Potential Energy: Susan Snipes at Studio 215
In the old Looney Tunes Road Runner cartoons, there’s a recurring idea of suspense: that some dramatic action is about to happen, often involving gravity, but sometimes due to some other form of tension retained. We know from experience that something is probably going to go wrong for the Coyote. He has balanced a gigantic boulder precariously, high up on a cliff. Or flexed a catapult as far as it will flex, and is holding it in place with a slipknot. Or he has suspended an anvil from a struggling balloon. In elementary science class, we learned the cause of that suspense is called “potential energy.” That term—which most of us probably have not heard since—is the title of a new exhibit of mixed-media works by Susan Snipes, on view in Studio 215 at 78th Street Studios.
In about two dozen works in acrylic, graphite, pastel powder, and occasionally wax crayon, mostly on panel, the artist explores that kind of tension with an emphasis on the potential. She uses drawing techniques, including blind drawing, but also incorporates gravity as a force, as seen in drips of paint. They are not abstractions, but like close cropped photos, the focus on form gives them an abstract quality. Indeed, they focus on the tension itself. If the image is a landscape, there are not other details to create context beyond the possibility of whatever may happen.
The Road Runner cartoons milk potential energy for slapstick laughs. The Coyote never leaves viewers or the Road Runner hanging. We always see the outcome. Even holding aside the fact that the outcome is always bad for the Coyote, the inevitability of resolution is key to the storytelling. But these paintings are not cartoons, and Snipes prefers to leave you with the potential: Something could, and indeed is likely to happen in these captured moments, and the fact that they are captured in paint holds those moments still forever. Something always and forever might happen. There’s always potential.
In some of these that dynamic is simply that—the illustration of the fact that change is going to come. If a rock might fall from a precipice (as in Perched Before Flight) or go rolling down the hill (as in Next Turn, or Equilibrium), or simply flop down to the next level (which seems likely in Poised), that possibility is all we see. There is no indication that any houses or fast-running birds are in the way. It’s not about impending doom, or even escape from it.
In some, the potential for change seems much larger. That’s the case in Proplyd as Embryo, and Proplyd in Stellar Wind, for example. A proplyd, as the artist notes in didactic materials, is a “disk made of gas and dust that swirls around a young star. Proplyds have the potential to turn into one or more planets.” Snipes studied images of the Orion Nebula, taken by the Hubble telescope, and mixed these visions with her own, and with chance: as she says in a didactic, the proplyd near the center of Proplyd in Stellar Wind was created as chance and gravity intervened while she was laying down a thick coat of gesso. And of course the title comparing the pre-planetary conglomeration of dust and wind to an embryo is a full embrace of optimism. Talk about infinite potential.
Or, back down to earth, the work Pocketful of Seeds is perhaps the most implicitly hopeful of these scenes. It’s a look underground, like a cross section of earth seen through a pane of glass. The seeds don’t seem to be from specific plants. As she notes they were created by blind contour drawing—moving the pencil or marker without looking at where it touched the surface. But if the idea is to represent potential rather than to create botanical reference, that’s entirely unnecessary. Snipes compares the seeds to a child’s pocketful of treasures, “a collection of potential future growth.”
A number of works from this collection have been sold, and it is no wonder: They’re beautifully made, and they combine a conceptual idea grounded in optimism with an earthy color palette. The show is up through the Third Friday in September, so you have a few more weeks to check them out.
Susan Snipes: Potential Energy is on view July 16 through September 17, 2021 in Studio 215 at 78th Street Studios.