Michael Snape's Invitation is Bound to Raise Hackles

by Terence Maloon, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 March 1983

Real Sculpture announced the invitation to Michael Snape's exhibition at Gallery A. The claim seems innocuous enough but it will raise hackles in "Sydney" sculptor's camps.

Sculptors tend to be the most sectarian individuals in today's art world. They are still deadlocked in an argument with each other as to which kind of modern sculpture is more legitimate, more 'real' than the others.

Michael Snape's work does not settle comfortably into any of the set categories of contemporary sculpture. The fact that he refuses to specialise in any one idiom, causes him to be dismissed as unserious, uncommitted and eclectic by purists. In the past his exhibitions have seen some of the worst drubbings ever to see print in Australia – apparently because critics were confused by his inconsistency, and could not understand how one work could relate to another. The fact that many of his sculptures are humorous did not help matters.

There are at least three distinct kinds of sculpture at Gallery A, and in the supplementary exhibition of Snape's work in the rear courtyard of The Australian Centre for Photography, but personally I am delighted he is not a specialist, as I find plenty of merit and interest throughout his wide ranging output.

Two abstract works, Gothic Sculpture at Gallery A and Magic Place at the ACP are unquestionably serious sculptures of great formal beauty. The former is a stark arrangement of vertical steel beams which actually suggest Manhattan high-rises at night rather than Gothic arches in gloom, but it is as visually imposing as both comparisons would suggest.

Magic place is an arrangement of curved steel pipes as exuberant and sparkling in effect as a baroque fountain. It would be hard to fault the way its rhythms are handled, the way they stop and start, interweave and surrender and go on to culminate in a top knot of steel pipes, terminating in a pair of triumphant horns.

These works not only represent ingenious solutions to complex formal problems, but like some of the best abstact sculptures of the past, they are allusive, poetic objects. Snape is fascinated by the suggestiveness of particular forms, and this is an important consideration in the way he concieves his work.

He also practises a less oblique and rarified kind of poetry, consisting of puns, paradoxes and and brief apercus. These are the basis of another kind of sculpture which is so simple and cartoonlike that it tends to be dismissed out of hand as flippant.

KB Pencil at Gallery A consists of steel rod welded together into a huge floor bound drawing of a hand. Between thethumb and forefinger rises a red obelisk, glazed in red vitreous enamel, with a gold leafed KB printed on one side – a monumental pencil. Black lightning bolts erupt from its pinnacle. These three dimensional pencil lines and the abstracted diagramic hand reverse the usual order of things, or rather, they invert the orde of things for everyone except the artists. An artist preoccupied with a drawing will experience pencil marks as more real than anything else, more real even, than his own hand.

KB pencil is based on a slight idea, but the form is too elaborate and uneconomically realised to suit a quip. The gag falls flat.

Snape's wit is much more incisive in his works where he makes slight modifications to found objects. Strategic additions and subtractions to the object cause us to see it in a radically different light. For example, a triangular apex attached to a hack saw turns it into a graphic sign for a yacht. (Snape's mother was a graphic designer, and it is possibly due to her influence that some of his work looks like logos and that some of his new sculptures speculate on the possibility of typographical design in three dimensions).

Another steel object that he has transformed is an old steel ladder. He attached some steel cusps to some of the steel rungs, enhancing the beauty of the ladder by subverting the monotony of its intervals. The cusps also suggest the toe caps of workmen’s boots going up one side and down the other.

These simple additions sometimes have a magical effect. I remember a charred tree trunk Snape exhibited at Art, Empire and Industry last year, which, with the addition of a few broken white lines became a panoramic view of a curving highway at night.

If the interest these works arouse were only momentary, I could understand other people's critisism of them, but I find I’m still enthrallled by the tree trunk and the ladder, and amazed at the power of Snape's tampering with them.

Because Snape has the wisdom to accept that art can be very simple, (in form if not effect), he can bring off a sculpture based on a motif as slight as his small daughter’s footprints on the stairs up to the front door. You have to see the sculpture yourself in order to appreciate the magnitude of his achievement.

Michael Snape may still not convince everyone that all his work is truly Real Sculpture. But I for one, won't be contesting the claim.