Pat Steir and Joan Snyder

Meaning. How does one assign meaning? More basically, what is meaning? Looking at Pat Steir’s and Joan Snyder’s paintings, one is continually drawn back to these questions. Not knowing, reflecting and doubting, searching for answers but never finding solutions. The paintings themselves as objects are not signifiers, for there is no signified—or, at least, no meaning one can grasp onto and say yes, this is it. One does not read these works following a linear syntax. Instead one jerks from one point to another, starting and stopping, leaping off and going back, never arriving at definition. It is the process of painting, the struggle to find a language that communicates rather than the final image. For both Steir and Snyder, this process is grounded in personal experience, so that meaning becomes inextricable from being. The canvas serves as a device for locating the inner in the outer, as a record of one’s trying to understand. But per-haps all this speculation is too abstract,too removed from one’s present involvement with the actual works.

To describe Steir’s Circadia one might begin with the large black square centered within the square of the canvas. However, to say that one first focuses on this figure would be inaccurate. One’s eye scans around and into it, instead of fixating on it. Although its boundaries are clearly drawn, one is continually diverted from perceiving it as a single image by the multiplicity of other elements which catch one’s eye. The gestural brushmarks and scumbled variations in density and color within the black take one away from thereness into becoming. The penciled lines which divide the canvas are noncontinuous, setting up systems which remain incomplete. Numbers at one side imply but never establish a scale for measurement. Dashes of thick red, yellow, and blue and patches of varying gray hint at color. A smudged blackbird on top suggests intentional symbolic meaning, but is not clarified. Everything seems tentative in the sense of testing rather than declaring statements. It is as if the artist’s personal notebook had been expanded to painting size, making the viewer share in the exploration of possibilities. What one is given are scattered bits of information, jots of narration which do not follow sequentially. One is immersed in the ongoing process of construction which refuses to stabilize into a conclusion.

Similarly, in her recent paintings of crossed-out roses, Steir presents one with possibilities for meaning rather than a meaning. Meaning presupposes a language through which it can be communicated. In Word Unspoken the painted rose serves as a hieroglyphic. The painstaking drawing and careful tonal gradations seem to insist on significance. Yet by X-ing it out, Steir questions one’s assumption of intended content. The image is just one source for meaning; it is not definitive. The color patches on the bottom or the penciled divisions of the surface suggest other formulations, different grammars. All of these are personal choices which do not logically inform one another. They are intuitive words in a search for language—unspoken in that they never reach that total articulation which would impose a definition on meaning.

Snyder differs from Steir in her more directly physical evolution of a language. In his catalogue essay for the show, Kenneth Baker underlines the tactile experience of Snyder’s paintings. One’s eye touches the varying textures and viscosities of paint and imitates the gestural brushstrokes, feeling out the space through hand knowledge. However, awareness of the tactile in itself doesn’t establish coherence or “meaning.” Instead it is a part of the total process through which one tries to orient oneself in the world and sense one’s way toward definition.

In a painting like Layer Take one’s glance jumps from green to pink, from smear to drip, from fast to pause, from up to across. One finds relationships only to have them dissolve and regroup in a continual process of construction and reconstruction. While Snyder here uses a horizontal scaffolding, this is only a starting out point. It becomes just one of many attempts to formulate a language rather than the determining factor. What one concentrates on are not the various structures, but the attempt to structure, the trying to make sense out of the chaos of experience.

Because Snyder makes such explicit use of gesture and intuitive marking, one is drawn into a comparison with Abstract Expressionism. Yet what is fundamentally different is her attitude toward decision-making. With de Kooning or Hofmann, to choose the closest parallels, there is an allover intensity to the paintings, as if each mark was a definitive conveyor of conviction. Snyder is more doubting, more questioning, less knowing. Areas of her canvas are left empty, as if to allow for further exploration. Her gestures vary in energy, incorporating pauses, offering contradictions. At times Snyder adds scribbled words or childlike drawings to her scumbled paint to test the possibilities of a more directly symbolic language. One’s experience is a multiplicity of choices. Even when Snyder introduces the rigid structure of a grid, it is subverted or denied by the diversity of actions within it. One cannot focus on a final, holistic image. Snyder’s art remains one of ambiguity, of the continual shifting and reordering of perception that asks instead of tells how to understand.

Susan Heinemann