Just Follow the Clues

by Paul McGillick, Financial Review, 20 May 1988
Three weeks ago Michael Snape threw a party for his friends at darling Harbour to celebrate the installation of his new sculpture, The Diver, almost underneath the expressway and at the southern end of the bay.

If you were to ask someone to give this sculpture a name, they'd probably call it The Diver. Its falling figure is very recognisable.

But Snape made a second sculpture for Darling Harbour so that the selection panel would have a choice. The other piece, now owned by Transfield who donated the materials, expertise and the use of its engineering works – was ultimately rejected in favour of The Diver.

And it couldn’t be more different. Entirely abstract, it is a dynamic interplay of steel planes forming a kind of vortex. It is as unpromising in its seriousness as The Diver is playful. Where the decorative embellishments and overt references of fun by the water make The Diver a whimsical reference to its own context, the Transfield piece is almost arrogant in its asserting its independence from any context.

Just two weeks after the party at Darling Harbour, Snape was down at The Rocks. This time he was cutting into lengths of Australian hardwood with a power saw. He was preparing a sculptural environment to welcome visitors to the new Crafts Council exhibition of contemporary Australian furniture design.

The installation could almost be mistaken for some primitive scaffolding and its dark tones tend to give it an anonymity against the dark tones of the building and shadowy passageway leading down to the gallery entrance.

But like the man himself, Snape's work doesn’t advertise itself. It is the kind of thing you could almost walk past before stopping to take another look. In this case, both the structure and the multifarious markings in the wood begin to reveal themselves as a set of primeval clues in a children’s hunt for hidden treasure. Follow the clues and you end up in the exhibition where the furniture is made from the same woods as those from which Snape has fashioned the clues.

This diversity of work is typical of Michael Snape. The apparently rapidly changing character of the work makes it seem hard to keep track of a professional career going back to 1972. Some peole have said too hard. They see Snape as shallow and too ready to slide whimsically from one style to another.

I don’t. I see an intriguing consistency to his work. There are threads linking The Diver right back to his early steel works reminiscent of Anthony Caro. The same humour, the same preoccupation with clashing forms and the same sensitivity to the potential of his materials link the early work with the most recent.

Take materials for example. Snape doesn't make maquettes – small models to be followed by hired fabricators. Instead he works directly with his materials, making his own sculptures, regardless of size. In this way each work has his personal touch. A twist in the steel, a nick or piece of modelling is the product of hands on finishing, not of mechanical reproduction.

In all his work there is the same instinct for doing what all sculptors are meant to do – transform inert materials into formal constructions so dynamic that they appear likely at any minute to take off, run away or spin off into space. A Michael Snape sculpture is always toey. It seems to contain so much energy and seems always ready to spin off in several directions at once. And just as a toey person always looks a little comic – think of Jacques Tati – so Snape's sculptures invariably have charm and humour.

No, I don't think Michael Snape’s work is trivial. I think it's at the cutting edge of modern sculpture. Why?

There are some issues in the visual arts, which never seem to be resolved. The argument between abstraction and representation is one.

The problem is this; representing the world exactly the way we see it (given that it is problematic whether any two people see the world in the same way) is not very interesting because it doesn't provide us with a fresh aesthetic experience. On the other hand pure abstraction runs the risk of becoming mere decoration because of its formalised arrangements of colour line and mass are too far removed from the reality of our everyday lives.

The theory of abstraction is fine, that the images art uses have nothing to do with its aesthetic value – it's just that the practice is so hard.

The most interesting art seems to occupy the territory between the two. What it's doing is simultaneously speaking to us in a language that we know and introducing us to a new visual language.

As a sculptor Snape is trying to show us how objects occupy space. We know that objects are three-dimensional but objects often appear two-dimensional. Hence his Transfield sculpture is assertively three-dimensional, while The Diver presents itself like a drawing in space.

It is a decorative calligraphic image framed by the arabesques and seemingly etched out against the background of the harbour.

It seems very frontal. But get up close and it has the palpability of the steel slab that it is. And it is not flat, but twisted into three dimensions.

The Diver then, is typical of Snape's work – especially in its accessibility, because one of Snape's strengths is the ability to communicate with a broad public without compromising the essential seriousness of his work.

Darling Harbour would seem an Israel testing ground for his proposition.