Life, Death and Errorby Sean O'Toole / 16.07.2009
This story contains a sexually explicit image. You have been warned. Dash Snow is dead. The email arrived this morning. Dead from a heroin overdose. Another artist-crazyman-dreamer-joller down.
Snow, feted for his hard living, fled his parental home in his teens. Despite the tattoos and rabbi-like beard, the New York artist couldn’t escape the fact that he was, in certain respects, fake white trash. Snow is a direct descendent of the De Menil family, founders of the well-known Menil Collection – the campus of this private art collection, based in Houston, Texas, famously includes artist Mark Rothko’s Chapel – and his maternal grandfather is Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, father of actress Uma.
In the final analysis, though, Snow’s family tree is of incidental value: it is his grubby, incomplete but undeniably magnetic art that he will be remembered by. Famous, amongst other things, for his Polaroids of wild nights of excess, Snow’s snapshots of cocaine and cocks recalled Larry Clark’s 1971 book, Tulsa, famous for its graphic depictions of youthful sex and drug taking. For those unfamiliar with Snow’s work, his newsprint collages and thrown-together installations share affinities with the work of local artists Julia Rosa Clark and Zander Blom.
Even before July 13, when he died in a downtown New York hotel, Snow’s mythology was being crafted and rehearsed. When his tits and arse (and pretty much everything else) Polaroids were shown at London’s Saatchi Gallery in 2006, audiences were told of Snow’s adolescent draw to the medium. “Using his Polaroids as a diaristic record of the many ‘nights before’ he couldn’t remember, his snapshots piece together a fragmented portrait of peripheral existence. Filling in the voids of his blackouts, Snow’s photos broach the seedy and taboo with a dislocated intimacy.”
In his scathing 1988 obituary for Jean-Michel Basquiat, another New York artist famous for checking out early because of heroin, critic Robert Hughes concisely stated things that just as easily apply to Snow. “Basquiat’s career appealed to a cluster of toxic vulgarities,” wrote Hughes. Racism aside, they included “a fetish about the infallible freshness of youth… an obsession with novelty… art investment mania… and the audience’s goggling appetite for self-destructive talent.” Pollock, Basquiat, and now Snow.
South Africa has its own club of self-destructive talents, amongst them Dumile Feni, Wopko Jensma, Billy Monk, Neil Goedhals and Braam Kruger. (When I last checked Wayne Barker, Felix la Band and Louis Moholo were all still alive, well and on the scene.) Funny thing death, how it beefs up an artist’s capital. I recently got an email stating that the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery will be presenting a retrospective devoted to Kruger, who died unexpectedly last year.
“I am white and brutal/ I come to you after death,” wrote Jensma in a poem appearing in his 1973 collection, Sing for our Execution, which also included a number of his abstracted woodcuts. As disappearance did for Jensma, so death did for Monk, the burly club bouncer turned diamond diver who only became famous as a photographer after two blasts from a gun ended his life.
Monk’s discovery was a thing of pure chance. In 1979, photographer Jac de Villiers took over a studio on the corner of Hope and Wesley streets in Cape Town. There he found a stash of old negatives. Neatly filed, they recorded the lives of long-forgotten jollers. Monk had taken them, a hustle to make cash from regulars at the Catacombs Club on Bree Street where he bounced. In 1982 Monk’s snapshots of late 1960s jollers got their first public showing in Johannesburg. Monk never made it to his show. Shortly before he was due to travel up north he was shot while intervening in an argument over the moving of furniture.
Monk’s black and white pictures are currently on view at Cape Town’s National Gallery, in a show appropriately titled Jol. In celebration of Monk, Snow and all the other jollers who’ve come and gone, I’m hosting a modest little jol at Beaulah Bar, corner Somerset Road and Coburn Street, Greenpoint. It’s this Saturday, July 18. Photographer Dave Southwood and art dealer Warren Siebrits will be playing.
Siebrits, in case you didn’t know, opened for Schematic’s noise-master Richard Devine two years ago and recently funded the release of a CD collecting all the tape-only releases of legendary Joburg post-punk band Koos. Led by Dadaist raconteur Neil Goedhals, who committed suicide in 1990, Koos’ line-up included artist Kendell Geers and actor Marcel van Heerden. To borrow the headline from Ivor Powell’s 1989 Weekly Mail write-up on Koos, expect an evening of “white noise and agonised jangle”.