Michael Snow

The Isaacs Gallery

For the past thirty years, Michael Snow has adopted diverse media to dissect the mechanisms of the perceptual process. This newest group of paintings reflects ironically on the conventions of the medium. Absent is the influence of the camera (Snow is known first as an experimental filmmaker); this time he is approaching painting on its own terms—as a practice implicitly freighted with a set of historical conditions that preface our reading of individual works.

Snow uses the methodological conventions of pointillism and realism in order to undermine their pretensions of historical significance. He refuses to buy into the authority of painting, and he destroys the painting’s palatableness as a consumer object by making it so objectionable that it becomes a facile one-liner. In H. M. is supposed to have said..., 1990, an empty chair is seen positioned carefully in front of a second-rate abstract painting, while in Salon d’Encadrements (Exhibition of frames, 1990), only the corner of a room filled with shoddy “modern master” canvases is visible. Snow highlights the folly of our institutionalized habits of seeing and works to disrupt our complacency with known images—those “repeat offenders” that reinforce our acceptance of existing conventions. Borrowing all the attributes of salon painting in order to turn them in on themselves, Snow’s works rail against the very notion of critical decorum that might seem to inform his self-conscious approach to the medium

The message of Snow’s works is simple—a little too simple—as he tries to play both sides of the fence by reconciling criticality with public consumption. In Derma, 1990, a man touches an expansive field of color that is suggestive of a painting, while in Guarded Painting, 1991, a museum guard stands beside a velvet rope used to signify an important artwork—although there is, in fact, no painting in sight, only a hole cut in the canvas. The conceptual point Snow is making via the absence of the painting is clear, yet the effectiveness of this banal remark remains questionable.

Snow is asking us to consider our preoccupation with images in painting and the continued use of traditional means. The artist has left the mechanics of the genre in place, leaving us free to consider the effects of composition and framing, in much the same way that he separated the mechanics of photography from its discursive gaze in the ’60s. Each painting focuses on the act of looking, raising the question “Do we really go to painting to see?” If we can no longer see our place in history via painting in the way our forebears did, what is its purpose beyond an honorary one? This is the question Snow poses but never fully grapples with.

Linda Genereux