Napoleonic ambition

John Bemrose March 21 1994

Napoleonic ambition

John Bemrose March 21 1994



A sprawling retrospective spotlights a prolific creator

The challenge: to condense more than 40 years of a deepthinking, astonishingly versatile artist’s career into a message that will fit on a T-shirt. The artist, Toronto’s Michael Snow, is a renowned 64-year-old painter, sculptor, photographer, holographer, experimental film-maker and jazz musician. Last week in his home city, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery launched The Michael Snow Project, a sprawling tribute that includes three visual art exhibitions as well as numerous screenings, concerts and lectures. The people marketing the show wanted a Tshirt that would leap off gallery gift shop shelves. They chose an excerpt from a lively manifesto that Snow wrote in 1961. “I make up the rules of a game, then I attempt to play it,” the white lettering on the black T-shirts proclaims. “If I seem to be losing, I change the rules.” The perception of art as a game—a serious game with ceaselessly evolving rules—has characterized Snow’s work for more than four decades. The artist has spent much of his career conducting an inquiry into the way people process sensory information. But he has done so in an often wry, playful way. Sometimes, only a dedicated few are willing to play along with him. His improvisatory jazz performances on piano and trumpet appeal to a small, decidedly avant-garde following. And while experimental film-makers at home and abroad regard several of his works as masterpieces, mass audiences attend movies, not cinematic studies of time, light and motion.

But some of his public art commissions number among Toronto’s most instantly identifiable landmarks. Since 1979, millions of Eaton Centre shoppers have gazed up at Flightstop, his realistic-looking flock of geese on the wing. And since 1989, sports fans have encountered The Audience, his gigantic, gesticulating characters on the north wall of SkyDome. Those public commissions are entertaining at a glance. But like the rest of his art, they offer a standing invitation to look deeper: beneath the surface, they make sly comments on the difference between reality and representation.

The Michael Snow Project, which runs until June 5, provides an unparalleled opportunity to appreciate Snow’s protean creativity. In addition to screening all the artist’s films, the AGO is presenting two exhibitions of his visual art. Containing 179 pieces, one AGO show surveys

Snow’s art between 1951 and 1967. The other, 20-work exhibit concentrates on the much briefer period of 1967 to 1969, when he was most intensely concerned with perception. A third, 93-piece show at The Power Plant presents works created between 1970 and 1993. Thé retrospective also includes lectures by painter Joanne Tod, film-maker Atom Egoyan and several other creators for whom Snow’s work has been an inspiration.

The three exhibitions demonstrate that Snow is fascinated with the way the artist reprocesses the world around him. “A large part of modem art is directed towards the act of seeing, and he is one of the artists who has been most seriously and prolifically and successfully concerned with that issue,” says critic Robert Fulford, who has been following Snow’s career since the 1950s. “He is someone who is trying to think his way through what seeing is all about.” Snow has often cited a personal reason for his deep interest in the subject.

He was a child when his father, a civil engineer, lost one eye when he was injured in an explosion. As a result of that accident, his father gradually went blind in the other eye as well.

Raised in Toronto’s prosperous Rosedale district, Snow graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1952 and soon began showing his drawings and paintings at local galleries. He supported himself with commercial work and by playing piano in the evenings with a jazz group. Snow met Joyce Wieland, who would also go on to become a leading Canadian artist, and the two married in 1956 (they divorced 25 years later, and Snow is now married to art critic Peggy Gale, with whom he has an 11-year-old son). In many of his early paintings and drawings, he depicted human figures with a whimsical incisiveness that recalls the work of Paul Klee. By the late 1950s, he was producing vigorous abstract works.

In the early 1960s, a bold flash of inspiration completely redirected Snow’s art—and transformed him from a respected young talent into one of Canada’s most significant artists. Returning to the subject of the human form, he produced a cut-out of a striding female figure, seen from the side. For seven years, the iconic silhouette of the Walking Woman remained the basis of all his visual art. He painted her, sculpted her, stencilled her, distorted her, edited her g and moved her about with ceaseless I inventiveness. “About the only thing 5 that connects all my stuff,” Snow said

1 in an interview last week, “is that I’m

2 interested in variation systems—that is, setting up a theme and making a sequence of variations on it.”

Snow and Wieland moved to New York City in 1962, where he became increasingly involved in jazz performance and film-making. His most famous film, Wavelength, was completed in 1967, and like many of his late-1960s sculptures, it makes the point that art is often a means of framing and filtering reality. “Any photograph is a cropping of something,” Snow says. Wavelength opens with a wide-angle shot taken across a loft interior. The camera slowly—very slowly—begins to zoom in on a photograph of waves on the far wall. People come and go in the space, but the 45-minute film’s real subject is the relentless zooming of the camera. In the end, the waves in the small photograph fill the entire frame.

After moving back to Toronto in 1972, Snow continued to explore how art selectively renders reality. In the mid-1980s he created several pieces that use holography to create an eerie illusion of three-dimensionality. In/Up/Out/Door, a 1985 work that is part of the Power Plant exhibit, features ghostly, holographic faces that appear to press up against the real glass window of a real wooden door. “I’m not didactic,” says Snow. “There are a lot of things that ought to be changed in the world, but I’m just trying to make an experience that has a certain kind of strength. It doesn’t necessarily involve redirecting your estimation of other things. I just want you to estimate what’s in front of you.”

In person, Snow is courteous and unassuming, with a life-affirming laugh. While describing some aspect of his work, he sometimes interjects such comments as “Jeez, it’s hard to talk about these things.” During the past two years, preparations for The Michael Snow Project have taken up most of his time. He has been involved in the production of its various catalogues and a soon-to-be-published volume of his collected writings. While going through his archival material, he came across several unexecuted Walking Woman ideas that he really liked. But he will probably move on to something completely different when the hoopla surrounding his retrospective subsides. In a 1962 newspaper article, Fulford wrote that Snow “never stands still long enough to be acceptable. Whenever you believe you know all he has to say, he quickly changes the conversation.” True then, true now. Stay tuned.