube, (with nary a view—but indeed, how do they see anyway, without eyes?), they flew above the clouds, over oceans and continents, to get here. This journey began their animation, which continues on a wall in this Gallery of Modern Art. [I might add that a good deal of this essay was written by me on my own travels, at 30,000 feet with “Simpsons”-esque cloud-view.]
This latest, more complete, pictorial release builds on the figure ground separation we saw in the New Mexico installation; titled Final Daze #2, it is the sequel to Final Daze. Here Snyder reassembles the cast on (this) location and layers their space with a projected video of cloud stills made animate through the “Ken Burns Effect.” The “Ken Burns Effect” is a final cut filter that animates still photos through techniques such as panning and zooming. The image is static; the view is mobilized, in the same way the Sofia installation is stationary and the audience/viewer is mobilized. There is no one place to position ourselves and our wandering view moves us along and back (panning), and more importantly, close up and distant (zooming): we come forward to haptically experience the surface of paint, then we move back to optically see the relationships of the whole; the skin-like texture of video light connects us to surface and to the sensation of touch and once again collapses focal distance. As “haptic geography,” Henri Lefebre’s term for an embodied “spatial architectonics” (Bruno 60), the installation initiates a physical relationship with the viewer far different from that of the privileged and static point-of-view utilized by a perspective oriented panel picture.
The video layer further recruits the attentions of the mobilized viewer through expanded sensation. The wall absorbs the video image, and the viewer’s attention, as only an “on” screen can. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe says the screen creates “painter-envy:”
Any painter would envy the kind of absorption we feel before the television screen,
caught before floating images which show reality; but because they are themselves
attached to no surface, are easy to associate with fantasy (Gilbert-Rolfe 61).
The wall becomes screen, receptor and projection; it loses its solidity and acts as membrane. The visceral quality of vibrant projected light washes over and vitalizes the characters and rejuvenates the negative space; it lingers in the gaps between this multi-organized and multivalent experience; we surrender to it, allow ourselves a level of confusion in return for connection.
In Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, film critic Laura U. Marks surveys this haptic phenomenon that relates to the shift (and shiftiness) I’m identifying in Snyder’s work. Marks defines the quality of engagement, under these conditions: “Haptic cinema appeals to a viewer who perceives with all the senses. It involves thinking with your skin” (19). She describes the integrated nature of the experience: “Haptic cinema, by appearing to us as an object with which we interact rather than illusion to which we enter, calls on this sort of embodied intelligence. In the dynamic between optical and haptic ways of seeing, it is possible to compare different ways of knowing and interacting with each other” (18). She suggests exposure for the viewer: “Haptic images invite the viewer to dissolve his or her subjectivity in the close and bodily contact with the image” (13).
To review, Marks identifies qualities and consequences of a haptic practice of viewing:
• It forces us to interact rather than allowing us to rely on an illusion created from a removed position
• It activates different ways of knowing
• It dismantles our “exalted” and masterful position (conceived in distance)
• Participation replaces dominance
Sounds like travel!!—what the “adolescent” red blob is doing in Last One Home, what Gerry Snyder’s work has been physically reorganizing to accomplish, what we are doing here in this room. Coming close, softening then redefining boundaries…and starting all over again. Once again, Marks on that process:
In the sliding relationship between haptic and optical, distant vision gives way to touch, and touch reconceives the object to be seen from a distance. Optical visuality requires distance and a center, the viewer acting like pinhole camera. In a haptic relationship our self rushes up to the surface to interact with another surface. When this happens there is a concomitant loss of depth—we become amoeba like, lacking a center, changing as the surface to which we cling changes. We cannot help but be changed in the process of interacting…Life is served by the ability to come close, pull away, come close again (xvi).
What happens out there…when we leave “home,” the familiar ground, the connective tissue of relationships, the good weather? How does it feel to be separated and separate and reaffixed in unfamiliar territory? How do we translate, operate, investigate, negotiate the new horizon? What are the possibilities of managing variable gravities/gravitas?
Do we, can we return? And to where? Is land/place as organically shape-shifting/migrating as we are? When our bodies finally do touch down, do they realign (gently or dramatically) to a modified shape?
Gerry Snyder’s traveling stories have become less narrative and more poignantly philosophical; we can’t readily discern any plot lines except our own.
Bruno, Guiliana. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. London: Verso, 2002
Gilbert-Rolfe, Jeremy. Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime. New York: Allworth Press, 1999
Marks, Laura U. Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multicultural Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002
Rinder, Lawrence. “Divining Gerry Snyder’s Moving Images, Gerry Snyder: American Idyll (exhibition catalogue). Santa Fe: EVO Gallery, 2007
Copyright Linda Swanson 2010