Michael Snow, “Walking Woman Works 1961–67”

Judging from this show, it is one of the ironies of recent art/film history that Michael Snow has become the best-known representative of a school of filmmaking that is widely perceived as the epitome of inaccessibility and arty elitism. It is true that Snow has often seemed to be testing the patience and endurance of film viewers weaned on orgasmically structured Hollywood films and on the zap-zap independent cinema prevalent in the ’60s. But even the most demanding of Snow’s films are full of the ingenious play and good humor that characterize the dozens of variations of his “Walking Woman” series that surfaced during the ’60s in galleries and on the street in Toronto, Montreal, New York, and other North American cities, as well as at Expo ’67. No one seemed left out by this show; young children ran from one piece to the next, discovering the Walking Woman silhouette which is the unifying element of these works in many media. In fact, once I had seen this compilation of paintings, drawings, sculptures, collages, assemblages, photographs . . . which exhibited/documented some of the Walking Woman’s many excursions into the world, I realized that the frustratingly slow zoom in Snow’s Wavelength, 1967, can be seen as, among other things, a shaggy dog joke with images of the Walking Woman as a punch line.

Much of the work’s original impact must have involved the surprise of discovering still another variation and a new context for the Walking Woman motif. Yet while the time-lapse dimension of the Walking Woman is merely implied, or encapsulated, by the present show, other elements remain fully evident. In one sense the Walking Woman is a long series of separate works on the same theme: 206 separate pieces are listed in the catalogue; 79 were exhibited in the show (which was organized by the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, and is traveling). Some items are of more intrinsic interest than others. My favorite individual pieces include Five Girl-Panels, 1964, five distinct-but-connected, differently shaped canvases on each of which an image of the Walking Woman is painted so as to conform to the canvas shape (short and squat, tall and thin, leaning forward); Encyclopedia, 1964–65, a grid of Walking Woman silhouettes inked in in a variety of witty ways; and Four to Five, 1962, a series of 16 photographs that document the Woman’s late afternoon “walk” (including the reactions of those she passes) from a subway platform, up the stairs, and along city streets.

But in another sense, the Walking Woman “series” is really a single huge work, developing through time and space like a long musical composition, a work meant to defy conventional esthetic categories and the assumption that artworks are intrinsic entities. One can own a portion or a moment of the Walking Woman, but never the work itself, which was/is a public and private process taking place in the consciousness of all who are touched by it. I assume that Snow did not and does not think of himself as a painter or a sculptor or a filmmaker, but as an artist whose movement from one way of presenting imagery to another is his medium. The Walking Woman itself, extensive as it is, remains only an element in a remarkably multifaceted career which has included the many visual arts evident in the Walking Woman works as well as film, music (Snow has several records to his credit), sound pieces, photographic books, film installations, etc.

Seeing the Walking Woman as a single developing piece also reveals what in retrospect seems a fundamentally (though not exclusively) filmic dimension of the work. Though New York Eye and Ear Control, 1964, is the only film listed in the Walking Woman checklist, the idea of a series of renditions of essentially the same silhouette, elaborated progressively through time, seems to have led Snow toward the “grid” of the filmstrip and the process of publicly presenting prints of films to audiences in different spaces. The “star” quality of the Walking Woman confirms this idea: Snow’s exploitation of the female silhouette has much in common with the traditional use of the female form in Hollywood film and commercial advertising. The simplicity and flatness of the Walking Woman’s slightly truncated shape, however, tends to turn exploitation into “exploitation.” At least at times, the piece is about its own participation in an obsessive cultural pattern. This is evident in Projection, 1970, the most recent piece in the show, and apparently the last element in the Walking Woman series. A lithograph of a frame enlargement from New York Eye and Ear Control reveals a naked male torso with an erection, “fucking” a silhouette of the Walking Woman, with a text along the bottom: “ . . . (Light fucks darkness. Wet fucks dry. Soft fucks hard.) Male chauvinist print. The ***king woman meats her maker . . . . ”

Scott MacDonald