Beauty scale

The work of Sylvia Snowden

The featured image: Men on M Street – George Brown II, 2001acrylic painting on canvas71-1/4 by 58-3/4 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Parrasch Heijnen, Los Angeles


MANY of Sylvia Snowden’s vivid canvases are so thick with impasto that they border on relief works. The acrylic medium retains the gestures of her fingers, the strokes of her palette knives and the traces of her brushes. His compositions are made of peaks and troughs, furrows and protuberances, traces as well as marks. They are not only a representation in signs and figures, but the thick matter of extruded thought. Although the striking material fact of making paint dimensional, using it as a medium for sculpture, is not the only striking feature of Snowden’s canvases, it produces an initial visceral impact.

The 2021 exhibition of Snowden’s work at the Parrasch Heijnen Gallery in Los Angeles, which ran from November 13 to December 18, included works from six decades (the Washington, DC-based artist is approaching his 80th birthday) . This sustained commitment is reflected in the obvious maturity of the work and the diversity of eras and styles with which the artist was in dialogue. Sui generis in many ways, the corpus still sits within the tropes of modern figurative work, color field abstraction, and engagement with certain aspects of 20th century art that aspired to heroic achievement. – in the best sense of an ambition to wrestle with the existential dimensions of aesthetic self-realization.

The work is varied, which is not surprising given its temporal scope and the multiple series in which it has been selected. The oldest painting in the exhibition, a modestly sized untitled masonite panel from 1966 created with a mixture of acrylic and oil pastel, has a tranquility and absorbency that sets it apart from many later pieces, very active. Moody and soft, its passages may or may not refer to a head or character, and their ability to hover in an ambiguous zone between representation and abstraction is part of what grabs our attention. Such ambiguity carries a critical charge, challenging the viewer not only formally but socially. Snowden seems to suggest that social positions, with their specific forms of knowledge and experience, are at stake in the negotiation of viewer and canvas, painter and audience, as they are in all aspects of everyday life. . There is no neutral point on which to rely for a cultural reception policy.

In Betty (1974), the figures overlap and mingle in a spatially impossible change of scale and a juxtaposition of heads, feet, genitals and faces. The breasts, the ears, the spread thighs are both explicit and not, vividly present like strokes of paint but also deliriously seductive. The only work in the exhibition produced exclusively in oil, the painting evokes nostalgia for the subtle beauty of this medium. The tones of the palette are rich with ocher, carmine, burnt umber and hints of earthy greens and vivid blues associated with another era. Colors, like songs, names and styles, carry their associations, and this canvas teems with animated energies appropriate to the predominantly organic pigments of which it is composed. Something of James Ensor’s sensibility – dreamlike and nightmarish, ritualistic and slightly obscure – seems to set the canvas back in time, to the precedents of expressionist modernism. But it was also clearly painted by someone who watched Lucian Freud, Willem de Kooning and Joan Brown. However, these are not quoted or quoted references by Snowden in any direct sense, and the way she handles the figures is distinct from the methods of other painters. She situates her work in deliberate and non-derivative approaches.

But the central screaming woman-thing in Betty, with his heavy chin, his forehead protruding, his hands absorbed by an object and his macabre head crouched under the gaping wound of his sex, raises another crucial question. The nudes of the many modern “masters” (ie men) are now systematically qualified as objectification. But how are they different from this depiction of a woman by a woman? Who speaks, presents, writes and offers an image to see? Who has the right to objectify? If subjectivity is the place from what one sees and paints, then where and how is the authorization of what to paint on allowed? Over the past decade in particular, markers of identity such as gender, class, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation have provided the legitimization of aesthetic representation, the guarantee that the point of view is allowed in a conversation. Snowden’s identity is an essential feature of how his work can be read and received. Nor do cultural production policies have a neutral place to stand on.

Not only gendered but also racialized figures appear, in strong silhouettes and contours, throughout Snowden’s works, and the same questions of legitimization arise. The artist is a black woman, but do you need to know that to read her images? Should images always be situated within the identity frameworks of their authors? It is one of the intractable dilemmas of our time, and a critical reflection on how art offers the experience of self to the other — and captures the experience of the other in an expression of alterity — is more and more urgent. If the processes of empathic identification through which aesthetic catharsis and epiphanic revelation operate are limited to lines of identity, then where is the basis for an exchange of understanding? In a sense, these issues have nothing to do with the vibrant excitement that Snowden’s canvases arouse. In another, they are at the heart of the challenges she proposes.

Yes Betty feels tied to a long history of oil painting in the modern era, and then acrylic paintings in the Shell series (2010-’12) manage to be fully contemporary thanks to their color, shape and treatment. These are nudes. They are bold. They are frontal and explicit, but also so thick and rich that they vibrate between matter and meaning, creating a force field of color as form in space. The sheer heat of the pigment would vibrate on its own, but drawn and cast in thick relief, the paint has a molten quality that refuses to conform to the decorum of mere surface. The lines sink into the viewer’s perceptual field.

Among these full figures, their active and living naked bodies, the non-figurative Green III (2020) takes on a more vitalistic character than it would if surrounded by other abstractions. Described as acrylic on canvas, it also appears to contain twisted and twisted sheets of plastic in the paint, and its color palette contains synthetic dyes and chemical compounds unknown in earlier times. Pure matter, matter to be made, the very fluid of creative energy made visible and palpable is molded here into form. The energy of the works is astonishing, as if they had stopped halfway or in formation.

Among the vibrant canvases is an understated work on paper from the mid-1990s — titled Malik, Farewell III – occupied its own separate wall. So apart, its symmetry and softness had their own very evocative effect. The image could be an icon, a bust, with its necklace of glowing stones and its pleated collar. But it can also be a momentary meditation, with the blue sky opening above living land, both surrounded by the darkness of a halo or aura. The subtlety and beauty of the image makes the dark stillness and the space it creates immediately elegiac. Stop here, the image seems to say, stay with me, in contemplation and company. And, indeed, it is a memorial image of deep personal loss, very private, yet eloquently, respectfully, offered to the public.

Each of these works is alive with energies, an irresistible active movement caught up in the body of the painting. Among them, Men on M Street – George Brown II (2001) is a picture of undeniable power and struggle. The separation of the black figure against its orange background – a whirlwind of movement, arms flailing, chest tilted forward – is caught up in the raking rib kicks, as the body becomes an explosive space. Along the edges of the canvas and in its lower quadrant, a quiescent hint of this dynamism appears, certain passages that seem calm in contrast, though activated by drops and strokes, bright areas of blue and green underlined by the black and orange of the moving figure. The energy of the Futurists, their attempts to capture the dynamism of movement, is a distant echo here, but it is the contemporary scene – the life of the streets and urban sites, the individuals caught up and living through the struggles of the world of ‘today – which cannot be ignored, denied or deflected when you encounter this canvas. Heroic, once again, in the best sense of the term, the work bears witness to a commitment to the struggle to give birth to something, to take shape, for all the power it embodies and gives us to witness.

Strong, vital but poetic and subtle works at the same time, Sylvia Snowden’s paintings are alive with a powerful energy and all that she invites us to consider.


Johanna Drucker is the Breslauer Chair in Bibliographic Studies and Emeritus Professor of Information Studies at UCLA.