New York

Michael Snow

Jack Shainman Gallery

Though he’s best known for now-classic experimental films such as Wavelength, 1966–67, and La Région centrale, 1971, Michael Snow’s gallery exhibition “Powers of Two” revealed him to be a hyperprolific artist whose mad-scientist inventiveness has engaged a wide range of media, materials, and techniques over the past forty years. His recent videos, photographs, and photo-based sculptures and installations are brainy, playful performed investigations of the technical and cultural constructedness of modern perception. Snow’s latest work also exposes him as an obsessive archivist who recomposes sequenced elements from his own oeuvre, although these materialist “auto-biographies” are more musical than chronological in structure. The central work presented in this exhibition is Biographie, 2004, a picture book based on documentation of Snow’s Walking Woman work from the ’60s. The book traces the schizo trajectory of this charmingly generic image of a female pedestrian, which originated as a cardboard stencil and continues to wander throughout his own work and that of friends, in myriad public and private situations, traversing materials as various as vinyl street banners, newsprint, drawing and paint, outdoor graffiti, steel, and staged photographs. Both the book and the exhibition play on a jazzy (Finnegans Wake–inspired) structure of theme and variation. The positive and negative halves of a stencil, the front and back of an image, viewer and viewed, old and new, original and copy, the event and its representation, male and female, and truth and fiction are so many riffs on the mathematical term from which the exhibition takes its name.

The phrase also provides the title of the show’s most impressive work, a sixteen- foot-long photographic transparency that hung from the ceiling, dividing the gallery like a see-through curtain. Snow’s version of Olympia, this image shows a woman reclining in bed, fixing us with her frank gaze while a postcoital lump of a man snores on her breast. Her smiling eyes seem to follow you everywhere as you move from her “front” to her “back” and back again. This two-dimensional object’s two sides seem equal but may not be exactly the same: Rumor has it that the title of one of the books on the shelf is different depending on which side it’s viewed from. And we get the feeling there must be other tricky discrepancies hiding here, as the depicted space and light of the transparency morph uncertainly into those of the gallery, producing a shimmering disorientation that is at once optical and physical. Paris de Jugement le and/or State of the Arts, 2003, plays the same game but in a goofier key. It’s an ambiguous photopainting on cloth of three naked women seen from behind as they contemplate the painted bodies in Cézanne’s Large Bathers; the thing’s as funny (I want to say smart-ass) as it is aesthetically undecideable. Line Drawing with Synapse, 2003, is the most paradoxical and maddening work on view. A pair of ultrathin light boxes hang from wires, backs to each other with images facing out, about two feet apart. They illuminate (identical?) transparencies, each of which shows a camera photographing itself in a mirror (or is it a shoot-out between two identical cameras?). This piece seems to open up an impossible space between its two flat images of images and hints that vision is a magical, sometimes jerry-rigged event that happens in the no-place between physical sensation and mental perception, in the difference between a viewing here and a viewed elsewhere.

John Kelsey