Here's a 3:00 a.m. kind of thought. What if all the different facets of you--the slavish clod at work, the polite and attentive sexual mate, the doting and tolerant grandchild, the smart-mouthed late-night hockey buddy--become more pronounced in the afterlife? What if your soul--or whatever you care to call the thing--is a group of individual yous, attached each to the other like so many pre-op Iranian twins? And you have to spend eternity dragging all these people around everywhere you go? Weird thought, huh?
To be honest, I can't take full credit for it. I first came across the basic image in John Snyder's current exhibition, "The Circus of the Night," at the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis. The show comprises a number of prints and smallish paintings of faces and masks, as well as a few crude sculptures, but these are mainly appetizers before the main course of three massive and glorious oil paintings. In these, Snyder explores the various facets of himself as a conjoined crowd: a mountain man with an axe, a sailor with a trumpet, a clown, a monk, a saint. These soul-siblings mill about side by side in the midst of spaces crowded with other stuff--animals, musicians, the occasional historic figure and mystic.
For his part, Snyder is a bit phlegmatic when I ask about the crowded versions of himself that appear in his paintings. "Those figures just sort of reside in me," says the 47-year-old who lives in the mountains near Ashville, North Carolina (having moved from Minnesota in 1996) . "This is the multifaceted representation of myself, passing through the milieu."
As to that milieu: Snyder's painted spaces will be immediately compelling to most comers. His canvases are at once accessibly naïve and simple in their envisioning of characters and gestures; think of the figures of folk art, or of high German Expressionism more cleanly rendered. But the work is also very complex in color, composition, and source imagery. We can see this best in the title piece, a 26-foot-long, gold-framed triptych that fills an entire back wall of the gallery. Aside from an interest in depicting his crowded self (in this case coming out of a cave at the rear of the central panel), Snyder fills the painting with a circus of images: musicians, animals, an upside-down harlequin, skeletons, a pipe organ, curtains, mountains, and so on.
"I usually wait for a vision to occur, and I go with that," says Snyder of his method of coming up with imagery. "Sometimes it's specific, but other times it's more of a general vision. One of my favorite things to do is set up a blank canvas and sit in front of it, just looking at it. It's like watching a movie, in a sense. I just wait to see what appears on the screen."
There's more at work in the image than pure revelation, though. Snyder explains that the piece is based somewhat on the Spanish Chapel in Florence painted by Andrea di Firenza. At the same time, it also owes something, in its bright fresco-like colors of golden yellow, baby blue, and crimson red, to Max Beckmann's big, multi-paneled paintings. And then there are bits and pieces in this painting that also reference "The Allegory of War" by Henri Rousseau, "Tabula Rasa" by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, "Platero and I" by poet Juan Ramón Jimenez, and so on.
Snyder explains that he thinks of the whole image as a journey from life that begins at the left, passes through the central image of the Big Top, to the afterlife in the right-hand panel. "This is the great unknown," he says, sweeping his hand in front of the painting. "It's what's inside the self. To me it's all a big mystery."
Good thing he has all those versions of himself to keep him company as he traverses the great unknown.