New York

Jenny Snider

Hamilton Galleries

The reason so many of us find a lot to criticize in current art is not that we set intolerably high standards. Mostly, the art sets its own standards and ambitions and asks to be judged by them. These ambitions are likely to be bigger than the artist can handle. The challenge is rarely met. There is undoubtedly grandeur in failing at a very high level. But witnessing artist after artist banging his or her head against the wall is sad, defeating and demoralizing.

So what a refreshing change to stumble across Jenny Snider’s small crayon drawings. Suddenly, more down-to-earth projects seem possible, desirable, again. With the mind set back on this track, eagerness is placed in its proper perspective, on a workable scale. The temptation for me is to overpraise Snider’s work because it achieves everything it wants to. The aspiration is not to produce masterpieces. Snider places her hopes on something closer to home, something fresh and clear, without heroic struggle impeding the view. She arrives at a place beyond all the other artists still grappling with their big-time, father-figure predecessors.

My most favorite lines in all art criticism might be these two of Leo Steinberg’s: “You can, as an artist, try to say something big about life; or, be content to make the stuff in your hands come to life. And this humbler task is the greater, for all else merely follows.” What happens in Snider’s art? Nothing “big.” Only a small world of surprise, making crayon and color do what they do in the most direct way, without intervening highmindedness. This is not to say that the result is merely small—all else follows from working crayon and image into an expressive unit. Snider’s images embody affection rather than having some “idea” imposed upon them.

A few drawings were overt landscapes. The soft curve of hills doubled for floating clouds. The more severe striations that dramatically thrust out from a single point on the horizon resolved into rows of plants, crops or sometimes instead curved into a country road. The artist closest to Snider is Dove. Landscape seen as undulations and emanations of natural cycles, understood empathetically. Snider’s more completely ,abstract drawings, like Dove’s, take on the deliberate but energetic repeated line and, setting forms on point, make skies full of celestial motion. She does it on small paper, with that typically childlike material, crayon. I like crayon, the way I like clay. It has no pretensions attached to it; it isn’t oil or marble. Wax and clay are pliable, they come to life in the warmth of the hand. In Snider’s drawings, crayon becomes this handsome but resistant material where color is a drawn-out track of line suspended within a palpable translucence.

The landscape is innocent, rural, perhaps naive, and definitely appreciated. Can landscape be portrayed affectionately, as if seen from within? Peter Plagens once complained of the lack of affection in New York painting. Snider’s is an open affection—quirky, never nostalgic—for earth and farmhouses and stars, rows of plants, succumbing to her hand rather than to mechanization, for clouds and hills billowing gently. They are presented with no strings attached. The real invention here was to discover something to see in landscape without editorializing.

Affectionless art derives from a particularly New York mentality: no one can be pleased, given something beautiful, unless a price is paid. Pleasure is always double-edged, manipulative—it’s clear that it will cost you, that you’re going to end up feeling bad. Nothing is then given graciously—joy comes with a slap in the face. (Isn’t this the very devastating moral of Frank Stella’s new paintings?) Snider never clobbers the viewer with moralizing. And I prefer her generosity and kindness to attitudinizing.

Jeff Perone