Arryn Snowball

House of Breath
Caboolture Regional Gallery

House of Breath, the first survey of works by Arryn Snowball, comprises of a gracefully bookended decade of the artist’s output. The exhibition is served well with a considered hang and breathing space, and makes a compelling argument for more exhibitions of artists of Snowball’s generation, who have survived and are approaching artistic maturity. Taking the title from a William Goyen novel, itself a paean to love, yearning, loss, and a sense of home, House of Breath charts a narrative, by proxy, of Snowball’s own life. There are no literal readings to be had here, other than to say that the exhibition is the culmination of a decade of the artist’s life, and all that suggests. 

As House of Breath demonstrates, there are recurring themes that orbit Snowball’s work, manifesting in different ideas, and through contrasting approaches to painting and image-making. I add the caveat of ‘image making’ because some of the artist’s non-paintings are represented in this survey, seemingly without any jarring, or even imbalance, with painted works. Photography and video sit calmly beside the paintings, extending and exploring the same ideas through their own idiosyncrasies of form and media. While a painting-only survey would have worked well in terms of a robust monument to Snowball’s own vision, the inclusion of other media serves to tease out the artist’s ideas, and serves this vision better, in terms of demonstrating its quiet effectiveness through these non-paintings. Remarkably, no power or intention is lost in translation. 

While the type of conversation that surrounds Snowball’s work has become somewhat tiresome of late (‘form and formlessness, abstraction versus representation’), one must remember that this is well-trod territory for the artist, whose own course has been doggedly singular. This conversation is not the artist’s fault in that so much of art today is wholly idea-based or image-based. Snowball’s works, I would argue, transcend this kind of guff for a much more earnest and honest approach. A similar conversation has been recurring around Snowball’s alleged monochromy, reflecting an unfortunate lack of attention to the works themselves, which require adequate time and intimacy. Caboolture Regional Art Gallery provides an ideal opportunity for this intimacy in its cavernous space, and offers a rare chance to experience many of the works, which have been plucked from private collections for the occasion. 

While the works certainly evoke some apt license for reviews bordering on the poetic (Snowball’s sheet paintings, in particular, seem to capture the literary imagination), there are some important things at play in this exhibition. Snowball appears as a paradigm for the disciplined contemporary artist. Such a sustained effort is rewarding when viewed in retrospect, and the work’s level of dedication is highly refreshing. In many ways, we live in an art world made in Warhol’s image, replete with endless self-promotion, glossy, candy-coloured art work and a bent for capitalist manufacture, the artist glad-handing as frequently as their day-jobs allow. This kind of artist simply cannot make the works of House of Breath. There is a deliberate slowness to its artistry that runs against the fast food, word salad art trends of today, and a stillness of mind required to approach such work, to say nothing of any of the requisite skill. 

It seems notable that many of the generation of painters that specialise in so-called zombie abstraction have taken visual cues from Snowball, but any such connection goes no deeper than the surface of the paint. For Snowball, abstraction is not ‘style’ to pillage for a series of paintings, or a way of dodging theoretical enquiry, but rather the means most suited to the deeply personal and intrinsically contemplative nature of the artist’s approach to his art. This shows in the singularity of this exhibition. 2015 works sit comfortably beside 2005 works, the achievement of a decade of rigorous, sustained exploration. 

It is exciting to see an artist of Snowball’s generation so calmly navigating the rollercoaster ride of this century’s Australian art market. The exhibition continues the Moreton Bay Regional Council’s tendency to break away from the sure bets (how many exhibitions of Arthur Boyd do we really need each year?), and place stock in Queensland’s next generation, to rewarding results. Hopefully other regional galleries will follow suit. Without all the blockbuster trappings and the shallowness of the sexy new thing, this is excellent art. 

Arryn Snowball, House of Breath, 2016. Installation view. Caboolture Regional Gallery.

Arryn Snowball, House of Breath, 2016. Installation view. Caboolture Regional Gallery.