Between Flight and Entrapment

Jenn Joy, sculpture, October 1, 2005

A shrewd manipulator of skin and surface, Dean Snyder draws us along the edges of a scatological yet organic beauty. Tumescent orchids hang on fragile vines, drooping leaves, impotent cigarette butts, almost recognizable organs swallowed up in circuitry and webs. Snyder conjures a florescent world, lush and toxic, channeling us toward a more uncanny ecology. In Erebos (2008), a black tree stump floats above an open cardboard box as if just released, a patched inner tube hanging off one of its broken limbs, tendrils of smoke become thorny vines from a burning cigarette. Bandaged with hinges and tubes running into and out of its truncated limbs, this unwieldy hybrid improvises in shape as much as sound. Darkly humorous the cut and layered drawing conjures a magician’s box, now empty and open, alluding to without revealing many of the obscured sources from which the artist feeds. Erebos might also be read as a cartoonish archive of Synder’s past works—connecting the tattoo drawings, rawhide sculptures, obsessive line drawings of intestinal variations, exotic flowers, 70s punk rock or jazz, erotic, transgressive, as Philip Guston meets Krazy Kat along the boardwalk strip. “High thoughts in low places—my specialty,” Dave Hickey writes of Robert Gober, voicing a sentiment Snyder shares (1993:13).


The box captured in the drawing calls to mind a very real one that arrived on my doorstep marked playground equipment, containing a black plastic garbage bag wrapped around a very damp heap of rawhide. Instructed to soak the material in my bathtub until the artist’s arrival, the impossibly slippery piece swelled in weight and dimension until Snyder arrived in San Francisco from Bennington, Vermont where he was teaching at the time to dry it out with a vacuum and insert a series of wooden dowels into the holes along the surface. Offspring (1998) evolved into a strange bulbous creature that would ground that exhibition of alternating tattoo drawings and taut rawhide forms including Organ (1998) a slouching instrument or partially deflated cushion punctured by ebony limbs alluding to a sonic tension or abject humor. The material dissonance—as ebony and rawhide touch or ash is bent and woven into an  epic sphere covered in iron rings as in Lubber (1994)—draws out a fetishistic and poetic attachment to media. As Snyder explains: “As a craftsman I revel in the joy of working with materials and exploring traditional processes. As a poet I work very hard to transform my sense of tragedy and sadness into comic absurdities” (1998). Particularly, when rendered with a tattoo needle on rawhide stretched over a Plexiglass frame, Snyder’s drawings literally glow as the skin casts an amber illumination beneath the etched image. Continuously drawn, the images belie the speed of the needle with their precise improvisation and this curious alchemy incites a witty invention of form, creature, shape, relation. And always,  Snyder is working in relation, as high touches low, as flora morphs into fauna or genitalia, as gears mutate to instruments transform into rhythm, as drawing becomes sculpture becomes drawing. While Snyder has moved away from rawhide, these works remains central to my thinking as evidence of his detailed intertwining of material and process. Sculpture is deeply tied to accumulation and acknowledgement of the intrinsic properties of the medium; drawing works as a mode of inscription that never only glances the surface but always cuts deep.


Sitting in his studio surrounded by in-process drawings, experiments in resin, color, and foam, we speak about the mythology of crows; birds who travel together, who mourn their dead. Such carrion rituals transpose human intention onto animal or perhaps question what this kind of anthropomorphizing means from our perspective or from theirs. We also look at photographs taken at night of orb weaver spider webs dripping with dew taken during a residency in Hawaii. As metaphor and

material, the web signifies a potent constellation. The distance between crow and spider, between flight and entrapment, speaks to the intimate 

relationship between form and content in Snyder’s work. A web, Ariachne’s gift made of the strongest natural fiber, creates a sticky tenuous and swaying surface to trap these aerial aspirations. In Kuya’s Shade (2007) the web articulates the tension between the arched limbs of a carbon fiber and epoxy tree limb turned swollen root. In Arachna’s Arcade (2008) and MiddleWay (2014) the web is wrought in stainless steel and hung in a corner of the gallery as a paradoxically fragile drawing in space and intrusion of the garden into the gallery.



Snyder’s capture of image in medium is almost photographic, casting an inverse vision of the natural world as if looking at Rodney Graham’s photographs of trees whose roots spread out against the sky. There is a seductive beauty to Graham’s photographs, yet he also stages a perceptual gag about how we see: the world revealed to us before it is flipped in our mind’s eye. While Snyder does not work in photography, he often cites its early influence: “Photography haunts me. I am addicted to processes and image and photography is both mechanical and process-oriented physics and chemistry” (2013). Perhaps we could think of Snyder’s work as an extension of “photography by other means” to borrow Kaja Silverman’s phrase (2010). Silverman’s provocation invites a renewed attention to the ways in which photography has been theorized, disputing its allegiance to documentary or representational truth and instead affirming its subversive work on representation. As she explains in conversation with George Baker:


A photograph isn’t a representation or even an index. It is a special kind of analogy—the kind that our culture most needs. A photograph and its “referent” have so many affinities that we are unable to separate them from each other, but also enough differences to keep us from conflating them. This couple—and I use the word couple advisedly, because the two parts of a photographic analogy have as much of a right to be called that as Orpheus and Eurydice—helps us to see that similarity is not sameness and that difference does not automatically translate into opposition. They also show us that there really is a world and that not all images are human constructions. (Silverman and Baker 2010:182)


Analogy, as Silverman thinks it, is not about hierarchy and resemblance but a more capacious container, a “corresponding with, rather than corresponding to” (2010:179). Inside this dynamic encounter, the artist is cast as receiver, which for Snyder translates to a mode of working under the influence of the crow and of the spider. Gathering together his many “objects of desire”— bone dice, the amorphophallus titanium, corpse flowers, balloon toys, shells, Buster Keaton skits, microscopic diatoms and seeds, serpents, fragmented Venus of Hohle Fels—Synder renders a not quite recognizable world that is as much diagram of an unknown species as topography.


Snyder’s recent drawings on frosted Mylar and black museum board act as palimpsests or as he explains “an almost inverse operation that felt more object-like” (2013). Drawn in pencil on Mylar, one layer of PileUp (2013) appears as vivisection of a complicated mutating organ or instrument, another cutout element is detailed in silver on black positioned as the uncanny progeny of the organ below. A proliferating evolution is at work here as esophagus displaces cloaca and vines transform into tongues and textures.


Translated into sculptural form, carved in foam, wrapped with carbon fiber, sanded and painted in glowing hues of indigo, green, purple, these images effect a high-tech fetish finish, a seductive aerodynamic form less abject and more curvaceous. Almost Blue (2008) appears as frozen reflecting pool of urethane auto enamel liquidity with shimmering aborted fluidity like the skin of a surfboard or finish of a racing cycle held in stillness. NeverMind (2013) returns viscosity to movement using saturation and pulses of color to shift into another layer of beauty.

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