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Dash Snow: sex, semen and secrets

The hedonistic New York artist, who died aged 27, brings a touch of urban filth to Greenwich, Connecticut

George Pendle | November 20th 2015

As you walk across the manicured lawns, past the private polo field and up the steps of the pristine stone barn at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, Connecticut, you might expect to be met by art that was similarly neat and luxurious: a shiny Jeff Koons puppy or a geometric constellation by Ellsworth Kelly. Instead, one of the first things to greet you is a poster declaring, “God spoiled a perfect asshole when he gave your mouth teeth”. Gulp.

This poster is the work of the artist Dash Snow, and it’s just one of a number of insults in a foul but fond show that is filled with sneers, provocations and lovingly arranged urban filth. Snow died of a drug overdose in 2009 at the age of 27. Up until then he had been part of a hedonistic group of downtown New York artists, including the photographer Ryan McGinley and the painter Dan Colen, who were loved and loathed in equal measure. Snow in particular was legendary for his debauched excesses. Yet the focus on his biography often made people overlook his creations. This exhibition, the most complete since his death, reveals an artist whose work was richer and more skilful than his live-fast-die-young legend would suggest.

Snow was defiantly not a studio artist. He made sculptures and collages from found items and the debris in his apartment. His favourite materials were the New York tabloids, from which he cut salacious headlines and created works that are part haiku, part ransom note and part bathroom graffiti. “White People Are Going to Burn” (2006) spells out its title in thick, feverish newsprint, but interspersed with these words, in tiny letters, is the proclamation, “God is a 6000 foot tall red jellybean”. Snow liked to undercut the hysterical with the absurd, the hostile with the humorous. Indeed the very art of collage served both a paranoiac and a rejuvenating purpose. He could pluck out the worst examples of police behaviour or media flame-fanning, highlight them front and centre, and then with a wily one-liner and his cut-and-paste skill turn them into doltish pronouncements.

“Fuck the Police” (2005-2007), featuring Snow’s “prodigious use of ejaculate”

And then there was the semen. Much of Snow’s infamy was caused by his “prodigious use of ejaculate”, as the exhibition copy neatly puts it. You can see it in the monumentally goading “Fuck the Police” (2005-2007), in which 45 press clippings describing police brutality and corruption are mounted, framed and covered in the artist’s semen. To some this might seem beyond puerile, but to Snow it was mark-making pure and simple. He started as a graffiti writer in New York in the late 1990s, a subculture in which putting your mark on a street corner or storefront is everything. Here he was doing it again, “putting his mark” on the media he so distrusted, reclaiming these stories of police overreach as his own.

One of Snow’s Polaroids, which document his private world in New York

Working alone and at great speed, it often seemed there was nothing to mediate his gut reactions. If that makes the message seem simple – screw the police, the media, the man – it also makes it surprisingly effective. Few artists lay themselves bare quite so dramatically, at least not without a scrim of irony to hide behind. Snow’s art was dramatically unironic, hence his underground popularity as a figure of authenticity. Yet there is something else taking place here alongside simple rebellion. A nostalgic impulse lingers in the background. This may be surprising to find in an artist who was so young, but as Will Self once wrote, the young are the most nostalgic age group: “they have so little by way of personal history that they polish it up and make it shine like a treasured heirloom.”

Snow’s work, with its ageing brown newsprint and thrice-used objects, takes the items of his life and burnishes them into talismans of almost religious import. His Polaroids – a large selection of which are shown here (“Untitled (Polaroid #17)”, 2005, top) – capture the precious world he inhabited in post-9/11 New York. It is a hermetic little world of grotty parties, dank street scenes, graffiti and sex, but for him it is a comforting one. Snow – who refused to use computers or cell phones – saw his Polaroids as personal keepsakes. As much as his artwork is instantaneous it’s also intended to preserve time as if in a bottle.

“Secret Conception” (2006-2007), among the most powerful and personal works in the show

This is most poignantly seen in two of his sculptures. In “Secret Conception” (2006-2007) crumpled sheets, a studded glove, dead flowers and human hair are heaped on top of one another. This detritus has been positioned under a bell jar as if it was a Victorian collection of natural curiosities. It may appear to be junk, but it is junk that has been elevated into tokens of remembrance, a lovingly rendered picture of time and place, made all the more powerful when you learn that Secret is the name of Snow’s daughter. And then there is the sculpture “Book Fort” (2006-7), a tent surrounded by over a thousand books on conspiracies, murder and the supernatural. It’s a depiction of the artist hiding from the world, but also engaging with it in the only way he knows how: through its extremities.

Dash Snow: Freeze Means Run The Brant Foundation Art Study Center , Greenwich, Connecticut, until March 2016

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