Mary Snowden: Picnic at the Seashore
FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS I wrote art criticism for a second-rate daily newspaper, the Oakland (California) Tribune. When I retired, nearly twenty years ago, I swore I'd never do it again, but you know the value of such oaths.
For a long time, too, I never went to galleries. Go to four or five a week, and five or six concerts, and listen to half a dozen recordings, every week, and you pretty well get your fill. Then too, as I made clear in my retirement column, I wasn't terribly happy about the direction the art world was taking in the 1980s. (I'm not persuaded the direction's changed for the better since, but I'm in no position to swear to it.)
Yesterday, though, we drove down to San Francisco to see some gallery shows -- principally because one of them featured emerging abstract expressionism in New York and San Francisco in the 1950s, which is the period that always meant most to me.
We covered five galleries in two or three hours -- I haven't lost my pace! -- and I found myself thinking it wouldn't be bad to write about some of them. One of the things that always drove me in those art-critic days was a desire to bring more attention to work I thought neglected; I suppose that's what drives me today.
I'll content myself (and you) with just one gallery today: the Quay. When I first started covering art, in the late 1960s (for KQED-tv, in those days), the Quay was one of perhaps four or five galleries in the entire Bay Area worth attention. It was on Jerome Alley in those days, in North Beach, just off the interior-decorator center; and there Ruth Braunstein showed work by a number of first-rate Bay Area artists.
One of them was Mary Snowden, who then lived in a converted storefront grocery on a residential street in Berkeley. She was a representational painter with a fondness for domestic animals. I suspect she had a flock of hens: one painting I particularly remember was of a Rhode Island Red standing self-importantly, as chickens often seem to stand, on a kitchen table, in an ordinary chicken.
I spent my earliest childhood in that part of Berkeley; hens were a familiar part of childhood. Of course in those days I knew nothing about painting. In fact what little I ever did learn I learned on the job, looking at paintings; and Mary Snowden's were among the first I looked at, when I was breaking into art criticism. (I moved into it sideways, from music reviewing. I did know something about music.)
Well, a lot of paint has squeezed out of the tubes since those days, and Mary Snowden's work currently at the Quay, now relocated for a third or fourth time to 430 Clementina St. not far from SFMOMA, looks quite different.
But a tiger doesn't change her stripes, and Snowden still paints domestic animals. In this show, though, she also paints the contemporary condition (by which I mean Iraq); and she also depicts the history that's brought us to the contemporary condition, and that will inevitably take us away from it.
She puts the tragedy of our time into perspective, a perspective of domesticity and universality. For people of my generation this links us back to the days of World War II, when derricks like those in the picture above bristled over the Richmond shipyards where our parents worked; to a time when war and peace co-existed, somehow, in what we saw, as children, as normal daily life. The war was distant, of course; we didn't see or hear or feel it, except in newsreels and those dreadful news photos, and of course the movies; and in the never-understood overheard conversations among our older relatives.
Our life was daily: schoolyards, Victory gardens, henhouses, the comic strips. This is the life that ultimately contains all experience, tragic or mundane; and Mary Snowden, in the work in this current show, somehow conveys this insight: that all the horrors and all the boredom and all the ordinariness take place in the same uncaring objective context, in which much of what mortal humans do is foolish indeed, but preoccupying, and -- in view of its constant return to the routine cycles of ordinary daily life -- ultimately reassuring.
(Easy for me to say, of course; life here on Eastside Road is comfortable and pleasant. Much as it was in pastoral pagan Greece, I suppose, in the periods of peace, between foolish forays into Persia, or even next-door islands.)
Well, that, to my way of thinking, is the content of this new work of Mary Snowden's. What's also interesting, very interesting, is the technique. She alternate drawing (pencil, colored pencil), painting (acrylic, wash I think here and there), and collage. As her visual references (Annie Oakley, Little Annie Rooney, children's book illustrations) refer to familiarity, so these techniques refer to quiet desk-work. I've always been attracted to the art made by women: I know it's dangerous to generalize, and this could easily seem "sexist," but many or most women, it seems to me, make art without the distraction of big-ego expression.
That's clear in this show: Snowden's awareness, observation, comprehension, and response to both her moment and her art are perfectly obvious; she doesn't have to climb on a soapbox to announce that. And there's a lesson in the obvious focus and discipline of this work: one must be attentive to everything going on all around, but one must do one's work and mind, in every sense, one's business.
There's a lot to think about in this show. Oh: and have I mentioned that there's humor, too, and beauty?