San Diego

Eric Snell

The work of Eric Snell, a 35-year-old artist from Guernsey, England, suggests a revival of process art: questions of how the work was made assert themselves throughout the exhibition. All of the pieces are simple in form and often exquisitely rendered. The largest body of work shown here was the burnt-wood drawings. When he arrived in La Jolla a week before the show, Snell spent a day gathering wood and local brush. Using these, he made three large-scale wall installations and several smaller drawings on paper. For each, he burned the wood with a torch, and then used the charred stick as his drawing tool. A new stick was needed for each new work. In the effort of making the image, each of the sticks wore down. Several of the works used the shortening of the stick as their subject. In Spiral, 1988, a forked stick was used as a compass to make the drawing, with one end placed at the center of the circle, and the burnt end making the mark. But instead of forming a circle, the diminishing stick shortened its reach as the artist drew, making the final image a spiral. Snell then leaned the partially burnt stick that was used to make the drawing against the wall.

Phoenix Drawing, 1988, from the “Sycamore Canyon” series, follows a similar method. Here, Snell used up the entire stick in the process of making his drawing; he estimated the scale of the piece based on the weight and size of his wood, as well as its burning qualities. The finished form resembled a large hieroglyph or Arabic letter. Afterward, Snell installed a Polaroid picture of the original stick on the wall next to the finished drawing, creating a simple wordless oration of process and medium. Another important aspect of Snell’s work is its appeal to the senses on many levels. In addition to being seen, these burnt-wood drawings are experienced through smell and, possibly, touch. The museum’s galleries smelled faintly of smoke, a pungent but subtle aroma that lingered. A layering of embers lined the gallery floors, discards from the drawing process; they begged to be smeared or brushed away.

Snell also produced a series of small “drawings” made of magnets and another group of assemblages made from compasses. For one piece, Snell lay down enough small hand-held compasses on the floor to create a circle. The proximity of the placement caused the magnetic force of each one to disturb that of the others, so that the circle of compasses also contained an interior linear circle created by the aligned needles. For the magnet sculptures, Snell attached tiny magnets to the ends of a piece of colored string, then attached the string to a wall by wrapping it around a series of nails to form a geometric shape. The two magnets were placed just close enough to attract each other but never touch, so that a slight gap remained between them. They also provided the force to keep the whole work in a state of rigid tension.

Snell’s work contains a suggestion of scientific experimentation as well as a literal yet magical open-endedness. It insists that the viewer be aware of the artist’s intentions, including both his thought and working process. Though Snell’s work never involves a performance aspect, his presence is so implicit that he might as well have done the work for an audience. His particular form of simple imagery retains the hands-on quality of a more gestural art form; his work is plain but elegant, simple but sensual.

Susan Freudenheim