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Life, Death and Error

Life, Death and Error

by 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.

Dash_Couch Love

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.

Billy Monk_Catacombs Couple

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.

Billy Monk_Table Singer

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”.


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  1. darkpigraph says:

    Great article, looking forward to saturday night.

    The KOOS reissue is essential listening and is still available from http://www.onefmusic.com – drop Clair a mail via ‘general enquiries’.

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  2. dePravin says:

    Hard to feel sorry for someone who overdoses on heroin… Sad for their stupidity… Angry at their selfishness… But to quote radiohead, “you do it to yourself”

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  3. Raza says:

    Julia Clarke? You can’t be serious

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  4. djf says:

    Was the gratuitously pornographic image really necessary? Some casual readers are easily offended by such things.

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  5. Nathan Zeno says:

    dePravin – like those people who die when shot. they shouldn’t have been there. how stupid. People don’t plan to die of overdoses, therefore it’s not exactly stupid or selfish. But more to the point, we all die stupid selfish deaths, for it is selfish to leave others without you for whatever reason. These that O’Toole writes about at least left something of themselves behind for us to remember them.

    djf -it’s not porn it’s art. And there are no casual readers.

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  6. Miles says:

    @ Nathan Zeno: Well Said.

    @ Andy, great read. Wish I was in CT to join you at Beaulah Bar. Keep up the great work.

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  7. Miles says:

    Link to Dash now Polaroid’s


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  8. Pauly says:

    Thank you sean a fine and fitting piece.

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  9. Sean says:

    Razza, I was meaning his newspaper montages when I drew the comparison to Julia, not the photos. Sorry, my mistake in not making that clear. I was thinking of writing Zanele Muholi’s name down as a comparison too, but I don’t really think there is any similarity between her activist pics and his jol snapshots. A case of trying to strain the connections when there aren’t any. Askies. One thing that did bug throughout thw day after writing the piece was the all male cast of SA ‘heroes’. Since I squeezed in Felix and Louis, and they’re not visual artists strictly speaking, I found myself thinking that I should have name-checked Brenda Fassie and Ingrid Jonker. Another lapse on my part.

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  10. djf says:

    Nathan – that’s a very simplistic and dismissive response to a situation that is in reality a lot more socially challenging and where greater tolerance and consideration is advisable. Let’s assume that the Polaroid in question is art and was presented in a gallery. I can pretty much guarantee that there would be a clearly legible sign at the door advising the public that there was sexually explicit subject matter on display and that it is not advisable for children to enter. No such attempt has been made to inform the public (or these non-existent casual readers that you dismiss) who have unrestricted access to this site. This has nothing to do with censorship or prudishness, rather the degree of regard that this site has for the sensitivities of a large sector of the population.

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  11. Andy says:

    OK how’s this… Let us know what you think. We’ll either remove the pic or add an advisory on the story image…

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  12. Nathan Zeno says:

    djf – I’m confused. If it’s on the internet its nor art? or all art should have a warning? Isn’t art itself the warning. Certainly in that image. Pornography is an overly simplistic term to use for that photograph. I don’t think that the intention there is to inspire erotic thoughts.

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  13. hamfisted says:

    I think the point djf is trying to make is that the simple disclaimer NSFW might have sufficed – even the internet’s most crass and simpleminded blogs employ them.

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  14. Nathan Zeno says:

    Maybe NSFW. Yes, most commonly used as a signifier of Porn or nudity. Doesn’t make people go there just for the nudity.

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  15. djf says:

    Yes Nathan, I suspect that you are confused between the separate worlds of The Arts and The Media – and the fact that what may be considered progressive, poignant and acceptable in the one realm may not translate directly as such into the other.

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  16. Nathan Zeno says:

    djf – The thing is this, I don’t really believe in boundaries and seperation.
    And I believe that if something exists to shock someones sensibilities, then a warning that said sensibilites are about to be shocked defeats the objective. On a platform that is meant to be one of Free Expression, then we should allow for that totally or not at all.
    Furthermore, I think to say NSFW is tantamount to defining something as porn.

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  17. brdgettethakiller1 says:

    hey ppl i jst think that this article is just crap!!!!!!!!! i mean the public comes to this site to explore artistic combinations and all they find is pornographic sh#$t! plz ppl even our young brothers and sisters use this web for research!

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  18. The Oracle says:

    I am quite offended by the porno pictures on this site.
    Please try to do better……

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  19. Oh Yeah says:

    next time please try to supply a better quality of porn for brdgette and the oracle.

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  20. Anthony says:


    Your retort to dePravin about the equal measure of stupidity to be doled out between people who are shot, and people who overdose on heroin is so fucking laughable; judging from the rest of your posts on this site, you are just a shit-stirring contrarian, in which case, I’d conclude with “It takes all types,” or something equally bromidic.

    For the sake of argument, though, in what way is getting shot, usually an involuntary incident in which the victim’s agency is diminished, equal in stupidity to freely indulging in a drug which has a propensity to reward you with death? The fact that people don’t plan to die of overdoses is trite — they are aware of the consequences of heroin overdose, and I agree with dePravin that it’s difficult to feel sorry for these fashionably-addicted dead drug addicts.

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  21. culdine says:

    why don’t you mention arthur nortje?

    and what about marechera?

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  22. Colonel Harland Sanders and his secret recipe says:

    “This story contains a sexually explicit image. You have been warned.”

    First line..

    That’s all i’m saying…

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  23. Andy says:

    Ja Col, we put that up after the furore that erupted on this story. That’s the beauty of web publishing you can fix your mistakes

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  24. dari mohamed says:

    un plezir

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