The ruin has had a prominent place in Western culture going back to at least the Renaissance. As Brian Dillon notes in his Cabinet essay “Fragments from a History of the Ruin,” in Quattrocento Italy the ruin functioned as an indexical sign of classical culture, a trace of the Elysium that was lost with the fall of Rome and left to lie in pieces during the long night of the Dark Ages, legible only to those who had access to the redoubts of preserved knowledge. Early Renaissance paintings of St. Jerome, for example (see these works by Ercole de Roberti, 1470, and Giovanni Bellini, 1480/90), often depict the Great Doctor of the Church reading amidst a landscape of ruins, fasting, meditating, and otherwise preparing himself for the task of translating the Bible into Latin.
For the Romantics, the ruin was a symbol of artistic creation, a marker of irrepressible natural genius pushing through the strictures of academic form. Western civilization’s vestige of the Noble Savage, the artist was seen to possess intuitive knowledge that wells up solely from within. Through what Raymond Williams terms “the green language” — reveries on the natural in words, images, and sounds — Romantics sought to reverse the disenchantment of the world that came at the hands of industrial modernity, and in Romantic paintings, such as those of Caspar David Friedrich, the ruin serves as a harbinger of what is to become of its edifices.
Sociologist Georg Simmel presents a similar idea in his 1911 essay “The Ruin”:
“According to its cosmic order, the hierarchy of nature and spirit usually shows nature as the substructure, so to speak, the raw material, or semi-finished product; the spirit, as the definitely formative and crowning element. The ruin reverses this order.”
For Simmel, the ruin is a symbol of the dissolution of moral codes and social structures, of estrangement and alienation, key aspects of the modern urban condition under capitalism. It’s a theme that carries through much of his writing, in the famous 1903 essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” and in what many consider to be his masterwork, The Philosophy of Money (1907). But for Simmel, the ruin does not simply signal decay; it is a kind of collaboration between humankind and nature: “Nature has transformed the work of art [Simmel is referring to architecture] into material for her own expression as she had previously served as material for art.”
The ruin holds a different fascination for postmoderns. This attraction goes beyond the proclivity for pastiche and quotation, as Svetlana Boym notes. It is neither the evocation of a Renaissance sensibility of a lost cultural utopia or a Romantic fantasy of a timeless natural arcadia. According to Boym, what she terms “ruinophilia” reflects an awareness of “the vagaries of progressive vision as such.” It constitutes a multivalent perspective on place and time and of what may have been, is now, or might yet be possible. A contemporary, if arguably rather unsophisticated, expression of ruinophilia is the photographic genre known as “ruin porn,” of which Detroit is America’s top model. A much more thoughtful expression is the art of Clinton Snider, whose work from the last three years is on view at Susanne Hilberry Gallery.
For more than a decade, Snider, sometimes in collaboration with fellow artist Scott Hocking, has surveyed the wreckage of the failed modernist utopia known as Detroit. (Their installation piece Relics, first shown in 2001, consists of some 400 boxes stacked up along the wall to form grids that catalog all manner industrial and domestic castoffs. For my review of a 2005 exhibition of it, click here.) Snider often paints on recycled substrates, adding an allegorical element to the physical forms. Many of these constructions violate the conventional quadrilateral pictorial field, fragmenting the image and metonymically referencing the broken worlds being depicted. The 2005 Yellow House, for example, is painted on uneven lengths of reclaimed wood slats nailed together to form the picture plane. It depicts an abandoned bungalow surrounded by barren trees, weeds, and cracked pavement, the image conveying a narrative of ruination that the recycled wood registers.
With only a few exceptions, the new work accepts the framing constraints of the right angle, though it acknowledges material form in other, more subtle ways, not the least of which is the proliferation of small scale in the expansive white cube of Hilberry’s ultra-modern exhibition space. Snider’s subject continues to be living in the erstwhile Motor City in the aftermath of neoliberalism‘s scorched earth blitz, with the addition of new elements of fantasy.
A number of the works directly reference ruination. Black Top Forest, 2009, depicts tree stumps emerging from cracked asphalt, devastation doubled in the sense that a patch of pavement long abandoned is further devoided of the trees that subsequently grew there. Studebaker Razed, 2010, shows the rubble of the original manufacturing facility of the E-M-F Company, an automotive start-up from the turn of the twentieth century, when Detroit was the Silicon Valley of industrial production. The company was later absorbed by the Studebaker Corporation (which in turn was acquired by Packard) and the building later served as a parts warehouse for Chrysler and other companies before being completely destroyed by fire in 2005. The classical and Romantic ideas of the ruin are conflated in The Fall, 2009, which presents an example of modernist architecture in the process of being overtaken by nature.
Romantic studies have recently evolved an area known as ecocriticism to investigate the relationship primarily of literature to the environment. Inspired initially by the example of the nineteenth-century English Lake Poets and taking its cue from Raymond Williams, ecocriticism is also known as Green Romanticism. By contrast, Snider might be recognized as a proponent of the decidedly postmodern genre I term Brown Romanticism, which embraces the toxic world in all its ugly beauty.
A number of the new paintings look past the ruin to the life, however damaged, that persists amidst the devastation. Several of these show animals or solitary figures in otherwise desolate landscapes. One of the more hopeful, Heavenly Garden, 2008, shows urban farmers tending the land, making real a utopian vision of a postindustrial arcadia. (Detroit is one of the acknowledged centers of urban agriculture in the United States.)
A relatively new painting that points to an interesting, more allegorical direction is The Hay Wain, 2011. Here Snider riffs on the Romantic legacy he works both with and against. The Hay Wain refers of course to John Constable‘s 1821 masterwork of the same title that is a hallmark of Green Romanticism and a staple of the art history survey course. Constable’s painting depicts a bucolic scene in the English countryside: in the middle of the canvas a couple of farmers guide a horse-drawn wagon across a stream next to which is a quaint peasant’s cottage, a canopy of trees in the middle ground opens up onto a verdant pasture with cumulonimbus clouds dominating the sky in the background. Constable’s pastoral was consciously created to stand in stark contrast to the gritty factories and their drudgery in the teeming dirty old towns of the Industrial Revolution, in full swing in England at the time.
Snider’s rendition is of a subdivision development, the mass-produced knockoff version of the Romantic country idyll. Upon a bale of hay sits a fairy tale McMansion, with the clouds actually a plume of smoke emitting from the structure’s chimney. It’s a parable of the NIMBY utopia, an acknowledgment of the impossibility of ever getting back to a pristine nature at this stage of the game, what with climate change and all, and yet tinged with more than a little regret that things haven’t worked out quite as planned in the great postwar escape into the country and into the past.
Ultimately, Snider’s art is one of ambivalence. But it’s an aesthetic perspective that commands attention in these times, as we are left to make our way through the ruins of modernity.
The exhibition of Clinton Snider’s new paintings runs through June 30, at Susanne Hilberry Gallery, 700 Livernois, north of 8 Mile, in Ferndale. Visit http://www.susannehilberrygallery.com/ or call 248-541-4700 for information.