Stones and sticks

Pop thoughts and Japanese inspirations
April 3, 2007 5:20:50 PM
FINDING HIS OWN THING? Paul Mullowney’s “Study for Oni.”
Growing up, there was gearhead guy named Danny whose parents lived next door to me. In my kid head, he was like our own personal neighborhood Arthur Fonzarelli. Each weekend when the weather was amenable, he would park his curvy blue Corvette in front and lovingly wash down the machine. It had this magical sparkily finish that seemed the epitome of manly cool.
I was reminded of Danny’s Vette by a pair of goofy sculptures by Dean Snyder on view at Wheeler Gallery that look like meteors that have crashed to earth from some fab stretch of the cosmos. Yo_shii_mi is a yellow-green boulder, made from an epoxy composite, with gashes that expose red squirmy fleshy guts; Da_Nazz_z is a purple boulder with little black and white 8-balls speckling it like barnacles.
At first I found these sculptures to be cheeseball surrealist non sequiturs. But Snyder, who heads RISD’s sculpture department, coats the surfaces with a glittery automotive paint that begins to tickle our pop culture unconscious — in my case, from Danny’s Corvette to the Fonz to what it means to be a man.
In the past, Snyder explored similar pop thoughts by fashioning rawhide sculptures tattooed with cartoony abstractions, like the mushroom-shaped pieces that he showed in “Obsessive Patterns” at Brown University’s Bell Gallery in 2003. The forms of the sculptures themselves often seemed like cartoon bubbles or blobs that had slipped into the real world Roger Rabbit-style. Here his paintings Antibodi_x and Omni_cell.01 continue to develop these cartoony motifs. They look like Dr. Seuss dream concoctions, morphing twigs and horns, intestines, inner tubes and bubbles, smoke and toad stools, pumpkins, belts and boards, socks and cheese.
Snyder’s work is paired with large Japanese-inspired woodcuts by Paul Mullowney of Maui, Hawaii. In this Asian context, Snyder’s boulders bring to mind Chinese “scholar’s rocks,” fantastically eroded and hand-chiseled stones traditionally used to decorate Chinese homes. They’re akin to the American tradition of picking out weird tree knots or roots to use as decoration. The curious rocky forms are visually intriguing, and since they often look like mini-mountains, they spark contemplation of the sublime.

Snyder’s glittery boulders, contrasting ancient rocky forms and manufactured plastic razzle-dazzle, wave in the direction of a pop culture sublime. He doesn’t need to include actual cartoons, as the materials themselves, the paint job, is enough to churn up nostalgic, junky, shallow Hollywood dreams. I’m still not quite convinced these particular sculptures are more than non sequiturs, but they seem like the beginning of something.
At Providence College’s Hunt-Cavanagh Art Gallery, Barrington artist Jonathan Sylvia’s drawings and collages adopt a similar compositional strategy to Snyder’s paintings. Sylvia’s work isn’t as antic or cartoony, but he too builds abstractions from lots of accumulated elements — in his case, wiggly striped bars that look like wood planks or bacon.
In Two By One and One By One, the planks swirl around in space creating a ball-like shape. It’s as if gravity was coalescing an atom or planet right before our eyes. Sylvia draws the rust-red lines by tracing sketches onto the final work with a carbon paper-type method used by printmakers to transfer drawings onto printing plates. It gives his lines sweet soft edges.
Across the gallery, three spotted dogs stand in the foreground in one washy green landscape. Some pieces resemble piles of stones, a row of barns, or teepee-shaped piles of lumber. But Sylvia is strongest when he’s more abstract and playing with the physical properties of his materials. He builds one picture from collaged postage stamps. Another composition is assembled from frosty swatches of layered vellum. But on the whole this work feels tentative, too soft-spoken and polite for its own good.
Back at Wheeler Gallery, Paul Mullowney’s prints depict a squatting naked, horned demon; a seated skeleton with a fiery spiral above its head; and a ghost woman drawn from Japanese folktales and theater. The prints are primarily variations of these designs in red and gold, brown and gold, or white and white. Mullowney is a master printer, with a loose, choppy, shimmering Japanesey style. But these feel like imitations, rather than the work of an artist who has digested his influences and found his own thing.

Paul Mullowney And Dean Snyder | Wheeler Gallery, 228 Angell St, Providence | Through April 19

Jonathan Sylvia: “impartial undifferentiated indivisibilism”  | Hunt-Cavanagh Art Gallery at Providence College, Eaton St, Providence | Through April 19


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