THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A HIPSTER KING

Right up until his death on July 13th, Dash Snow's very existence appeared to represent a lot of what’s wrong with contemporary art in New York today. A member of the De Menil family, one of America's richest and most prominent art collecting dynasties, he earned renown for his juvenile antics and often nihilistic artwork. But this was his point. Snow used revulsion (among other things) to lend verisimilitude to a bohemian fantasy of downtown Manhattan life.

The 27-year-old flunked out of rehab, slipping off his mortal coil with a jab of heroin. He left behind a two-year-old daughter named Secret, a grieving family of oil tycoons and film-stars, and a body of work consisting of slime-spattered newspaper clippings of cops and a series of Polaroid photographs of his friends, lovers and colourfully downtrodden neighbours. His art, at a glance, seemed lazy and lousy, more in dialogue with American Apparel adverts and Vice magazine than art history; his success owed to proximity to celebrity and networking rather than merit.

Snow’s legacy is perhaps epitomised by a now-notorious passage in a 2007 New York magazine profile: “[Charles] Saatchi got them a fancy hotel room on Piccadilly. They had to flee it in the middle of the night with their suitcases before it was discovered that they’d created one of their Hamster’s Nests… To make a Hamster’s Nest, Snow and [sculptor Dan] Colen shred up 30 to 50 phone books, yank around all the blankets and drapes, turn on the taps, take off their clothes, and do drugs—mushrooms, coke, ecstasy—until they feel like hamsters.”
 
Writhing around a five-star hotel room like a hamster is an act of almost unspeakable privilege and entitlement. Yet there’s something about the scale of adolescent outrage, the sheer stupidity of the gesture, that takes it far beyond mere hijinks. The prep-work alone in shredding 50 phonebooks makes the Hamster’s Nest a carefully considered action. The same goes for his other work. A deeper look at Snow’s oeuvre of Polaroids confirms there is more a lot more lurking beneath the surface than self-indulgence.
 
The first photographs of urban grime, threesomes, coke snorting and September 11th cheek are grating, sure, but gradually the characters and setting begin to populate a very credible universe. With each proceeding shot you hate the protagonists less. Assemble pretty much any series of snapshots and the mind will conjure a narrative, but there is nothing arbitrary about Snow’s series. You see relationships develop amid injuries; you witness the passage of time, and you feel a palpable sense of loss in the final frames.
 
Taken individually, Snow's Polaroids were often no more than visual puns (eg, a Shell petrol station where a broken sign reads "Hell"), or cheeky political commentary (eg, a trio of pals wearing makeshift face-masks pose around a dust-caked police car--a critique perhaps of the "look at me I'm doing good" volunteerism that followed after September 11th). Isolated without context, these images do little more than invite disgust at Snow's pseudo-bohemian posturing. But together--as sequential snapshots in an evolving narrative--they are powerful. This is a chronicle of the doomed, captured in the moment on Polaroid film.
   
Artists who deal with narrative tend to use fancy language to describe a fantasy world--phrases like “fictive plane” and “code-switching” abound. But creating a convincing parallel universe is more difficult than it might seem. There has to be an internal logic. Snow and his collaborators managed to depict a credible fantasy of downtown life--one seemingly divorced from such quotidian realities as jobs, rent, venereal disease and drug addiction.
 
After a year or two of blazing popularity, Snow had melted back into the wilderness of the art world. By the time he died, the washed out Polaroids he helped pioneer had entered into the visual vernacular of ‘cool’ advertising. But Snow deserves to be missed. The tragedy is that we will never see what he was going to do next.

~ JAMES MCGIRK

 

Picture credit: styleserver (via Flickr)