New York

Joan Snyder

Hamilton Gallery

Joan Snyder’s collage paintings continue with concerns that have occupied her for some years, though, as of her current show, most contain literal images of one kind or another. These are either found objects—photographs or pieces of cloth, for instance—that Snyder imbeds in thick, heavy layers of paint, or words—slogans, commonly—that are painted into the corners of a picture. The complexity of Snyder’s collaging has increased in recent years to the point where some of the current works are comprised of hundreds of parts.

It is difficult to dissociate the quality of these works as paintings from the political statements they contain. The written passages which some of them include often describe violent acts against women, and it has been said that Snyder’s grotesquely overworked impasto amounts, metaphorically, to an agonized cry. This “cry” takes on specifically feminist meaning when Snyder superimposes on her pictures the story of, say, a rape. Hayden Herrera suggests that Snyder resorts to written language here because the intensity of the events she recounts is too great to be communicated in purely pictorial terms. It is as if the artist, feeling more than she can stand, bursts the constraints of painting, gives up the act, as it were, and protests in a perfectly explicit voice.

Fusing pictorial and verbal content when the events one is describing are so loaded is, it seems to me, an enormously difficult task. There is first of all the fact that the space of even a large canvas limits one to extremely terse language. This language inclines easily, in Snyder’s hands, toward propaganda so blatant as to be unpersuasive. Then, as Herrera’s argument implies, the effect of using such brief, sharply violent slogans as Snyder does could be to negate the pictorial altogether. Once we are told with statistical exactness of five horrors, or even injustices, everything else that a Snyder picture includes could become little more than accessory. Snyder recognizes the pitfall here, I think, and attempts to compensate for the intensity of her written passages with a painterly violence that outdoes both Pollock and de Kooning.

This ploy is largely successful, but still fails to heal the schism between writing and visual imagery. Even when she manages to give equal weight to each, they coexist disjunctively. A recitation of protests stands as a sort of label on a picture, communicating more than anything else the frustration of not having been able to describe agony adequately with purely pictorial means. Snyder’s paintings shoulder their slogans cumbersomely.

There are several paintings in Snyder’s exhibition which are free of overt political language, including what I think is the show’s strongest single work, Boat Painting, 1977-78. Here the artist achieves an ingenious fusion of thick paint surface and found imagery, providing a number of sailboats printed on what may be dress fabric with an ocean of paint on which to sail. In a sense she has given life to dead objects here, for the original, printed boats are a fabric designer’s arid, crudely rendered clichés. Submerged in the heavy wind and water of Snyder’s paint, these boats begin to move. Her impasto itself, though it may represent pain elsewhere, comes to stand for rapture in this picture.

Naturally, Snyder loses a good deal of political explicitness in Boat Painting, whose sensibility is close to pastoral. But there are bits of iconography in the work that we have come to recognize as generically feminist—the fabric itself, part of a dress pattern, a sun painted in a childlike hand. In fact, Boat Painting is not unlike a good deal of feminist art in that it incorporates imagery held to be emblematic of oppression—cosmetics, kitchen utensils, etc.—but what Snyder does here is to reclaim such emblems and convert them into metaphors for liberation. Much strength is conveyed in this refusal to give up such objects, this insistence on reworking them, and although Boat Painting is the least gruesome work in Snyder’s show, and also one of the smallest in size, it is nevertheless the most cogent picture cum polemic that she achieves.

Leo Rubinfien