John Snyder

John Snyder transformed the studiously blank setting of his first solo museum show into a kind of funky chapel. Sporting a nave, aisles, and a transept, and dotted with nichelike shelves bearing vases full of fresh flowers, the painter’s mystic gallery-cum-basilica also included a soaring, barrel-vaulted apse dolled up like some apocryphal Victorian parlor. This idiosyncratic layout chosen by Snyder for his presentation—with formal origins in ancient Christian and secular architecture, cheerfully injected with a healthy dose of down-home kitsch—aptly symbolizes the various tensions he balances in his work.

Snyder’s gently iconic style is reinforced by architectural, shrinelike framing and a sense of surface and composition that re-calls devotional images of the Flemish Renaissance. But the “saintly” characters that have so obsessively populated Snyder’s works are mythic outsiders, situated somewhere between the ineffably spiritual and the emphatically terrestrial; industrial workers, pious natives, and ecstatic jesters caught between the way of heaven and the way of all flesh.

The exhibition was anchored by two major groups of related but contrasting paintings hung in two small “chapels”—one a series of fools, the other a suite of dark meditations on industrial settings and factory workers. The two collections frame Snyder’s explorations of the unsophisticated yet sagacious “other.” The subjects of the fool paintings are pacific, often clumsy, big men captured in simple, expressive activities—music-making, or speech. Their hooded lids and slack jaws camouflage a quiet, childlike sapience. Each stands framed in a startlingly deep expanse of azure and is associated with some resonant natural symbol. In Fruit and Flowers, 1990, a pair of figures, holding the objects in the title like offerings, forms a large diptych. And in Happy Fool, 1989, or in the deft collage of the smaller Fool No. 16, 1990, Snyder casts natural organisms as elements in a harlequin costumery that reveals the magical souls of those beneath it.

By contrast, the dark paintings in the adjacent room memorialize a certain willful renunciation of pleasure, a denial embodied here by stoic industrial laborers. Surrounded by a half-dozen smaller worker portraits, Snyder’s monumental The Accident, 1990, becomes a kind of Deposition image for the factory age. In it, two men support a stricken coworker on a platform scattered with power tools and framed with girders and great tilting beams like some shattered crucifixion; the jumble of sooty red rooftops and angry smokestacks behind them form an urban Golgotha spreading away to the distant horizon.

As the viewer passes from these gritty scenes and visages toward the glowing golden-ceilinged room at the exhibition’s spatial and thematic heart, the tone of the work evolves accordingly. In the antechamber of the vaulted apse, Snyder has hung six portraits of female friends (all 1991). Set before deep, placid chiaroscuro landscapes, these women provide a kind of thematic bridge between the general and the specific, between the gleeful fantasy of his earlier works and the intense personal revelation of the show’s physical centerpiece. At the end of a gauntlet of selected objects, poignant in their authenticity—old letters, family art projects, silly collages of photos and glitter—his most recent work, Lady of Flowers, 1990, sits like a delicate altar. Based on a Mughal Persian miniature, the large multiple-panel painting features a meditative female figure identified in the show’s accompanying essay as “an especially close friend” of the artist. The tenderness and devotion suggested by the work, placed in this literal “family room” among his most personal effects, confirms that Snyder has not abandoned his search for spiritual ecstasy but simply redirected it, brought it closer to home.

Jeffrey Kastner