Michael Snape

Well known as a semi-abstract sculptor, Michael Snape is also a formidable painter. At first glance there does not seem to be any direct link between the sculpture and the painting. But in his new exhibition of paintings, intriguing connections start to emerge.

Michael Snape is probably best known as a sculptor. But he is, in fact, an artistic polymath – a painter, a writer, and an assiduous blogger, writing articles, reviews, poetry, and opinion pieces. His new exhibition Here at Australian Galleries, Sydney in September focusses on painting supported by some, mainly domestic-scaled, sculptures.

One might expect some parallel concerns between the sculpture and the painting. This is not immediately apparent. However, there is an underlying shared credo – namely, that in making art nothing should be taken for granted. For Snape, every artistic move has to be framed by an accompanying interrogation: What is art, what does it do, and how does it justify itself? To coin a phrase: Is your art really necessary?

For his last show of sculptures at Australian Galleries in 2020, The Folded Forest, he wrote: “Making art, whichever art it might be, is a research project.” For that show, the project was an exploration of the epistemology of sculpture. While that may sound like an inflated way of describing it, the show nonetheless was an investigation into the nature, purpose, and justification of sculpture. Typically, its forms were rooted in the figurative while animated by powerful abstract rhythms – just as his cut-metal plate sculptures (some small-scale examples are in the new show) depicting chains of apparently dancing figures conjuring up echoes of how Matisse in so many paintings (not just La Danse, 1910) created dynamic abstract rhythms of form and colour while retaining figurative elements to ground the painting in the everyday, phenomenal world.

The pictures in his new show are meditations on the process of painting. Snape refers to this more pragmatically as “managing the process.” But this downplays the role of intuition and the sheer force of feeling and emotion driving the emergence of these paintings.

I say “emergence” quite deliberately because these paintings are not prescribed in any way: they emerge from initially intuitive gestures informed by a response (in most cases) to the landscape. The landscape in question is Snape’s property at Wamboin, north of Canberra in rural New South Wales. This is his second home, where he has a studio and where he is developing a sculpture park to also provide his sculptures with a second home.

Here the word epistemology is again useful. The term refers to how we know and understand the world. In this case it is Snape’s world at Wamboin. Suffice it to say that we know the world through our five senses, and vision is said to account for seventy percent of our perception of the world around us. As far as the landscape is concerned, we see it either by looking out across it or by looking down on it. But our actual perception is a combination of both (think Fred Williams), further shaped by visual habit, emotion, past experience, and prevailing biases.

The challenge Michael Snape has set for himself with these paintings is to represent how we inhabit the landscape.

They begin with him using a roller on a ground in “a pretty random” way. He says he then “cultivates the random using some figurative imposition.” In other words, he teases out the initial intuition and discovers what the paintings want to be. They become “all over” or multi-dimensional landscapes – landscapes which are seen, felt, imagined, and remembered all at once. There are no horizon lines in these landscapes and the figurative elements – kangaroos, birds, trees, human figures, even (as in Self Portrait with Truck, 2021) vehicles – are reduced to ideograms. So the process becomes one of the deliberate versus the accidental, ideogram versus description, the seen versus the felt.

Landscape, traditionally, is depicted as static. But Snape’s landscapes are highly dynamic. Just as his sculptures are tautly intricate patterns of energised forms, so these paintings are highly concentrated formal rhythms with a rigorous all-over surface unity – regardless of format. Overview, 2022, for example, is square, Spoon Static, 2021, vertical, and Blowing out the Ordinary, 2021, horizontal, but each holds together with contained energy.

So, while there is no obvious link between the paintings and the sculpture, it is useful to have some recent sculpture to accompany this installation of paintings, especially on a scale which relates to the paintings. The all-over unity and implied underlying geometry of the paintings now seems comparable, for example, to Snape’s well-known The Trail, 1991, at Sydney Park (a re-imagining of Henry Moore’s reclining nudes) or his more recent piece Become the Part, 2022, made in collaboration with his artist daughter, Agatha Gothe-Snape, at St. Andrew’s College at the University of Sydney.

Suddenly, Michael Snape’s sculptures seem more painterly, while his paintings present as more sculptural. Certainly, this suite of recent paintings offers a fresh and challenging addition to the continuing story of how the Australian landscape
is depicted.   

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 60, 2022. 
Images courtesy the artist and Australian Galleries, Sydney.

15 September – 2 October 2022
Australian Galleries, Sydney

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