Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Doug Snow’s Inner Landscape

Doug Snow has been a central figure in Utah art for the past fifty years. He was one of the first to champion abstract art in Utah, and, as professor of art at the University of Utah,  influenced a number of artists that have received local and national recognition. An affable, energetic, constantly curious individual, Snow continues to produce the lively, inventive, always slightly mysterious paintings that have made him a Utah treasure.

Though the focus of “Capitol Reef: The Inner Landscape,” on exhibit at the SLC’s main library through June 27, is a series of nine identically sized paintings constituting a new body of work, in reality the exhibition amounts to a retrospective. The exhibition presents works in a variety of media spanning Snow’s career from the fifties to the present year.

As this exhibition aptly demonstrates, Snow’s forceful vision reveals the reality of abstraction and the abstraction of reality. In illustrations, figurative work, purely abstract, and semi representational work, Snow shows us that the strength of his vision is his personal style, not his subject matter. In all forms, Snow’s graceful line, celebratory sense of color, and strong formal design create breathtaking works that exude an intensity for life and a sense of awe before the mystery of the divine.

The outside north wall of the Library’s exhibition space contains a collection of figurative work from the fifties through the eighties, including portraits and animal paintings. “East on South Temple,” from 1956, demonstrates Snow’s early interest in creating an abstract visual vocabulary that could interact with the seen visual world. Body parts, some more loosely defined than others, appear out of an energetic mass of color, developed with the individual calligraphy of brushstrokes that characterizes Snow’s work throughout his career. A series of small watercolors from the nineties, done apparently from trips to central America and hanging on the interior north wall, are more representational, but still loose and playful.

The south wall of the exhibition space contains a series of illustrations: four advertisements from 1955 for the Hotel Utah Coffee Shop, as well as illustrations from 1974 for “The Tale of Two Cities.” These illustrations have the same graceful, curving line that sits atop many of Snow’s abstract paintings and which you can find in his drawings of the landscape.

Snow has always proven difficult to categorize. He was in New York in the early fifties, during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, and returned to Utah a champion of abstract art. But his work seems too carefully constructed, too intricately painted to be considered Expressionist. His work does, however, betray an obvious influence from the New York school. Snow coopts many of the techniques of the abstract artists of the forties and fifties and fuses them into a cohesive personal style. He has the hazed color layering of Rothko. Like Motherwell, he knows black is a color in its own right and knows how to use it. He scrawls a graffitti across the surface of his paintings much like Twombly. But it is all his own. He uses their techniques the same way he uses elements of the landscape – both are tools he merges to a whole.

Snow’s most characteristic works are large, delicately painted pieces that, though static two-dimensional pieces of canvas, shift between the reality of the landscape and the interiority of the mind. He has developed a visual vocabulary that respects what he has seen and learned of the southern Utah landscape he loves, but that also allows him play into areas that leave the solidity of reality behind.

In “Cove Fortress” a big creamy surface of peach creates the face of a cliff, looming over evergreens at the bottom of the painting. Across the surface of the cliff are black and red marks, like so much of his graffiti. But while these are interesting abstract painting elements, they also serves to describe the “bulletholes” that appear in the rocks of Southern Utah. “In Shinob Canyon” 1990, elements of a landscape disappear and reappear in the abstract and representational play that makes Snow’s works both personal and universal.

When one sees “Twin Rocks” (1954) and “Eclipse” (1966), and compares them to the most recent work, it is evident that Snow is an artist that can stay true to a form, a method, while continuing to surprise and delight with variations and plays on a theme. The technique and composition of these pieces share many similarities with the most recent work, but the paintings never seem to be tiresome or repetitive.

The “Capitol Reef” paintings are all dated 2003-2004, though the actually painting of some works is sometimes ten years earlier. In this ensemble,  the pieces all remain part of a whole, obeying an established compositional formula: dividing the canvas vertically into thirds with a strong central focus;  a rock like form – the evocation of the Cockscomb that has so preoccupied Snow – weighted toward the bottom of the painting; clouds and vapors, revealed in a looser style, in the top two thirds. Within this repetitive structure, Snow reveals his maestro hand by evoking a variety of emotions and sensations. “Release” feels like walking home from a funeral on a rain day. “Sky Fire” is the thrill of a passionate epiphany.  In “Strike” the characteristic cloudy masses of white has turned into a bold flash striking down to the cliff forms below. In “IM” a weighty sense of white and black at the top of a  background of cerulean blue, magenta, and purple, creates a weighty sense of the presence of the divine

Since leaving teaching at the University, Douglas Snow has done anything but retire. “Capitol Reef: The Inner Landscape” reminds us why he has interested us for fifty years and why he should continue to do so. As evidenced in his paintings, he is still eloquent, enthusiastic and energetic. His most recent work shows that he hasn’t lost his verve or his vision.

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