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Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane
30 April - 29 May 2004
In Arryn Snowball's Woolloongabba studio there is a small painting of great menace. A man in a boat floating on a lake swings an axe through the air while a duck bobs innocently in the foreground. The image is blurry, as though seen at a distance, and full of malice. Like most of Arryn Snowball's paintings, the image is drawn from a photograph, and in this case an image of European villagers breaking an ice covered lake to enable ducks to feed in the depths of a harsh winter. In a manner similar to that of Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, Snowball's handling of this original innocuous photograph transforms a sentimental moment and an act of benevolence into something quite other.
At the 2001 Venice Biennale, despite the plethora of film and new media work, the most interesting work featured in the Belgian pavilion, where Tuymans had assembled an exhibition of paintings characterised by an exquisitely light touch yet powerful political punch. His exhibition addressed the history of Belgian rule in the Congo and the murder of Patrice Lumumba. Tuymans is well known for his ambiguous, characteristically na'lve paintings that are quietly and surprisingly challenging. Indeed, he has often been credited with making painting relevant again. Tuymans offers painting a refuge in obscurity; most often his subjects are, if not inscrutable, then left unfinished, as though the entire exercise were an open-ended experiment. This is not to say however, that they are bereft of meaning.
Rather, Tuymans' oblique approach to subject matter is in part a strategy of obfuscation of meaning. Arryn Snowball's work also deals with representation and its ultimate obfuscation, but where Tuymans might look to Nazi Germany for source material, Snowball finds the subjects for his oil paintings in the mundaneness of human life. In the work featured in Dissolution this everyday phenomenon is steam. Snowball takes photographs of steam and then paints from these, partly as a practical strategy to capture the rapidly dissipating moisture, but also as an investigation into painting's enduring push and pull relationship with photography and the latter medium's unsupportable claim to objectivity and a kind of truth.
As Rosemary Hawker points out in her accompanying catalogue essay, 'In looking to the everyday and mundane, Snowball makes clear that he needs to search for a subject that nothing is apparent to painting anymore. However, it would be a mistake to think that he turns to marginal material as a means to elevate its status. It is its lack of status and meaning that allows steam to be such a powerful device in these works'.
Snowball's evocative steam paintings eloquently deliver the ordinary into the realm of the sublime, with a technique devoid of virtuoso flourishes but high on skill. Importantly, and this is where his practice deviates from Tuymans', Snowball uses steam as a vehicle with which to empty painting of any content or meaning and ultimately of narrative. Steam, which is almost imperceptible and certainly ephemeral, is captured by Snowball in a moment of permanent stasis. Snowball's careful selection of suitable imagery from a myriad of photographs is in part a search for that which is ultimately elusive and intangible. His paintings capture the transience of the elusive mist, in the process revealing an extraordinary beauty seemingly naked to the human eye; such is the power of the photograph to manipulate even as it faithfully records the colours and shapes of something . The further cropping and reduction of imagery in the translation to canvas results in a delicate obscuring that is an inherent characteristic of steam itself, further blurring the distinction in Snowball's paintings between representational painting and abstraction, or formlessness.
As Hawker explains, 'These paintings seem forever poised just before or just after coalescing into form, or equally, either side of the dissolution of such. This is also the circumstance that allows ostensibly realist images, given the direct line their photographic origins maintain with their referent, to be read as abstract expressionist paintings, or as monochromes, or as unmotivated stains on canvas and indeed all these things at once'.
This oscillation between representation and the abstract is at the heart of Snowball's dialogue with painting. Further, the notion of the sublime is key to the artist's wider practice in so far as he is interested in certain aspects of a romantic painting tradition. However, his concept of the sublime is associated less with traditional concepts of awe and terror, and more with a desire to express that which is inexpressible, or beyond definition.