Contributed by Jason Andrew / Jenny Snider is a storyteller. The content and form of her art come from a variety of sources: history, popular culture, politics, and art itself in the form of grid-based abstraction representing natural and mechanical forms. But singularly, she is interested in “describing the experience of the life I know and imagine, all melding with the books I’ve read, the movies I’ve seen, the cars we drove, the views from my window.” A mini-survey of Snider’s work on view at Edward Thorp Gallery highlights the artist’s witty, gritty, and elusive career with selected works from the 1970s to the present.
Mutiny, rebellion, the downcast, and the outcast have been themes underlying Snider’s work. The earliest piece is from 1972 – a gridded ink drawing on rice paper titled Fuji. For Snider, much like her Yale classmate Jennifer Bartlett, the grid came to support an open construct. The recurrence of the grid for her is reflective of “conversations in consciousness raising groups, of being a woman and the struggle between domestic and professional.”
Snider cites personal experience in Master Class (1973), painted at a time when the artist was studying the 1887-1888 Shanghai Edition of The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, and when Picasso passed away. “Picasso died and there was a lengthy obit in The New York Times celebrating his big life,” Snider said. “I was so angry. His shadow cast over us all.” The beautifully rendered meditative studies she had been making gave way to an imposing bust portrait of one of the 20th century’s greatest misogynists. Beyond the portrait, and perhaps in an arch effort to outshine the master, Snider penned her own (hilarious) obituary that was later published in the satirical issue of Heresies edited by Martha Wilson.
Since the late 1970s, Snider has been preoccupied with a series inspired by the dance duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. “My love of the movies,” Snider told me, “was learned first from my mother, who came to America in 1913 from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.” Black Skirt and Pants I-IV (1981) combines Snider’s interest in diagramming with her love of old movies. In this work, Snider craftily deconstructs a choreographic phrase of the duo dancing in Swing Time (1936).
As I see it, Snider spotlights Ginger Rogers as Fred’s equal. And history has finally caught up with Rogers’ greatness. One need only recall the celebrated 1982 Frank and Ernest cartoon by Bob Thaves musing “don’t forget that she did everything he did but backwards and in high heels.” For Snider, Rogers is a great hero who juggled both life and career as a successful woman.
The Astaire-Rogers series is ongoing and one Snider has returned to often in her career. It is how I know her best. In addition to the more diagrammatic work from 1982, Snider hangs eight extraordinary Astaire-Rogers paired charcoal drawings from 2000. Titled Hard to Handle, they reference the Too Hot To Handle dance sequence in the film Roberta (1935). We are never more rebellious, they suggest, than when we are dancing and singing.
Adding emphasis to her interest in song and dance, Snider has installed a hand-built sculpture of a piano next to her wall of charcoal Astaire-Rogers. The sculpture titled SOLO: Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye (1999) is like an homage to the artist’s father, who emigrated to the United States from the Ukraine, trained as an architect, and loved playing songs from the Great American Songbook like the one by Cole Porter referenced in Snider’s title.
Snider connects with her Jewish roots in a series of paintings on view from her Chelm Series. Chelm, the fictional town of Jewish folklore, came into being when an angel, sent by God with a sack of fools’ souls to distribute across the entire world, tripped and spilled them all in one place. Called “whimsical” by Grace Glueck in the New York Times when the series was first shown at the Jewish Museum in 1982, Snider’s painting Chelm I: All Wise No Fools (1982) features a stack of seven black-and-white painted canvases one atop the next in film-like stop-action. But Snider, always rooting for the underdog, inverts the tale by painting “all wise” instead of “all fools” to describe the souls tumbling down from the heavens.
The Russian Revolution as depicted in novel and film has been an intense focus for Snider in recent years, culminating in an exhibition of paintings, drawings, and ceramics at the Korn Gallery at Drew University in early 2013. Stalin, Molotov, and Zhdanov are painted into the works, and Snider juxtaposes their portraits with scenes of the revolution. On view in 2013 was the first of two paintings, with the second now up at Thorp, that feature the story of Russian theater director Meyerhold, who was arrested, tortured, and executed during the Great Purge. “Every movement is a hieroglyph worth its own peculiar meaning” Snider inscribes in the surface of her painting of Meyerhold titled And I, An Old Man… II (2013).
Revolt and rebellion continue to inspire Snider as she demonstrates her fascination with the pioneering film director Sergei Eisenstein in a towering painting titled Sergei Mikhailovich Contemplates His Masterpiece (2017). Here Snider captures the famous sequence of Eisenstein’s great silent film Battleship Potemkin (1925) involving tsarist troops’ brutal crackdown on restive Russian citizens on the Odessa Steps. Her painting is eerie and empty rather than kinetic, a prelude to the film montage. With the ultimately imperiled baby carriage from the scene skillfully painted in silhouette lower center, Snider leaves us trapped and wondering about its fate. Snider’s Russian Revolution paintings have long titles and are densely painted. They merit a show all to themselves.
Snider has covered a lot of aesthetic, narrative, and material territory in her years as an artist. Continuing the montage idea from Eisenstein, she tosses into the fray paintings incorporating imagery she has explored over the years, including city streets, leaves, stars, cars, and buses. Three little paintings dating from the 1990s in a side gallery feature cityscapes in thick paint and heavy brushwork. Popcorn Town (1990), in which two towering buildings are scrunched into a small panel, is the zaniest. A bright bolt of energy zaps the composition to life.
Bringing the exhibition full-circle is Fast Painting (2009). A large work referencing the grid as mechanism, this piece builds on an underpainting of a whitewashed matrix. The static grid makes an ideal framework for a racing vehicle, wheels screaming, whose make and model those who know Snider’s work will immediately recognize. Although mostly black and white, the painting reflects a vivid optimism that carries throughout the show, reminding us that intertwined with Snider’s impulses of rebellion are hopes and dreams as real as daily life.
“Jenny Snider: A Selection of Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture from 1970 to the Present,” Edward Thorp Gallery, 531 West 26th Street, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10001 / On view through December.
About the author: Jason Andrew is an independent scholar, curator, and producer who co-founded and directs Norte Maar, a non-profit organization that creates, promotes, and presents collaborative projects in the arts. He can be followed on Twitter, @jandrewARTS.