The guest book lying open in the hallway of the gallery caught my eye first – it was signed in large block capitals, ‘Fuck You – XXX’, which pretty well sums up the way people love to hate Dash Snow. From the relentless blogs debating how often he speaks to his wealthy De Menil family to a recent New York magazine article profiling his delinquency, drug use and graffiti crew, Snow’s image and his antics garner far more column inches than his art. What gets on my nerves about this kind of hype is that it exemplifies a deepening confusion about the difference between an artist’s reputation and the reception and interpretation of his work – especially in an art world that increasingly welcomes the fashion industry and within a system that increasingly fashions artists into stars.
So when you take away the mags, the blogs and the circle of friends keeping Dash Snow’s name afloat, what’s left to look at? In this particular show a loose inventory of imagery includes burnt matches, bare breasts, cigarette butts, skeletons, bandanas, blow jobs, baseball mascots, bondage, black eyes, Satan, death, shooting up, cop-killing, decay, vaginas, clumps of hair, skulls and dirty cotton swabs. His cache of symbols seems to leave no rubbish bin unturned, no flea market un-rummaged. Snow then assembles his findings, along with cut-out magazine and newspaper headlines, into collages made on scraps of yellowed paper, bits of salvaged wood or torn-off book covers, shoe-horning his superficial, compulsive interests into a well-trodden, familiar format that leaves little room for development. At best, he is a skilled imitator who translates Pop-cultural references into something that closely mimics the look of Hannah Höch’s collages or Robert Rauschenburg’s ‘Combines’. At worst, he is a poseur who makes art based on a naive and superficial understanding of its history and context.
Still, I don’t hate Snow’s work as much as I thought I would. Some of the collages reveal a consistent, legible, formal quality – the kind that makes for intriguing album covers. The strongest works use only text in horizontal rows, in which phrases such as ‘Without a trace’ or ‘Dreams die hard’ are repeated, or in which two different headlines are spliced together to make a new one, such as in Snuggling Gay Cops Died in My Arms (2006–7). The majority of the nearly 200 collages on view, however, attempted to juxtapose disparate, provocative images – such as Untitled (Armagedon) (2004), which featured a dirty Band-Aid and a mangled portrait of the Pope haloed by cut-out letters spelling ‘Armagedon’ [sic]. But with such collages Snow just trades on the existing power of the religious icons, pornographic imagery or sensational headlines that he hijacks, without making them cohere in a meaningful new whole. His compositions are more like headlines or bumper stickers – better suited to skateboards, magazine layouts or T-shirts but lacking a second layer of poetry, humour or formal inventiveness that might add something to, rather than just retracing and exploiting, previous formal achievements in the history of art.
But what surprised me most was how conservatively and tamely Snow’s work is both executed and displayed, given the language generally used to describe him. The press release claimed that Snow is ‘always operating at the limits of social norms’ and that his work is ‘a menacing threat to the beholder’ – yet the hanging of the show is strikingly conventional. With nearly 60 works in the first room alone, every available wall was hung with uniformly sized, matted collages in identical blond wooden frames. Any unsightly gaps in the middle of the rooms were filled in by sculptural installations, in which found objects such as broken sunglasses or human jawbones were assembled in neat configurations like afterthought props. Instead of looking like an overflowing, compulsive accumulation that imitated the supposedly chaotic conditions in which they might have been made, collectively the works looked super-sanitized and saleable. Snow may be known for ‘hamster-nesting’ hotel rooms and defacing city walls, but when it comes to his art work, he is scribbling diligently within the lines.
With so many works on view, any potential impact that Snow’s works might have had was totally dispersed. But when he knows his bad-boy image is so popular and marketable, why would he consider showing fewer works? Ultimately he is selling his rebellious lifestyle, and this is what people are buying into. I don’t mean that Snow had to go to art school to make art, but if he wants to become an artist – rather than just cash in on his image in the coolest discipline of the moment – he first needs to experiment in a context where he’ll be criticized, tested and even rejected. But it doesn’t seem that anyone in his immediate circle of friends, promoters or collectors is ready to say ‘no’ to Snow just yet – at least not while the attention he receives remains focused on his lifestyle rather than his work. As one blogger aptly put it: ‘Snow – you’re a cliché, but no one will tell you that because they’re gonna make a bundle on you first.’