The only category I think Jenny Snider belongs to is the one titled “Jenny Snider.” She is that singular and has been for a long time. Having never had a solo show in a New York gallery, even though she lived in Tribeca for many years and was part of a downtown scene that included Elizabeth Murray and Louise Fishman, Snider easily qualifies for such categories as “neglected” and “overlooked.” However, these designations strike me as too diminishing. Snider’s work cannot be contained by these terms, which helps explain why she is not as well-known as she should be.
Snider’s enthusiasms have led her to work in many different mediums: paintings, sculptural objects, drawings, prints, films, and books. As a painter, she has never seemed remotely interested in developing a recognizable style or even adopting a consistent way of applying paint. She has brushed on acrylic thin enough to produce paint drips, and she has used a palette knife to apply a thick paste of oil paint. And these are only two instances of the many ways she has manipulated paint. As far as I can tell, the merging of subject and process is uppermost in Snider’s mind.
Snider’s enthusiasms include ballroom dancing; choreography; popular music; innovative Soviet art, specifically in film and theater; outsider art; Jewish literature; automobiles and other vehicles; and the urban landscape. Whoever attempts to assemble a well-deserved, comprehensive view of Snider’s career will quickly discover just how diverse her work has become, ever since she graduated from Yale with an MFA in 1966, more than 50 years ago. When it comes to being experimental, thorough, and surprising, she is the real deal, as her exhibition, Jenny Snider: A Selection of Paintings, Drawings, and Sculptures from 1970 to the Present, at Edward Thorp Gallery (October 25, 2018–January 12, 2019) proves beyond a doubt.
I had barely gotten inside in the gallery’s entrance when I was stopped in my tracks by four ink drawings, collectively titled “Black Skirt and Pants,” numbered and dated 1981. In each drawing, Snider breaks down a choreographed routine that you might see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers perform in one of the 10 films they made together. The drawing is a visual map of how the dance partners move across the floor, with insets depicting their positions at certain points in the routine. There are lots of notes and numbers on the right hand side of the paper, much of which I didn’t understand. And yet, even while I don’t completely get what Snider is up to in these works, I am moved by the intensity of her focus and the passion informing it. This is the case in all her work.
On a nearby wall, there are eight pairs of charcoal and chalk drawings collectively titled “Hard to Handle” (2000). In each of the paired drawings, Snider depicts one partner of a dance couple. In only one drawing do the dancers reach across the seam and touch one another. Otherwise, each dancer is enacting a set of completely independent, if tandem, movements. By placing each dancer in his or her own space, as demarcated by the paper’s physical borders, Snider grants them their autonomy and honors their fluid physical prowess.
One clue to Snider’s preoccupation with dance can be found in the painting, “And I, An Old Man…II” (2013), which cites something Vsevolod Meyerhold, an innovative Soviet Russian theater director and actor, wrote:
Every movement is a hieroglyph, with its particular meaning. The theatre should employ only those movements which are immediately decipherable. Everything else is superfluous.
And yet, even as I write this, I realize there is a lot more to say about “And I, An Old Man…II” and other paintings in which Snider alludes to Soviet Russian theater and film. Snider has dug deep into Meyerhold, as well as the filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, and the way they dealt with the uncomprehending, murderous Soviet state under Joseph Stalin. Snider’s research is probing, heartfelt, and relentless. She wants to know everything about these two men and what they had to endure.
Along the bottom third of “And I, An Old Man…II,” spelled out in white paint on a black ground — suggestive of something written on a blackboard (a lesson to be learned) — Snider has cited passages from a letter that Meyerhold wrote to Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet premier (1930-1941) and devoted protégé of Stalin. The letter was discovered in Molotov’s file after the collapse of Communism by Vitaly Shentalinsky, who was researching the fate of writers purged by Stalin’s secret police, NKVD. The cited part reads:
They beat me. A sick old man. They laid me down on the floor
And beat the soles of my feet, my back and about the face. Face
Down on the floor, I discovered the capacity to cringe, writhe,
And howl, like a dog, whipped by its master.
Between the two sections of text at the top and bottom of the painting, Snider depicts a scene from one of Meyerhold’s productions. She also lists the dates of his birth and his execution by the authorities, which was less than a month after he wrote the letter. The painting is an homage to Meyerhold and a testimony to his fate. Also, by juxtaposing his observation that “every movement is a hieroglyph,” with his description of being treated “like a dog, whipped by its master,” Snider asks the viewer to picture what the hieroglyph for Meyerhold’s degradation and suffering might be.
The conflict between the freethinking artist and state censorship is one of Snider’s points of interest. Seen within our current political climate and the accusations mounted against the press, “And I, An Old Man…II” reminds us that we don’t have to fall very far to become a murderous police state. In some ways, we already have.
Another, more recent painting that comes out of Snider’s research is “Sergei Mikhailovich Contemplates His Masterpiece” (2017), which refers to the famous “Odessa Steps” sequence from Eisenstein’s 1926 film Battleship Potemkin (Mikhailovich is the director’s middle name). In Snider’s painting, we are at the bottom of the stairs looking up. Some of the silhouettes of figures on the stairs will be familiar: the young mother pushing a baby carriage and the doomed older woman sitting on the side of the steps. Is Eisenstein the man wearing a hat, seen along the bottom edge? Or is he the less distinct figure at the top of the stairs? The slightly angled rise of the stairs from the bottom of the painting to near its top exaggerates and dramatizes the height. Snider seems to have learned a lot from film about the choreographing of space — it is one of the formal achievements of these paintings. Snider never settles into anything predictable.
In addition to these two paintings about theater and film during the Stalinist purges, the exhibition includes a number of paintings that seem to be influenced by 1940s film noir. “Noir” (1995) is an angled view of a car driving at night, its taillights emitting cones of thickly rendered red and yellow light. Done with a palette knife, the characters in these paintings seem to be inspired, stylistically, by the tubular figures of Kasimir Malevich and the humanoid mannequins of the Italian painter Mario Sironi, but are in the end Snider’s invention.
In the masterful, thickly painted “Shadow on the Wall” (1985), there are three figures – a woman pointing, a child, and a man. Each exists in a separate domain and yet feel connected within the painting’s cramped space. The palpable shadow of the woman pointing becomes a fourth presence.
Just as I thought I was getting a handle on Snider’s work, and had gathered some sense of what she has been up to, I turned a corner and saw “Fuji” (1972), a grid of 12 drawings in sumi ink on rice paper pinned to the wall. Influenced by Asian art and calligraphy, Snider has made something that seems distinctly hers. There is no pastiche in what she has done; the composition owes nothing to Japanese painting or woodcuts. This is what singles Snider out. No matter what she is thinking about or alluding to, she finds a way to be herself, and to make art that only she could have made. There is nothing casual about what Snider did to make “Fuji”; the myriad marks have an intensity that matches the energy of their movement.
Throughout the variety of ways she has applied paint and other mediums, it is clear that Snider can be extremely serious at the same time that she is being whimsical. Her worked is marked by curiosity, empathy, humor, tenderness, devotion, and imagination. I don’t know how many paintings about Soviet Russia Snider has done, but a show of them with an accompanying publication should be explored. The art world is always looking to discover someone new, something unexpected, or surprising. It is starving for revelations. Jenny Snider’s work fits the bill, which is the only term that comes at all close to describing the achievements of this fabulous artist.
Jenny Snider: A Selection of Paintings, Drawings, and Sculptures from 1970 to the Present continues at Edward Thorp Gallery (531 West 26th Street, 2nd floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 12, 2019.