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Creativity turned inside out

Dean Snyder's sculptural reinventions at Cade Tompkins
By GREG COOK  |  May 14, 2014

There’s a sneaky, sinister intelligence behind the seductive gorgeousness of Dean Snyder’s recent sculptures of pitcher-plant-like blooms and alien pods and oozing swamps. At the Providence artist’s dazzling show at Cade Tompkins Projects (198 Hope St, Providence, through June 20), you can feel that if you turn your back, they’ll slither your way like a glue trap with a hungry brain or sneak their tendrils around your ankles so that you can’t escape.

The 61-year-old grew up in rural Pennsylvania — where his father was a large animal vet — and Indianapolis. Snyder describes his entry into art via an album he found: “I picked up this Velvet Underground record and I was like, ‘Wow, it’s got this really interesting sticker thing on the cover.’ This banana. By Andy Warhol.”

He worked summers on the installation crew at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, then pursued studies at the Kansas City Art Institute (pause for a few years working in a Kansas City industrial iron foundry), Lanchester Polytechnic in England, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Snyder has made paintings, prints, and photos, but is partial to shaping objects. “Sculpture is more like rock and roll or punk rock because it’s always trying to reinvent itself in other ways,” he says. “Sculpture, it does weird things. It will turn in on itself and then turn inside out.”

After molding and casting metal in the Kansas City factory and in school in Chicago, the wood forms used in these processes became the inspiration for the sculptures themselves. His wooden pieces became plant-like pods or seeds sprouting from boxes. You can sense a stylistic kinship with the sculpture of his close friend Martin Puryear, whom he met when installing the sculptor’s art while working as a freelance art preparator at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. He subsequently helped in Puryear’s studio.

Snyder went on to teach art in Chicago, Kansas City (where he met his artist wife Jane Masters), Berkeley, California, and Bennington, Vermont, before moving here in 2000 to teach at RISD, where he’s now the head of the sculpture department. He works out of a studio in an old Pawtucket Avenue mill in Pawtucket.

While living in California, he began making sculptures out of rawhide, getting the animal skins wet so that they would become pliable, so he could inflate them. He tattooed some with drawings of tubes that looked like vines or intestines. The sculptures resembled big tires or flaccid dog bones or mushrooms or big pillows or a cross between bagpipes and a head.

“It’s almost slouching down and deflating at the same time. It looks a little like a flat tire, but it has this human gesture,” he says of one doughnut-shaped rawhide sculpture. “Something that the material did had this kind of pathetic and noble gesture at the same time.”

In Providence, he began making foam, epoxy resin, and fiberglass boulders and plant-like things. At Cade Tompkins, Flavia has pitcher-plant trumpets that curl out from a purple and red pod lying on the floor. MiddleWay is a flat, machine-cut stainless steel spider web spanning one doorway. NeverMind has bright blue and green pitcher plant tendrils stretching into the air from glistening violet forms that recall stomachs or bellows or testicles. The stalks curl around themselves like strangling vines.

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