There exists in Detroit a hidden world known only to its residents and the most curious wanderers. It’s a wild land, overgrown with brush and tall grass and wildflowers, with makeshift graveyards here and there for all sorts of refuse — toys, old cars, furniture, rusted industrial parts, objects discarded like so many houses on so many city blocks.
In the vast expanse of lots-turned-fields, crickets and birds chirp, pheasants and black squirrels rustle about, and houses stand like ancient relatives of a city that was, structures begotten and determined to stand until they can no longer. These spaces, moments, can be tranquil, rural even, with the occasional sound of police sirens or the sight of a factory stack as reminders of their urban location.
Hamtramck painter Clinton Snider has immersed himself in this sometimes-magical landscape of Detroit. His exhibit of 26 oil and latex paintings at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery in Ferndale is an impressive showing for an artist who, at 34, is already a skilled craftsman with an unusual subject matter — the countrified side of today’s Detroit, painted in a slightly abstracted, expressionistic style: impossible teal skies, dark forest green trees, perfectly mauve houses and peach sidewalks.
Snider paints Detroit with an optimistic, tender hue — a noticeable break from a historic Detroit aesthetic defined by artists’ gritty portrayals of their blighted surroundings. Yet his work isn’t overly beautified; the paintings of sparsely populated expanses carry the unsettling feeling of abandonment, an off-color pall.
In “Yellow House,” an abandoned Victorian is painted on wooden boards of varying lengths nailed together. The house appears to regard the painter, or the spectator, with a raised eyebrow, in haunted trepidation.
Concerned with matters of formalism — especially light and shadow, composition and color — Snider paints his vision of a place in a certain tint of the sky and an exact moment of sunlight; the sun’s warm presence in his work can transform an urban landscape into a dreamlike wonderland, or a sickly winter sky can put a dreary feeling on a home surrounded with snow.
In “Hastings,” for instance, Snider paints a rooftop filled with debris. Bushes sit among the trash, sparkling with sunlight.
Using reams of photographs along with his memory and imagination, Snider’s works are studies of boarded houses, trees, homes, yards and fields, often with a 180-degree panoramic perspective that makes objects appear as if seen through a fish-eye lens. The slanted point of view can have the effect of sucking the spectator into the painting; Snider’s clever use of line brings the viewer to the edge of the landscape as if ready to step into it.
Like many Detroit artists before him, Snider scavenges from his surroundings for materials and incorporates Detroit’s rawness into his aesthetic. His landscapes are painted onto many pieces of odd-sized recycled wood nailed together and sometimes these wood planks are nailed to sections of discarded crates.
He’s a painter’s painter, adept in the placement and layering of paint. His brushstrokes are visible, sometimes scratched or smudged, purposefully physical. Layers of colors imperceptible in the final hue can be seen peeping out along canvas edges and dripping down the sides — another point of interest in his work as the paintings often stand out from the wall because of the crates they are nailed to.
Snider says he enjoys the fact that materials considered garbage to some are hanging in a gallery as art, and that his paintings are constructions made with materials that could be used to make the homes they depict.
The unusual cityscapes are almost entirely devoid of people (humans appear in only two very small works). Their absence is loud. The spectator can’t help but wonder, in viewing a lovely wooden house with flowers and Snider’s recurring sidewalks, where are the people?
“In a lot of places there really aren’t people. There just aren’t. That’s a fact,” says Snider of the vistas. “I want to talk about people in a sense. I want there to be a human presence somehow. So even with the abandoned buildings I’m reflecting on, I’m imagining who lived there and what took place there and what was the last day someone lived there.”
In humanity’s stead, Snider imbues scenes — inanimate objects and nature alike — with character, personality. Houses leer or smile, even breathe. Trees appear like disembodied crucifixes, crying with loneliness in the middle of a field. He’s got a preoccupation with the 3-D, as many of his works seem to yaw and tilt at impossible angles; some of his house paintings bulge in the middle to exaggerate the effect.
In “Country in the City,” a thick, tall lawn explodes up and out from the painting’s front and center. The grass is bright green, dappled with flowers and hints of sunshine. In the center of the ascending lawn sits a blue house, all alone, lovely.
His paintings are metaphors for Detroit. To the casual viewer, the city is devoid of people, he says. But to those who look, life is bustling under a cloak of mystery and, sometimes, invisibility.
“People think of it as empty, but there’s always been something going on in Detroit. It’s not visible to any outsider, but it’s always here.”
Snider debuted in Detroit in a major way in 2000 when the Detroit Institute of Arts displayed his installation, created along with artist Scott Hawking, of items found in abandoned city buildings and factories. The towering piece, called “Relics,” filled a room with crates displaying toys, signs, household items, garage and industrial tools, stuffed animals, and an amazing number of things once used. The piece was a knockout.
As a kid growing up in Grosse Pointe, Snider says he became fascinated with the idea of exploring construction sites and forbidden areas of buildings, like boiler rooms, to get that feeling “like you found something, like you are uncovering ruins or some lost thing.”
As a College for Creative Studies student, Snider discovered Detroit as an artistic playground, an archeological and psychological gold mine.
Following “Relics,” Tangent exhibited Snider in a solo show, and he’s been in several group shows. But to be shown at the Hilberry is significant. The Ferndale gallery is a blue-chip exhibition space that normally shows more established and older artists. The local art community turned out in droves for Snider’s opening, and as of last week, 10 of his 26 paintings sold for prices ranging from $600 for postcard-sized paintings to $7,500 for larger works.
Snider says his view of the city has changed with time. When he started painting landscapes as a CCS student, he was more pessimistic, almost preachy, he says.
“Anyone can come into the city and get depressed by it,” he says.
A decade later he sees a more complex place, a place that enchants as it offers an element of danger and sadness.
“What I tried to represent is both things. To represent the decay and the fading memories and the loss of everything, and yet there’s an optimism too, that comes from the people. The people you meet. When you go in the corner store, people are upbeat and funny. Anyone who lives in the city experiences this.”
Snider’s show will be on exhibit until June 5. The Susanne Hilberry Gallery is located at 700 Livernois, Ferndale, south of Nine Mile, and is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call 248-541-4700 or visit www.susannehilberrygallery.com.Lisa M. Collins is the arts editor for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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