Titan Reformed: Hills Snyder
Kate Green As part of an over-before-it-started book group, we both read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon’s fictionalized and fantastical account of the political birth of comic books in WW II America. It was interesting to me that you were one of the few to actually finish it, even when the discussion was cancelled. I see some connections between how the book approaches the idea of comics and how your work delves into pop culture and myths—particularly on the issues of symbolism, literature, storytelling, America and humor. What are your thoughts on the book and potential relationships between it and your work?
Hills Snyder Good timing on the question, as I was just sitting on a chair in the rain on Saturday reading Chabon’s first book, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. My reading was kept dry by an umbrella as was Meg [Langhorne], who was crouched drawing cracks on the sidewalk. The actual cracks, which she was extending with black chalk, filled with water as her drawn cracks washed away. The chapter I was reading was titled “Some People Really Know How To Have A Good Time.” It was about as close to a perfect Saturday morning as you can get—that is, unless you’re ten years old, it’s 1960 and Tarzan, with all its attendant horrors, is on one of two available television channels at six AM. And you’re alive enough to know that a Saturday that starts that early is as promising an opportunity as you are likely to see at that age. So, child that I still am, I guess, you could say I like the book.
Of course, Superman comics and those wonderful 1940s Warner Bros. cartoons are the models for Chabon’s character The Escapist, and it was in my readings of Superman that I first came across the word invulnerable. I think this was key, as vulnerability has been at the core of my concern for a very long time—how to strip back to it, keep it alive, not armor your self into an early withdrawal from life, how this is a job for the artist. Also, I recently acquired a phone booth.
So, yes, I will cop to being a storyteller, a humorist, a resolutely American artist, but this word symbolism in regard to my work has always bothered me. It seems off, like a slur—a blurring of categories as you might encounter with someone who uses words like fantastic, surreal and uncanny as if they all meant the same thing. As for the reference to pop culture, my favorite comment on this subject came from my friend Catherine Walworth, who says I’m into “unpop(ular) culture.” As a related aside, generic/obscure is a word pairing I’ve been thinking of for a long time.
KG What do you mean by the statement that the job of an artist is to “strip back to vulnerability?” How do you think that plays out in your work? Examples?
HS Well, first of all, I used that phrasing to get to the oft-repeated phrase, “this is a job for Superman,” in order to stay with the Kavalier & Clay stuff and to point out that art is a heroic activity regardless of what the favored position in the art world is on this subject. As for stripping back, I guess I mean that if it’s just a cover-up, a façade, a career, what’s the point? If that’s where you’re coming from, maybe your art is just a tremendous facility. Maybe it’s your worst enemy. Why do it at all if it’s not a tool to get at something? Son of Samson was all about this. You might recall that the barber’s cape I wore as my hair was shorn then became the cape of a superhero as I was walked blindfolded through the Blue Star Complex, and that it bore the words “titan reformed.” This suggests that heroic activity is not rare but necessary every day in order to live, to stay in love, to rediscover what matters. Not that I know how or anything like that.
KG I want to go back to your related aside. I think it is key, and you touched upon it again when suggesting that heroic activities are not rare but necessary every day. What is it about generic/obscure that has been hounding you? Are you trying to make the generic into the obscure, or transform the familiar into something seen for the first time, something wondrous again?
HS Well, it hasn’t been hounding me; rather, I’ve been savoring it. Maybe it’s about how we think of the generic as being commonplace—a thing that is indistinguishable from its copy. Like a bottle of Prell is generic, and its obscure converse would then be homebrewed shampoo. But what fascinates me about this is the inherent contradiction in viewing something generic as indistinguishable from its counterparts and therefore obscure. So it’s as if the generic produces obscurity, and yet we tend to think of these things as opposites. As for wondrous, which is more so: to say “I’m Spartacus” or to be Spartacus?
KG When I first moved to Texas a bit over a year ago, I became familiar with you through your objects. The slightly menacing Plexiglas smiley faces, etc. Unfamiliar with the idea of you as an installation artist, I was surprised by your Son of Samson project at Cactus Bra Space in San Antonio because I hadn’t thought of your work in such an all-encompassing way. In retrospect I realize that even in object-oriented situations, you’re constructing much larger narratives. The objects are dislocated when separated from that larger narrative. What do you think about the tension between your objects and the stories they fit into? Is that a tension for you? In that vein, is it strange for you to see your objects by themselves, such as in a museum or collector’s home?
HS Thanks for pointing that out, the “all-encompassing” bit. The narratives are really wider than anyone has realized yet, though I’ve been around a few people who’ve suddenly stumbled onto this aspect of what I’m up to and it’s one of the most fun things for me to witness this particular process of discovery. I suppose it is a bit jarring to see the components removed from their context, but the world we live in is full of such dislocations. But then, I’m disturbed by the notion of someone leaving the room for five minutes during a movie. If that is your way, why not just rip a few pages out of a book as you read? You’ll get done sooner and we all know what a big plus it is to get things over with.
Space is part of it, too. It’s not just the dispersal of the components into separate lives as objects—the installation of work is integral and subsequently that goes away. But this points to the difference between a record and a live performance. On one hand, with a record you have convenience, access, portability—all things I value, as I listen to music a good part of every day. But the sheer sacramental nature of a Patti Smith performance is something you have to be with live, and watching Richard Thompson’s drummer can only be done if you’re in the room. So I guess these situations are somewhat analogous to the collector who has the repeatable pleasure of living with your work. Maybe they enjoy it the most if they got into the original context of it deeply. And if the piece is cleverly installed, it can transform that room, too.
KG Your proposed Artpace project incorporates highly realized objects in a very performative, highly structured and controlled space, where the viewer will encounter several dramatic moments signified through key objects as she makes her way through a maze. This seems like a heightened combination of these two strains of your work. Do you think so?
HS I think so. But I wouldn’t say I’m working with just two strains. I prefer the model of the wagon wheel in which the rim is where you are and the hub is where you’re going. As you move along the rim you might access the hub from any number of spokes. Imagine that—a wheel with 360 spokes…but above all the project will reward those who surrender to it. If you can’t turn off the comparative mind, you won’t be able to be there when you’re in its midst. But controlled? I’m not so sure. Maybe at first, as you enter. Hopefully it will work like an eighteen wheeler full of goats that gets wrecked on the highway loosing all the animals live and intact to hop off on their own and munch down on whatever they like. Miraculous. Or maybe miracles are too much to ask. Here is a word of advice to myself: whenever art lets you down, just lie on the ground and look at clouds for a long time. You’ll realize the problem was in your expectations.
KG Do you have particular cultural or other references that you carry with you all the time—key figures or moments? Does this change for you per project?
HS Meg Langhorne, Utah Snyder, Max Snyder, Dick Snyder, David Halley, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Jessica Lange, Jorge Luis Borges, Alfred Hitchcock, Paul Virilio, Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Annie Dillard, Trevor Winkfield, R.G. Vliet, PJ Harvey, Jim Thompson, Burt Bacharach, Bruno Schulz, René Girard, Michel Tournier, Betty Buckley, Robert Bresson, Karen Carpenter...just to name a few. As for moments, none of cultural scope comes to mind, so whatever these are I’m sure they are personal ones, like seeing sunlight on the gate latch in New Mexico when I was seven. My awareness of these as referents probably comes and goes, though the gate latch and Bob Dylan are pretty prominent. Basically, I like to pretend I’m an Old Testament prophet like Ezekiel or somebody—very on it, not taken in by the affectations and trends of the collective, preferably with a good robe and something choice to point at.