The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2015

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APR 2015 Issue


In the exhibition A Group Show at Jack Shainman Gallery, Michael Snow shows and tells us, repeatedly, how and with what his art is made. Now this might make you think about formalism and the dramatics of the Greenbergian yesteryear, the artist drawing attention to the ontological identity of his medium(s), renouncing pictorial depth, etc. Maybe this makes you yawn. But the six artworks, spanning from the late 1970s to the early 2000s, that comprise this compact but bright exhibition don’t. Snow, whose work only flirts with formalism, is, in fact, all about illusion—the illusory blending of virtual and real, representation and represented. His art brings together these categories—at once juxtaposing and collapsing them—in the process, laying bare the artifice of art and making a loving and lovely joke of it.

Michael Snow, "Flash! 20.49 15/6/2001" (2001). Laminated color photo on aluminum 48 x 72". Edition 1 of 2, with 1 Artist Proof. Courtesy of Jack Shainman.
On View
Jack Shainman Gallery
February 27 – April 4, 2015
New York

The first artwork you encounter in the gallery’s front room is “VUEƎUV” (1998), a photograph of a naked woman standing on a stage against a curtain printed on a free-hanging sheer cloth. She stands (floats) with her back to her viewer, her butt cocked in a coy contrapposto, long golden hair waving down her back. In the background are the vertical undulations of the drapery. This bawdy image shyly fluttering and flapping in the gallery is curious and mesmerizing.

Snow is being punny. He has given us a picture of a curtain on a curtain—a joke about the postmodern obsession with sign and signified, and about the supposed, yet much contested, “reality” of photographic images. He has also given us an image that is transparent and, like a negative, equally readable viewed from the front or the back (as the palindromic title indicates). This two-way transparency punctures the age-old art fantasy rooted in Renaissance perspectival painting, namely that a picture is a window into another world. Here, the mirage—the hallucinatory vision of an oasis in the desert—is perhaps a better metaphor. The viewer looks at this photograph ready to delight in the visual pleasures of the fleshly body so gamely offered, only to confront through it the white gallery wall, a door frame, another visitor blinking awkwardly back from the other side.

Mounted on the wall nearby, the photograph “Flash! 20:49 15/6/2001” (2001) proffers its own slew of photography jokes. The pictured couple’s doggedly frozen poses, in spite of the mayhem that unfurls around them—flying rolls, surging wine—point to the contrivances that lie behind the photographic images. Snow seems to make a sly allusion to Cartier-Bresson’s famous “decisive moment”—the split second, caught by a lucky camera, when there is a perfect confluence of “significant action” and optimal formal arrangement—but with one crucial difference: here, the “decisive moment” has not materialized spontaneously, like some readymade tableau. Rather, it is the camera’s flash that generates the pandemonium that is the subject of this photograph; this havoc is just as construed as the portrait it interrupts.

A video piece, “That/Cela/Dat” (2000), projected in the gallery’s back room provides a welcome immersive experience after the slight spareness of the front room. The video—a projection flanked by two standard-issue square video monitors displaying the same text, word by word, in English, French, and Dutch—deals most obviously with the conceptual themes of the show, flashing phrases like “This is electric light projected on this,” or “Some of you are not looking at this. That’s okay. Some are. Thanks!” that explicitly reference the work’s (im)materiality, status as an artwork, and relationship as such to its viewers.

But these artworks are not only about the black chasm of theory. They are also about aesthetics and humor, and in these realms Snow does not fail to impress with his characteristic palette of bright secondary and tertiary colors—shades of pale pinks and blues, chrome green, ochre, violet, fulvous yellow—and cheeky compositions. Who can’t smile at the happily deranged expressions plastered on the faces of the portrait-sitters in “Flash! 20:49 15/6/2001”? Or at the idea of a photograph of an abstract painting hanging in a gallery, hanging in a gallery (“Times”)? Or at the fact that you are observing someone observe you observe a butt?

Michael Snow, “VUEƎUV” (1998). Color photo on cloth on plastic tube, 68 × 51". Courtesy of Jack Shainman.

Sitting alone in the dark room watching the video, I felt moved and pleased by the sweetly awkward syntax Snow employs: “Also, there are many other interesting works in this exhibition. This is just one of many. It is kind of special, though.” A distinct voice, mischievous and friendly, emerges in the cadence and stilted choice of the words (Snow carefully timed each word’s appearance and duration on the screen). Snow tells us what this work is literally (pixelated light, words strung together by an artist), but he shows us something else too. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe wrote wry René. “Ceci n’est pas, évidemment, une pipe,” says an even wryer Snow in this video. This is not, obviously, a pipe. With the addition of a single word, Snow suggests the opposite of Magritte’s famous statement. Rather than undermine the idea of pictorial realism, he implies that the image of the pipe is in fact a pipe. The sign is the same as the referent. Art is what it is made of—paint on a canvas, light on a wall, light captured on film—but it is also many other things too: emotion, beauty, the thing it represents, specialness.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2015

All Issues