I planned an entire UK visit centered on the fact that Jenny Saville was having a show at the National Scottish Museum of Modern Art. I’d been posting about it on social media for months. Along with Saville, I added Dorothea Lange, Chantal Joffe, Annie Swynnerton, Tacita Dean, Julie Becker and others to the itinerary, intent on making a grand, whirlwind tour of women artists in six days or less. I’ll confess that I didn’t make it to every exhibit I wanted to see, and I’m heartsick over it. I’m heartsick not only because I don’t have the luxury of traveling the globe whenever I please—I assure you, I do not—but mainly because solo shows and retrospectives for women are still a rare occurrence, and the opportunity may not present itself again (and sadly, often not in the artist’s lifetime). Take Saville, for instance. The British painter has been on the scene for twenty-five years—her graduate artwork in 1992-93 was astonishing and put her on the map—but her NOW exhibit is her first to be held in Scotland and only her third in the UK. Then there’s Annie Swynnerton of Manchester. Swynnerton was the first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1922, and yet it’s taken nearly a century for her work to receive another retrospective.
I saw some fantastic work by male artists on my trip. The frustration, however, is that their work is typically always on display and accessible. It’s in the permanent collection. Women artists tend to have temporary exhibitions. And so one saves and saves and takes planes and trains to lay eyes on a painting or sculpture done by a female artist.
The first time I saw a piece of art from Saville was during a slideshow in a Women’s Art History class I took during my undergrad years in the early aughts. Propped was unlike anything I’d seen before: a large female nude with folds of fat and flesh and fingers digging into her thighs. The angle of the painting is from below, looking up at this large woman balanced naked on a pedestal too small for her body, her feet wrapping around it, perhaps for support. The angle distorts the body further, while the woman’s head is thrown back, her eyes cast down and her lips pursed and slightly open, both suggesting the demure and sexual way we’ve seen women portrayed for centuries, and conveying pain in its contortion. It is a brilliant painting. It challenges the way the female nude has been painted for centuries, nearly entirely for the male gaze. Saville takes back ownership and autonomy of the female nude and of her own body.
I knew I had to see it in person. I never thought I would.
About four months ago I got an alert on my Facebook feed about a Jenny Saville exhibit at the National Scottish Museum of Modern Art. I felt a sense of urgency. It was now or never. So, I used the last of our savings (having been out of work for the last eight months) to book a trip, then went about researching other exhibits in the area, which included London or anywhere I could get to by train, and started an itinerary. The goal was to spend one month traveling around to see art, primarily by women artists, and staying in hostels. In the end, it was condensed to one week in London with day trips to Manchester and Edinburgh. But I got there. And when I walked into the exhibit, there she was, Propped. Across from the painting was a mirror so the viewer could read what Saville had scrawled backwards into the painting--a quote by the Belgian feminist Luce Irigaray: “If we continue to speak in this sameness--speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other again . . .”
After I saw the exhibit, I hurriedly posted my unedited, unfiltered thoughts on Facebook and Instagram, as one does:
The clouds have darkened. And the neon sign on the museum reads, “Everything Is Going To Be Alright,” and the opposing neon sign across the road flashes, “There Will Be No Miracles Here,” and the Domain Da Saissac cabernet is heavenly and full-bodied like the women in Raphealite paintings, that Raphealite beauty, that every-era beauty redefined, male gaze and all that shit, but the contradictions: I find myself believing both ideas: no miracles, everything will be alright...if you clap, you can save her.
I'm currently crafting an essay on Saville’s exhibit (still processing) and hoping to include some new work by a young male artist who is tackling the subject of the perception of the obese male body.
In the meantime, who the hell am I and why am I writing about art?
I don’t write about art from a critical standpoint, but from one of appreciation and passion. I’ve no formal training and have as much academic language to describe art as I do wine, though I indulge in both of them regularly. My love of art stems from childhood experiences of lying on the carpet of my grandmother’s living room, staring at the paintings my mother made as a teenager, proudly hung on the walls. I imagined her as a young artist and admired the details of her still life, as well as the figurative painting of her and her best friend playing on a teeter-totter. Years later I would discover that her biological father was also a painter. My interest in finding out more about him led me further down the path of art appreciation. Eventually, my mother would give me a stack of letters sent between my grandmother and grandfather after he had left her and my mother to travel the world (and escape child support). In his flamboyant cursive he revealed, “I’m an artist. I can’t live a traditional life.” In a postcard sent from the 1938 World’s Fair he taunted her further by writing, “You should really see this someday,” knowing she didn’t have the same opportunities and freedom of movement that he (and society) gifted to himself.
My grandfather’s words ignited in me a question that has burned ever since: what about the woman artist?
In my play The Killing Jar, I write about two ex-patriot artists living in the Philippines—one male, one female—and how their lives, artistically and otherwise, hold similarities under differing constraints (societal, egotistical, economical, etc.). Researching for the play deepened my already strong passion for art and eventually led me into exploring the possibility of writing about it in other ways.
By the way, my mother’s figurative painting went to my sister.
She gave me the still life.
I still sit and stare at it.
I was greeted at the door by Jack and Red. Jack is artist Jeff Snell’s dog, an adorable small black lab/beagle mix, who, after sniffing me and getting a few pets in, was content to fall asleep on the couch. Red was the houseguest, a Queensland Heeler with a penchant for playing ball and being entertained.
Jeff and I stood and talked about his latest work, which is featured in the a solo exhibition show “Stacks of Facts” at Jen Tough Gallery through September 20th, while Red continually dropped a tennis ball at my feet. I’d kick it nonchalantly and he’d bring it back. We repeated this sly play until Jeff eventually put the ball away, explaining, “He’ll be doing this all night.” After that, Red settled down and Jeff and I continued discussing his evolution over the last couple years.
In 2016, Snell was working on collaging together small ¼” strips of information that he’d put together, using color and tone as his guide and placing them horizontally onto vibrantly painted canvases. “I was using stuff that you wouldn't see in fine art, color-wise.”
Snell said he started off using strips of text, but soon moved on to incorporating images and adding more contrast. Eventually the strips grew larger in size. From there, he began to think about adding 3D elements and remembered the sculptures he made in college that were installation pieces.
I read somewhere that you had experimented in working with cardboard in college and then you decided to bring it back.
When I finished those paintings I was thinking I want to make these big things again, but started making little mock ups. That's where that all kind of started. In college, I had a sculpture teacher, and I spent a whole year making a riveted steel sculpture and after I was done he came up, looked at it and--he's a man of very few words--he came up to me and said, "why don't you try cardboard," and that's all he had to say and it just blew my mind. I can cut this up with a knife, I can hot glue it and that just made big things happen fast. I started making these little sculptures that grew bigger and turned into wall sculptures--small 3D sculptures that ended up being adhered to a sub-straight that you could hang on the wall. I call them sculptures, but they're painterly.
And that became the Changing Landscape series?
Can you talk about the shift from Changing Landscapes to the work you’re doing now?
These paintings are sculptural rather than sculptures that are painterly. So that's kind of a shift. At the time, when I started using these materials, I came from this sort of whimsical space in my mind, and now those ideas have sort of flurried away; it's much more stripped down, more about the formal elements and the structure and the act of placing things rather than objects as narrative. So that's a change. I almost had to do that 3D stuff to get to what I'm doing now. Before the 3D stuff I was doing flat painted surfaces and they had textures and they had different things going on but it was still paint on canvas. Now it's a combination of paint on canvas plus the sculptural elements.
Why “Stacks of Facts?”
Well, that's the name I call the show because I see a lot of these things that are stacks of horizontals. I would start with a painterly wash of stuff in the background and then start sculpturally piecing things together...keeping it...leaving it a little rough, and it's cardboard and you see that, and I'm not trying to fool anybody and not hiding the fact that this is stuff that I either find or, like anything with the printing on the carton is obviously found cardboard, but if there's cardboard in these pieces in these strips that I'm actually putting my printed information on or painting these strips, I start with an acid-free white cardboard that I buy.
Let's say the components are not carefully chosen, but they're very carefully placed. So it's like, I'm not saying I need to see an insect and I need to see something red here, I just have this pile of stuff and I'm going through and I work fast and there's a certain pace that really works for me that I feel comfortable in, and letting something evolve fast and making quick choices works well if in the past I've done things that I've labored over and it kills it. And when I'm done, I'm done.
In my opinion, when we the viewers look at art, we take from it what we need and there's nothing specific, necessarily, that the artist is trying to say to us that we have to figure out. That said, what do you want to evoke in the viewer or have them walk away thinking about?
I think a couple of things. One is purely visual. There's this certain tonal quality, areas of rest and a lot of areas of contrast, so there's a pop there. I would love people to recognize this visual play and these cues that are happening within the piece, where you're echoing something or letting something reverberate. I would love for people to pick up on different things--some humor, as well. I'll just throw out little bits and pieces of information and people can run with it and either expand on it or not, and every narrative is correct no matter what someone comes up with.
I read a quote, and I just looked it up before you came, by Einstein: One of the most beautiful things we can experience is the mysterious. I'm just paraphrasing, but the crux of all meaningful art and science is to approach something that way and look for the mysterious, and if you sort of give up on that approach, then you know, life is dead. So there's something mysterious in all of these. Do I want to be there or not? Is it scary or is it kind of fun or…People are all going to have different reactions and feelings and see different things.
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed. —Albert Einstein
So there’s no specific theme to “Stacks of Facts?”
No because I've stripped all that down to the bare elements of visual impact. It's more about that, more about me enjoying the process and just being honest with myself on where this is taking me, and who knows a couple of years down the road where that will take me.
I admire someone who can work on a series of paintings for 20 years, doing a very narrow concentration of work but they just delve into that really deeply, and I'm doing that but my concentration is a lot wider, I'm allowing myself to meander a little further.
Is that a conscious choice? The evolution from the political statement in Changing Landscapes to what you're doing know, the stripped down, more about process--
No, it's just how it's always been. A lot of times these are unconscious decisions; we just follow what feels right. I could do a ton of work on current politics, we all could, you could write until you die just about one week's worth of news, but I'm going to leave it to someone else because I really think people can look at things and they can add politics, they can add sex and violence wherever they see it.
What I'd like to see is something rough, but it has everything I need. It's a lot more exciting to me than typical landscape. There's a lot of run-of-the-mill work out there that just bores the hell out of me. There's not a lot of art that I see that I like.
What artists do you like?
It's always tough to just pick a few artists that...but you know, Mark Bradford had a show at MOMA several years back that blew me away, and he was just doing these really large paintings and he insisted they were paintings, but they were essentially collages. They're built up layers of information with textural bases and then he would sand down and expose these different layers, and they had a real feel of arial maps, at least that current body of work, he started somewhere else. So there you go. It's morphing, blurring the boundaries between painting and objects. I admire work like that.
There are some people who are doing work that's just kinda out there, like Howard Sherman. He's literally doing these clusterfuck pieces on the wall of ripped and painted paper, and I mean some of these things look hideous and some are stunningly beautiful. And he's just doing it. There's work that's a little challenging to most people that I admire. And I when I go to museum or gallery show I really take it in and get burned out really fast. Sometimes I don't want too many influences and just try to get what's in my brain out.
What surprises you about what you're doing right now? What have you learned new?
I don't know if it surprises me--it's sort of an obvious thing--sometimes no matter what genre you are creating, you have these things that you try to accomplish, but they're elusive and you know what you're doing wrong, but you don't know what to do right to find it. So when I do things, I find that my best work is simple. I stop when I'm 70% there. I take the dogs out or something, and I come back and I'm like, screw it, it's done. So the simpler I am, the less I think about it while I’m working on it, the less I care about the end result, as long as I'm in a zone, then it works out. But that's easier said than done.
I just hope that when people see this show, they appreciate just the directness and the honesty and boldness and the energy of the fact that I'm not taking it so damn seriously. I'm very serious about my art but I'm not--let's face it, I'm making paintings, not saving lives--
It's not precious--
It's not precious and that's very poignant because I've always said, this stuff is not precious and that's something that really bugs me when you see artists that say, "oh I can't part with that, I can't sell that, I can't get rid of that, my work is so precious to me, it's my baby." That tweaks me when people are like that. That's just a stumbling block, that's just an attitude that's gonna keep you from growing.
Do you listen to music while you work?
All the time. I'm listening to everything from Charlie Parker to Tool. I listen to mostly beebop and Jazz. I love fifties and Sonny Rowlands and Charlie Parker and all the classics in jazz, especially sax, and then I really like Deaftones and Radio Head and Perfect Circle and rock. I'll put it on shuffle. That's what I like, a jumble, it's not the same thing all day long.
What is your arts education and background?
I went to Maryland College of Art in Baltimore BFA. I thought about going to grad school, was accepted into NYU for sculpture, but didn't go. I traveled instead. At the time I just couldn't stomach having $50,000 debt, and now it's probably three times that. I made that decision, and I always wonder how that would have affected my life differently but then again, I've done so many different things since then unrelated to art that I wouldn't have even touched. I know so much more than if I just had done art.
What are your interests outside of art?
Being outdoors, experiencing nature. Just experiencing the wonder of our planet. Every day's different, every bit of weather and light. I see light everywhere I go and how it's framing things and coming through things and bouncing off of things. These visual treats that are just out there for the taking. I like to camp, dirt bike riding is a big thing for me. I love to ride dirt bikes--
Where do you ride?
After these fires, I don't know now, because Mendocino National Forest was my place. That was my favorite. That was the go-to, so now it's gonna be like a moonscape, which will be interesting.