by BART GAZZOLA
at the Art Gallery of Hamilton
There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too. [– Margaret Atwood, from MaddAddam]
One does not simply walk into an exhibition of works by Michael Snow without preconceived notions and expectations. He – to cite the understated directness of Joan Murrary – “occupies an important place in Canadian art. His work in film still serves as a point of definition for artists everywhere.” But Snow’s position is one that is not neutral, and often contested. No less an historic voice than Barry Lord, in his seminal, (if somewhat dated, in its fervent Marxism), The History of Painting in Canada: Towards a people’s art speaks witheringly of Snow in a section evocatively titled Decadent Phase II, with the dismissive sub heading of Cosmetic Nationalism. That was written in 1974, but several years earlier, in an engaging and deep article for artscanda (one of the earlier iterations of the current Canadian Art magazine), Gene Youngblood spoke of a retrospective of Snow’s work in oppositional, and glowing terms. Youngblood goes so far as to say that Snow is “one of the most important aesthetic sensibilities guiding us into the final third of the millennium.”
First, praise, credit, and respect to the Art Gallery of Hamilton and exhibition curator Dr. James King. The programming around Early Snow was and is exemplary. There was a 16mm film presentation of Snow’s Wavelength, (named #85 in the 2001 Village Voice critics’ list of the 100 Best Films of the 20th Century according to the AGH), with Snow and King in discussion. This screening compliments Snow’s first exploration of film from 1956 called “A to Z” that is part of the exhibition. Graham Rockingham, writing for The Hamilton Spectator, (15 February, 2020), noted that “at the age of 91, Snow remains active, attending the opening of “Early Snow” at the AGH last Saturday with his wife, Peggy Gale. Snow even brought along his improvisational jazz group, CCMC, to perform a concert for the more than 200 people in attendance.” The AGH also has excellent materials online that augment the exhibition, including a virtual tour. Finally, it is noteworthy that Dr. King spent “about 18 months to put together” the exhibition in consultation with AGH staff, (Rockingham), with pieces “obtained through 18 different lenders.” But, this is a review of the exhibition as seen in that singular setting that is viewer and gallery. Really, nothing else matters.
In visiting the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s exhibition Early Snow, all that was in my mind; as well as the fact that the works on display were all made long before I was born (further, Lord and Youngblood’s words are nearly as old as I). Many of my generation take Michael Snow as a landmark: he has ‘always’ been there, and many of my peers cite him as a significant influence (again, both positively and negatively, echoing Lord and Youngblood). Appropriately, these can be quite vehement: when I admitted to an acquaintance years ago that Snow’s work often left me ‘cold’ (no pun intended), I was subjected to a blurt of profanity that was impressive if inchoate.
The gallery offers the following descriptor (and as you move through the show, there are wall texts as guideposts, along the way): “Early Snow: Michael Snow 1947-1962 is the first exhibition to focus exclusively on the Canadian artist’s early formative years. The exhibition will comprise over 40 works and reflect Snow’s broad and diverse creative practice.”
The majority of the critical focus with “Michael Snow tend to concentrate on his Walking Women works to the exclusion of his earlier work: an important series of abstractions, major sculptures, and a breakthrough series of figurative studies. In concentrating on the artist’s early work, Early Snow demonstrates how the artist’s later career can only be fully appreciated when his formative years are examined and understood.
As such, this exhibition is devoted to the first fifteen years of Michael Snow’s practice. The first work dates to 1947, when Snow was nineteen, and the last to 1962, just as he was leaving Toronto for New York City. By the age of thirty-three (33), his work had already undergone many metamorphoses, and this exhibition will explore his experimentations and the accomplishments achieved during these crucial years.”
There are several intersecting factors to consider in responding to Early Snow: if this was not Michael Snow, would we even see this work? The curator, (James King, a Professor in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University), was a consultant on Where the Universe Sings, the hagiographic film about Lawren Harris, which also – to paraphrase Doris Lessing – committed the sin of passing off second rate work as a first rate accomplishment. Much of what we see at the Art Gallery of Hamilton is immature work that does, at times, exhibit the seeds of what Snow would become. But consider that at the same time he was making this work – if we speak of his paintings, which are the dominant elements of Early Snow – Pollock and Reinhardt were making their genuinely groundbreaking works. Both were offering adversarial prongs of the possibilities of painting, in the mid twentieth century, either at the same time, or prior to these pieces on display. This is similar to the manner in which in Universe, Harris is hailed as an international sensation, when a wider knowledge of the art world at that time indicates otherwise. Snow’s work here brings to mind Lord’s words again, where he indicates that Snow was unsuccessful in the truly testing waters of NYC, and returned to the mediocre small pond of Toronto to acclaim. Is this fair? There is a sense of myth making here, similar to that employed around Harris’s ‘iceberg’ works. I’d add that in speaking to the many individuals in my immediate cultural community, of various generations and tastes regarding art, most have either never seen Snow’s seminal defining work Wavelength, nor can name a specific work other than the general gestures of his Walking Women.
And, again, Wavelength is both praised and panned. When Emily Landau spoke with Snow, nearly a decade ago, the conversation inevitably turned to Wavelength: “The movie was difficult and divisive. Once, when he was showing it to a university class, the audience spent the whole screening growling and heckling. ‘People couldn’t believe it,’ Snow laughs. ‘They mocked it, said it was just a 45-minute zoom. Sometimes they threw things at the screen.’ Serra and Glass got the same reaction when they borrowed a print and screened it. ‘Richard told me he’d had to fight off people who were trying to rip the screen down,’ says Snow.” (Toronto Life, 27 March, 2013)
This is also one of the reasons why I’ve relied upon Lord, or Youngblood, who were contemporaries of Snow, writing about his works in the early 1970s, when his star truly began to rise, to avoid generational ignorance. But this show, in many ways, left me cold, and seemed to have no sense of Snow himself. I approached this work trying to remove or ‘forget’ the historical detritus and assumptions around Snow, as an icon, or an institution, but to do so and encounter the pieces in person is to raise many questions about quality and celebrity, about what we are told – or taught – and the gaps and propaganda therein.
I might make a pun that we all know, in Canada, that ‘early snow’ doesn’t stay, and is soon melted and forgotten….
The respective galleries are installed in a manner that functions both chronologically and conceptually, but there’s breaks in this, to serve the work. The most striking of the rooms is the largest, with a smattering of abstract painted works by Snow that are both large and engaging. Several of his sculptural works also fill this space, and if you’re only familiar with Snow in terms of his time based practice, this room is an education on his origins. But upon closer examination, there’s a derivative nature to many works, and it’s not unfair to call some of this work facile or callow, as it seems to be looking too much at other artists. Works such as Green in Green, Blues in Place and News are interesting, but are not particularly unique. (A side note: the wonderful collection at the Art Gallery of Hamilton has a number of paintings on display in a side room which, depending on how you navigate the spaces, may be the first thing you see ‘after’ experiencing Early Snow. Many of the artists here – specifically Graham Coughtry – were represented by the Avrom Isaacs gallery – as Snow was – which is the loose framework for selection. These works by Ronald, Nakamura, or even some unique Weilands don’t reflect well on Snow’s paintings. But several of his works, such as Lac Clair which is installed somewhat separately – it may be the first work to catch your eye as you enter Early Snow, could stand among these other works. But is this fair? Snow’s work is from his time as an emerging artist, still finding his own visual language and before he learned how to express it.)
Martha Langford, in her fine overview of Snow for the Art Canada Institute, offers the following about Lac Clair: “What was this object called ‘a painting’? For Snow at that moment, it was a single-colour surface, whose textures and brush strokes served as evidence of its process of creation. So the blue surface of Lac Clair retains the memory of the painter applying the paint, which is more concentrated at the centre—not darker or lighter but simply more worked than at the four corners, which are the measure of his reach. This measurement—a human presence without representation—is emphasized by the application of adhesive tape to each edge. This can be seen as a framing device, though imperfectly, as the perimeter line is not continuous. To locate the tape, imagine the painting in rotation. The tape will always be at the upper right edge. This simple device, combined with the arc of Snow’s brush strokes, sets the work in motion without disturbing the serenity of its blue centre.”
There are also several sculptural pieces, placed amidst the large format paintings, that have a more unique quality, and a playfulness that is more what we expect (fairly or otherwise) of Snow’s aesthetic. Shunt (1959) or Quits (1960) – and even the smaller, not wall reliant Blue Monk (1960) – are all more deeply significant than some of the paintings, as with more critical looking and consideration they offer more challenges regarding materiality and assumptions around ‘making’, rather than revealing a more callow superficiality or mimesis. Shunt seems to grow out of the wall, creeping forwards (I choose to interpret the name as alluding to a medical shunt, so the artwork grows or spurts from the wall, a release in texture and forms more varied from the staid ‘white’ gallery wall). Quits looks like an exoskeleton gone awry, or like an installation device forgotten in the space: but a thin glutty strip of paint overtly on the dark wood suggests that Snow was taking the piss, in a Duchampian manner, about what is sculpture, painting or other such often caging and irrelevant distinctions….it might also be a declaration of a dissatisfaction with painting, and to return to Langford: “wit and play, even in [Snow’s] early work of the mid 1950s influenced by Paul Klee, were always of paramount importance.”
In this way, another painting by Snow – Petrograd 1917 – also has an enticing optimism, whether in its wistful glorification of the Soviet ‘utopia’, or in that this strikes me as ‘art school’ work, more about a Marxist hopefulness (I did mention Barry Lord’s unashamedly Marxist anthology of Canadian Art being a touchstone here) and less about what was done than what was hoped to be done….the rich colour, the dense textures and the thickness, the glorying in the physicality of paint is as clear in this work as the irreverent questioning of the medium – and the concept of painting – in Lac Clair. This play gives way, however, to the larger, more ‘serious’ ‘big paintings’ in the next room, where the rough geometry of Self-centred (1960) or Theory of Love (1961) and the forceful and fervent strokes and smears of Secret Shout (1960) are ‘loud’, but perhaps do not ‘say’ as much as other artists working in that medium, at that time….On a recent visit to 13th Street Gallery here in St. Catharines, I experienced works by Paul Sloggett that were within the same territory, but exploring it more ably and critically, and these works were created in the last few years.
The final room – in a manner of speaking, as its an adjunct, to the left from the aforementioned larger space – features a number of Snow’s works about women, and of course here we find some early Walking Women. Again, to come to these works without knowing something of this series is nigh impossible: but the ones here are stronger and more realized, it seems, than the pop art over population of these works too often ‘cited’ when Snow is spoken of, in popular or visual culture. Several of them are more rough, less refined than we ‘know’: Lord, again: “Snow retains the ‘painterly’ brush strokes and a few artful drips ‘left over’ from his abstract expressionist days, and uses them as ‘clothing’ to warm up the cool, neutralized image of the Walking Woman with a little texture and rich colour.” Project (1961) or 61 – 62 possess that joy of experimentation versus the calcified aspects of them as ‘pop’ art. (Lord – yes, again: “But in accordance with the principles of U.S. pop art, Snow offers no criticism of this process; on the contrary, he merely repeats it”). Rolled Woman I (1961) and Project are mischievous and a bit challenging (thought it’s worth noting Snow always referred to his ‘women’ as ‘a figure’ not a ‘she’), and impishly ‘use’ the Walking Woman motif in a manner that’s less respectful or deferential to the ‘symbol’ than we may be used to, decades after its iconic proliferation. This is also found in the use of corrugated cardboard, where his women flow and meld, and sometimes you see hints of the ‘icon’, other times his marks and media become something else entirely.
In conversation with several artists with whom I visited the exhibition – of differing backgrounds, in paint and lens based media – there was a sense of disappointment in the works: it was ‘not what we expected’, and seemed to be unfocused and ‘without guts.’ Again, this is why I sought out the writings and ideas of Lord, or Youngblood, as contemporaries of Snow, as well as Langford, who has often brought a measured, yet demanding, eye to many art historical debates, to ensure I was ‘seeing’ through appropriate eyes, and not dismissing what might have been groundbreaking at that time. This was in deference to a caustic warning by Theodor Adorno, that many, when confronted with something genuinely radical, fall back on a shameless assertion that they simply ‘don’t understand’ it.
But if it seems that in responding to Early Snow, that I’m talking as much about what is not in the gallery as what is physically present, this is frankly the territory the exhibition inhabits. Michael Snow is less an ‘artist’ than a cultural touchstone, and is a contested narrative both in the visual and the wider cultural spheres. One need only consider Audience, installed at the much maligned Skydome, for this to be demonstrated. This is all necessary background: but if we consider the works that actually comprise Early Snow, and not what is alluded to, or what may be ‘relied’ upon to augment – can we even justify or ‘defend’ the works on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton?
This requires an eschewing or wilful ignorance of the position and stature Snow inhabits: in that very narrow place to stand, this is a mediocre exhibition, that shows flashes of inspiration, and in the ‘last’ germinating kernel of the Walking Women, offers suggestions of a ground that Snow has made his own. The ‘final’ piece, if I may impose my own ‘curatorial reading’, might be Four to Five (1962, 16 silver gelatin prints mounted on cardboard) where Snow’s artwork steps out of the gallery and his Walking Women move out and amongst people. This piece is lively and has a vivacity that many of the other pieces lack, looking more like academic exercises.
But is this also not just more of the contested narrative of Snow’s over half century of art making? When confronted with the disdain for his public installation Audience – to quote Landau again, when “The Globe and Mail quoted two anonymous critics condemning the figures. ‘They look like they were squeezed from a tube of toothpaste,’ said one, while another called the work ‘a disaster’ and ‘an insult to the public.’…Snow [was] puzzled. ‘People didn’t like it? I don’t remember that.’ The next day, he calls me back, apparently unsettled by the exchange. ‘It’s a piece I’m very proud of, and it’s upsetting that people didn’t engage with it the way I’d intended.’ ”
This is an exhibition that challenges assumptions, in gestures that both succeed and fail, and perhaps raises questions and ideas other than those intended.
Early Snow: Michael Snow 1947-1962, curated by James King, Professor, Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, is on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton until January 3, 2021.
Bart Gazzola is an arts writer, curator and photographer based in Niagara. He’s published with New Art Examiner, Canadian Art, BlackFlash Magazine (where he was editorial chair for three years), Magenta Magazine and Galleries West, and was the art critic at Planet S in Saskatoon for nearly decade. His most recent curatorial project was Welland: Times Present Times Past (2020) at AIH Studios in Welland. He’s currently assistant editor at The Sound: Niagara’s Arts and Culture Magazine, where his ongoing series on Brock University and Rodman Hall Art Centre earned him a St. Catharines Arts Award nomination (2020). More of his writings can be found at bartgazzola.com. Bart Gazzola thanks AIH Studios in Welland for their support in writing this piece, as he wouldn’t have been able to produce it without their help. [Photo: by Sandy Fairbairn.]