Magical realism is the watchword of the Whitney Snow solo retrospective on display at the Scarab Club – the first since the painter’s passing in 2006. Snow certainly captured the spirit of magic realism, wherein surreal or “magical” elements are introduced to otherwise everyday scenarios. Likewise, his large-format paintings contain many cultural and art-historical allusions, as well as a symbol set designed for sly, if somewhat abstracted, political commentary – another imperative of magic realism as a device is its use in holding a somewhat whimsical or disruptive mirror to society or culture. In these respects – and in terms of realizing technically well-rendered tableaus – Snow’s work is very successful.
But there is a creeping sense of vagueness that makes it hard to digest these images, on some level. Snow’s scenarios are, at times, amusing, but their magical elements leave them steeped in a kind of cartoonishness that makes it a challenge to take them very seriously. There is a fable-like quality to their narratives – again, much in alignment with the history of magic realism – but these protagonists engaged in foolish or nonsensical pursuits seem largely unmoved by their surrounding circumstances. One might expect a glimmer of consternation from the subject of Technology on my Back, who is being ridden like a backpack by a green demon of gambling and internet addiction, but there is barely a frown. One might anticipate high drama from the subjects of Living on the Ledge, a couple standing at the window addressing a third person poised to jump off a high ledge – the man on the ledge seems utterly indifferent, and the one at the window seems, at most, peeved. The de facto expression for Snow’s subjects is a deadpan. The experience of viewing his paintings is much like hearing about a crazy dream someone had last night – doubtlessly, each element is all terribly meaningful…but it lacks a kind of visceral immediacy to engage the viewer. This is particularly surprising, in light of Snow’s rather virtuosic ability to visualize his dreams.