Amanda Snyder at the Portland Art Museum: Quietly Northwest

Amanda Snyder, “The Monuments” (1965)/Portland Art Museum

By Graham W. Bell

This may be the first time that the location of the basement gallery in the Portland Art Museum has had a strong connection to the practice of the artist being exhibited. The demure Amanda Tester Snyder retrospective going on now (through October 7th) feels right at home in the subterranean, many (if not all) of the works having been made in the late artist’s own basement studio.

Quiet but deceptively complex, the show traverses Snyder’s career from the the 1930s until her death in 1980. Working during a time of great upheaval and innovation in the art world, the paintings nonetheless draw upon earlier eras, first Impressionism and then into Post-Impressionism and Expressionism, the work of an artist who both studied her predecessors and was aware of her contemporaries.

Accompanied by a small publication, Amanda Snyder: Portland Modernist focuses on what curator Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson terms the artist’s “unforced naïveté” [page 39] and a preoccupation with Snyder’s “narrow, domestic world” [wall text]. This personality emerges from  the variety of styles, subjects and media. There are no grand gestures of earth-shattering avant-gardism, but playful studies in movement, collage and abstraction.

While many Modernists’ works were increasing in dimension, Snyder preferred to experiment on a small scale. Pieces like Totem (n.d., oil on plywood) are reminiscent of the almost calligraphic marks of Mark Tobey, say, whereas No. 24 (Action) (c. 1957, oil on board) has the energy of a Pollock and the subtlety of a Rothko without any of the machismo. And indeed, as it is noted in the catalog, near-pure abstraction is only a small part of Snyder’s significant output.

Amanda Snyder/Oregon HIstorical Society Research Library

Her predilection for Northwest subjects like birds (including a pet seagull named Mike, featured in a rather humourous woodcut) and a later interest in clowns, dolls and masks, speaks to the more reclusive aspects of the artist’s existence and practice. Nonetheless, an affinity and understanding of works by Cezanne and her contemporary and friend Charles Heaney led to pieces like West Hills (1960, oil on board), Al’s House (1951, oil on masonite), and Commercial(n.d., oil on board). The proto-Cubist rendering of the houses and land speak to Snyder’s ongoing development as a serious and careful painter that made her a stand out in the Portland art scene (with no fewer than 32 solo exhibitions).[page 13]

Mentioned briefly in the publication and visible within her work is an affinity for feathered friends that forms a connection here to the mystic Northwest painter Morris Graves and others in this region who have used the anthropomorphic bird as a way to depict people and spirits. Snyder works like The Monuments (c. 1965) exhibit the mysteriously linear qualities of Graves’ earlier pieces like Little Spirit Bird (1953) and at the same time allude to later works by Northwest painter Rick Bartow.

Producing hundreds of drawings and paintings of birds, Snyder did not just work on that subject because it was a passing interest. It is also not fair to label her as a bird artist (as noted by Laing-Malcolmson) [page 37]. Rather birds (and wildlife and nature) are a subject of the area that are as much a part of a truly honed Northwest painter as the subtle variations in gray and blue that translate from sky to palette.

The exhibition, taken as a whole, is a great way to see the progression of Snyder’s work and her obvious influences. The way the oil clumps and smears on the ubiquitous masonite mixes with her soft, Northwest palette, creating paintings that exhibit a deep knowledge of late 19th and early 20th century artists while still holding up as non-derivative and personal. I can’t help but feel that showing these works in an upper gallery would have made them feel less small and secondary. Spatial considerations aside however, you will leave with another worthwhile entry in your Northwest School bibliography.

Cited Works:

Laing-Malcolmson, Bonnie. Amanda Snyder: Portland Modernist. Portland, OR: Portland Art Museum, 2012.

Organized by the Portland Art Museum and curated by Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson, The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Northwest Art. Funded in part by a bequest of Eugene E. Snyder and the Exhibition Series Sponsors.

June 30 – October 7, 2012

Portland Art Museum
1219 SW Park Avenue
Portland, OR 97205

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