Following Her Instincts
Joan Snyder’s Womanart at Alexandre Gallery and Betty Cuningham Gallery
IF YOU WERE JUST A TYKE IN THE 70s, you missed the Women’s Art Movement, its luxurious cant and mélange of no-styles. Now you can catch up at Joan Snyder’s latest exhibitions. There are two: Works on paper from the 70s to the present, uptown at Alexandre Gallery; recent paintings, downtown at Betty Cuningham Gallery.
|She is the Earth
Both shows illustrate the vulgarity of a movement that traded on the susceptibilities of its audience. Uptown, Ms. Snyder’s bleeding scribbles are being conjured into art history with a scholarly essay, one of those tricks of the bazaar that mesmerize the parvenu art crowd. Downtown, an ensemble of 20 canvases—entitled “Women Make Lists” and dedicated to the women of Iraq—celebrates the artist herself as the bearer of female benevolence.
Do women make lists? You bet; I have one right here. Mine is a tally of the self-worshiping conceits trumpeted by a generation of women artists in their sortie against standards of achievement—dismissed by art historian Linda Nochlin as “the white male Western viewpoint.” Nochlin famously derided what she termed “the Lady’s Accomplishment” (“a modest, proficient, self-demeaning level of amateurism”). In its place, scholarly fiat substituted Womanart and its own peculiar accomplishment: an immodest, not necessarily proficient, self-assertive level of amateurism that coincided handily with the assault of camp sensibility on public taste.
Ms. Snyder is the doyenne of Womanart. While camp advanced itself seriously, it expected to be taken lightly. Not so the Women’s Art Movement. In debunking the myth of the Great Artist, it hatched myths of its own. In dead earnest. Among these was the vanity that artmaking is just one of those things that women do naturally, like lactating. Instinct is art, sisters; we are the Earth.
Ms. Snyder’s instinctive, unspoiled mark-making is solemnly packaged at Alexandre Gallery. Between watercolor splotches of tongues and tits, gnomic scraps of handwriting present themselves as a strategy to “erase the boundary between the verbal and the visual.” And catch those “mamilla berries,” showcased with the reverence due sacred relics. Why not? An artist’s touch is a hallowed thing—to be honored under glass by the faithful, like Padre Pio’s bloody gloves.
Self-indulgent artlessness is perilously dependent on the quality of the artist’s hand. Ms. Snyder’s hand owes everything to academic rhetoric which has, indeed, confused the verbal and visual. One dazzling irony here is that esteem for the artist’s mark rests on the very recognition of greatness that the Movement sought to undermine. But the catalogue transcends this stumper by insinuating an association with big names: Hans Hoffman, de Kooning, Pollock, et alia.
Ever her own mythographer, Ms. Snyder lends herself to interpretation as a shaman, sibyl, priest, healer (those dried medicinal herbs stuck in the paint!) and a Miriam leading us to the Promised Land. That is where our inner goddess abolishes hierarchies, especially those of talent and taste; and reductive labial or mammary images are as good as a Duccio Madonna.
The game gets help, downtown, from sonorous Latin titles. “Perpetuo” (2004) submits a field of disembodied breasts with rivulets of paint flowing from erect nipples. “Antiquarum Lacrimae” (2004) approaches the lyricism of needlepoint maxims with “The Heart is a Lake” scrawled over blots.
From the downtown catalogue (yes, there’s another) we learn that Ms. Snyder’s single ambition after 9/11 was to make beautiful paintings; however, “her politics cut more deeply.” Just as well, really. These spills, shmears and drips clotted with glass beads, glitter, fabric, herbs—whatever— are strenuously unimpressive. But then so is the pretense to politics. She coyly omits mentioning whether her recent pity for Iraqi women and children was triggered by Saddam’s barbarities or the invasion that ended them. Viewers can project their own positions onto the ambiguity.
Politics, as used here, is a dodge for merchandising lacrimose fantasies of women as vessels of cosmic altruism: The Breast That Never Empties (“Mamilla Immortalis”). Still pitching the old zeal, she insists that “we need to send powerful female energy and imagery out into the universe “ to save the world from (male) violence. Even more implausible than Ms. Snyder’s painting is her adherence to a crumbling orthodoxy that denies women’s complicity in their own culprit cultures. Thirty years ago, her schtick about redemptive female energy was merely silly. Today, in the wake of female terrorists—and the sight of women dancing in Ramallah on 9/11— it is cynical. Or delusional.
Ms. Snyder is self-referential and sententious enough to be anointed the next Frida Kahlo. Promotional machinery is heating up. Current shows are preliminary to next year’s crowning event: a retrospective at the Jewish Museum and an Abrams monograph. An honest appraisal of the WAM—its achievment in breaking glass ceilings for women artists and the harm done by the means taken—would be helpful. Canonizing Joan Snyder compounds the damage.
“Joan Snyder: Work on Paper: 1970s and Recent” at Alexandre Gallery (41 East 57th Street, 212-755-2828).
“Joan Snyder: Women Make Lists” at Betty Cuningham Gallery (541 West 25 Street, 212-242-2772).
This essay was first published in The New York Sun, November 18, 2004
Copyright 2004 Maureen Mullarkey