Steve Snell’s “Snacks on the River"
by Robert Mahoney
September 13, 2016
Steve Snell has brought his Adventure Art adventure to Lincoln, giving locals a chance to plug into his ongoing, action-oriented, seriously real world and a little bit crazy program of conceptual art. Currently in the East Gallery at the Lux Gallery, Snell has installed a cardboard boat, Daunting Courage, a somewhat dodgy video of his most river recent kayak trip down the river, last month, and, then, watercolors partly made while embarked upon that mission. It’s a nifty little show, with several sharp ideas.
The main event is of course the boat, Daunting Courage. This boat I have seen before, a year ago, in fact, during the Applejack Festival at Nebraska City, at the Kimmel Harding Arts Center. My brother and family take me down to pick some apples each Fall, and then while the little ones did some midway rides at the end of Main Street, I ducked around the corner to catch some art. Moving at top speed, in the last minutes of the opening, I enjoyed seeing Snell’s boat. It had great energy, a term which I now have to explain. For one thing, the energy that it most conveyed was breeziness, a jeu d’esprit, living the life, making a go of it. Why? The Kimmel had entered a few floats in the weekend’s Applejack Parade that ran down Main Street earlier in the day. Snell and company took the boat over to the landing area, and then paraded it on the back of a truck down Main Street, USA. Then, it won! won first place for the 2015 Applejack Parade (which is an honor you can never take away from it!), and then they rushed it back to the gallery, for the opening, and there I happened by. So, this was a work of art in an expanded field indeed. Not only did it 1) sit before me in the gallery, it was that day 2) taken out of the gallery, 3) entered into the parade, 4) paraded down Main Street, taken in in the context of the parade as a float and read by non-art people as a float, and then it 5) won an award, and then 6) was quickly carted back to the gallery, and 7) reinstalled in the gallery, 7a) everyone took a shower, 8) opening began--this line of flight from gallery to main street, but also from art to float and back again, was itself an added dimension that greatly expanded the expanded field of conceptual art, and not only that but it twisted and turned the agency of the piece (in the gallery, a dream conjuring; on Main Street a cult tableaux of “real history”) in a compound way that I found quite thrilling.
The more important thing for me is that Snell’s boat qualified as a “float,” and won. That means that it somehow communicated something to the crowd in a way that served not only contemporary art, but parade floats as well. The best floats remain “floats” because they float several meanings out over a flatbed truck, they multiply meaning by placing it sequentially in space, so that it can be seen here, there, here, and there again, as the float goes by. This sort of communication (my term is “the lattice”) can only take place on a symbolic level, often of necessity being reduced to schema or clichés. Also, the message on a float has multiple audiences, and addresses different constituencies, that is, it physically points out front, side and back, but also voice-wise points to kids, adults, fans or whatever. It is by its nature discursive, and serial, because serialized by space and time, and that is what makes it float lightly. It can be related to in many ways. Even in the gallery, Daunting Courage remains semantically discursive: You can’t quite take it in all at once, you nose about, exploring this and that, it’s various elements--looking glass, sail, pilot seat, rudder--pass by, poke out at you, then recede, as symbols evoking adventure, but then they always keep coming back to being distressingly makeshift. At times one’s gaze is so concerned over navigability that you encircle and inspect it, all but “kicking the tires” as one would if shopping for a used car (I kinda wanted to get down on the floor to inspect the fiberglass bottom, but didn’t). All of this by turns hesitant or insistent manner of address in the gallery only confirms the “float” elements of the means of communication going on in the boat as sculpture. Indeed, most of the time I was looking, I was aware that I was asking one primary question, over and over again: what is this? I mean, is a real boat? or just a model? or a sculpture? or what? Contingency like this is always fun.
What I liked most about Snell’s boat was that it was simple, mainly of cardboard construction, as such it remained art, that is, it is not at all certain that it is navigable on the Missouri River. The idea of taking it out on a river that is not, in fact, a particularly friendly beast, remains a bit scary. The boat in the Lux show is now covered in a waterproofing dark sheen of epoxy (looks like duct tape), and retrofit with a fiberglass bottom. Though seeing the boat in its raw cardboard phase last year certainly heightened anxiety over voyage plausibility, the epoxy cover presumably was applied for non-art practical reasons, so I accepted it. The dark sheen enhances the boat’s nautical looking devices, too, to signal to others on the river from afar that the boat is a going concern, and not just “some nutjob floating down river in a cardboard box.” The boat still commands presence as a symbol, its bow and stern firmly offer some reassurance of navigability, the rudder, all cardboard, is madly massive, there is a swell, quite sturdy mast, and a scaled sail above (furled in current show). Best of all is the cabin where the one-man pilot sits, which has a snug, clubhouse feeling to it, and then the handheld rudder device, under a tarp, which the sitting navigator presumably controls seated? eeks of alarm again. I was somewhat worried that these accommodations to reality would blunt the conceptual edge of the boat’s inherent existential dilemma, is it a symbol of a dream, or a reality? but, no, Daunting Courage still holds the floor, the second time I have seen it in a gallery.
In the course of Snell’s practice kayak trip last month, he had some time to do some watercolors. This brings the adventure squarely back into the realm of art. Why? after all, would Snell sail the Missouri? On one level, there are some not entirely progressive ideas rumbling underneath the endeavor. Snell’s rafting could be construed as another expression of the weird essentialism that afflicts painters and photographers in the region when they confront the “beautiful abstraction” of Nebraska and the Plains. Perhaps he wanted to gain some authenticity to somehow transform what would otherwise be Sunday Painting into something more (and such deconstruction of Sunday painting would be a fun example of classic neoconceptualism). Or maybe in idly sailing a river that has “fallen out of history,” in the sense that it does not host near the level of freight traffic that the Mississippi does, and seems now the definition of a backwater, perhaps he wanted to retrogressively rip the pages of that decadence off the river right back to the first Euro-settler page when for Louis and Clark it was the grand highway to the amazing wonders West. So this would be an example of a modern Anglo deconstructing with irony a mea culpa against any triumphant settlerism that still admires the “achievements” of Louis and Clark. But, somehow, that reading does not quite apply, that is, it is not flatfooted, not a “reenactment,” not bookish, not historically accurate, none of that, not at all.
That said, it does offer the consideration that Snell, in exploring a river in this way, has moved beyond the classic expanded field (Kraus) of conceptual art, and, perhaps following the doctrine of that expansion, written by Suzanne Lacey (and addressed in one of the very first articles published by Art Files), in which the various ways in which art and life can interact and intersect are much, much more varied than New York or LA conceptualists originally imagined, and that these different lines of cross-over should be explored. Fine. I call all such life-engaging action or conceptual art which goes off in a different direction (while using the same conceptual model) to address new horizons “collateral conceptual art” in the sense that an artist has paused to consider a sector of life that was merely something on the side, collateral to the classic conceptualists. (For example, while several classic conceptualists worked with industrial space and structures (Tony Smith, Gordon Matta Clark, etc), all conceptual earth art, Mierle Laderman Ukeles set up a residency with the New York City sanitation department, and if you wanted to see her art you had to go to the Sanitation garage on the Hudson at 59th to see it, that would be collateral conceptual earth art).
In this conceptual context, the watercolors that Snell executed au plein air (20 drawings, all Snacks on the River) are simple, and not particularly distinguished. That is, lots of folks could do the same. But then when he took them back into the studio, released from the drama of managing currents, it is likely that each green and blue vista, monotonously alike, triggered memories of what was going through his mind at the time. And so some drawings host a single floating peanut, or, better, a single suspended goldfish cracker. Another view of the spread out river is resprinkled over with falling candy. Snell perhaps comments on the unreality of his adventure by having a real goldfish (i.e. a watercolor of a goldfish fish, not the cracker) float over a river scene as well, acknowledging that in some way his efforts are trapped inside a virtual gold fish bowl. All the drawings are swell, especially the ironic and comic add-ons to the norm of tourist drawing. In their sweetness too, they certainly evoke the fact that Snell was having a good time, even if he was thinking about snacking the whole time, Snell’s gentle superimpositions remind me of the forgot photorealist art of Don Eddy in the late 70s (and odd thought, I concede). Snell, in constructing these drawings from on site and studio elements, perhaps parodies the long tradition of gentlemanly tourists making drawings of places they’ve been. That Snell then also backs off making pretty washy landscapes of the Missouri and environs, but choses to record more mundane realities of the present, mostly related to consumerism, also is greatly welcomed in its deadpan knockdown of environmentalist piety, facing us up to the reality that, for us, at this point in history, we never can set foot down on pure nature, nature and us have mixed irrevocably into a grey area, and it is from that grey area, not from environmentalist idealism, that some solution to our current climate dilemma will come (though I make no claim Snell piled all that baggage on his modest drawings).
The video of Snacks on the River is a bit of sleight of hand. The video scenes were shot by Snell during his test run kayak trip. The Missouri below Nebraska City is revealed to be a full, glassy, smoothly gliding thing (though I did see its uglier side after floods in 2011). On its shores are a scattered house here, a dead there, random, isolated manufacture, nothing of great interest or imposing presence. The stretch of river recorded gives off the air of an unvisited universe, that Snell is, strangely, rediscovering, or, at least, rediscovering as seen from the river. Daunting Courage, I repeat, did not make this trip: but Daunting Courage is dreaming of getting out on the river and making the trip, and with it sitting pretty in the gallery, its epoxy shining, it is almost as if the video is the boat itself having a dream (like the space ship in Quatermass and the Pit(1967)). And in that dream that artist who mans it is wearing a parody of a trapper outfit circa 1820, red plaid and beard too. He is not the most energetic of explorers, half the time shown sleeping, or lounging around, or just letting the current taken him where he will (oh, yes, Daunting Courage doubts its master). This was all done by Snell in his studio getting into the Courage and posing and pantomiming an imagined voyage for it, before a green screen, this explorer tableaux then superimposed onto the real life video of the river. The result is a video which has a strange sort of phenomenology in space and time: it is “real,” but not really, the images really were collected by Snell, out on the real river, but Daunting Courage is a mirage, and, itself, remains a somewhat disgruntled voyage virgin. Snell has been quoted as saying, as to his hopes for his prized craft, “I wanted to get one good gallery show out of it, before I tried it out”, knowing full well that in the gap between art and life Daunting Courage may well be daunted and discouraged. There is also a nifty small-scale cardboard model of Daunting Courage in the show, juxtaposed, backed off the life-size model, as if it were nudging it’s life-size counterpart to actually get off the shelf of art and “go for it” someday. In any case, Snell was right about one thing, he certainly got “one good show” out of Daunting Courage.