Seeing Red

The American Psyche is laid bare in the SJICA's new exhibit, 'Clusterf*ck'
OVERLOAD: A generation's worth of toxic masculinity and aggressive value signaling converge in Tracey Snelling's new installment.

Pop cultural artifacts and ephemera invade every visible corner of Tracey Snelling's immersive work, Clusterfuck 9. Shades of red stain drip and creep along the walls, which are also covered with collaged imagery of TV, film and rock stars. Pages cut out from tabloid journals feature pinup girls with glossy lips in various states of undress. The artist intensifies the fever and fury of Hollywood by adding splashes of spray paint, glowing neon, video monitors and gushing, viscous tears.

At the center of this maelstrom, Snelling places a red leather sofa to up the ante on how much saturation the eyes can take. This is a hellscape made from an everyman's day of mindless media consumption.

Once you step inside, you're completely caught up in Snelling's restless imagination. In an email exchange from her studio in Berlin, Snelling discussed the origins of the Clusterfuck project. "I started out as a photographer, but was always interested in experimenting—painting on the photo, adding three-dimensional elements, taping the negatives and scratching them, among other alterations," she writes. Eventually she moved into sculpture, adding sound, light, video, water pumps, and sometimes motors and pulleys. Snelling constructed the first of her Clusterfuck series in 201. "It was in the entryway of the Oakland City Hall, and contained many sculptures of mine, combined with posters, signs, lights and souvenirs representing many cultures."

When you scan the gallery, that juxtaposition of cultures is a visceral presence. A movie poster of The Killing Fields is pasted above a video promotion still of Lilith's Night Out. They're adjacent to a barrage of other images, including Bruce Lee kicking in mid-air and the Scorpions' album cover "Blackout," featuring a man in a straitjacket with forks in his eyes. The amount of collected aggression on display is alarming. As filtered through decades of pop cultural detritus, Snelling's visual references wrestle with the idea of toxic masculinity. When she was working on this particular Clusterfuck, she "was focused on total immersion through visuals and sound, addressing modern popular culture and the overwhelming and unusual aspects of it, and looking at the politics of today, such as the mass shootings and gun issues in the US and the war on women, especially now."

On Snelling's website she writes, "Walking down the street at night, I look at the lit windows of the homes I pass, and wonder what is taking place behind that drawn curtain." She often imagines that it's something "mysterious, strange or unusual." Clusterfuck 9 doesn't take place in some peaceful suburban setting. It depicts the American psyche as a disordered thing that's suffering and in distress. Bleeding eyes are a recurring motif that Snelling says just happens intuitively. "In hindsight, the eyes and red paint reference the horror that's going on today. It's actually surprising that I don't just paint the whole room red..."

On the exhibit's opening night, Snelling arranged a performance that now plays on the TV set in the center of the installation. "It shows a husband and wife (Lee Anne Payne and Chris Reber) in 'traditional' roles, slowly breaking down into chaos," Snelling says.

It's no surprise then that film noir—featuring people who follow their most desperate impulses—has influenced her work. "I've always been attracted to the tarnished characters and edgy stories. David Lynch is one of my favorite modern-day film noir directors. Touch of Evil and Double Indemnity are two of my favorites, along with U-Turn and Blood Simple." But growing up, she also remembers repeatedly checking out books by Hieronymous Bosch and Albrecht Durer from the library. "Other works, predominantly my sculptural work, are more introspective and voyeuristic," she adds. "With the Clusterfuck installations, especially Clusterfuck 9, the introspection is turned inside out. "

In this topsy turvy realm, the artist unites Ozzy Osbourne, as he salutes the devil, with a bare-chested Vladimir Putin riding a bear, and a handsome Jesus surrounded by his many disciples. The host of associations could devolve into an incomplete thought or a mess of conflicting reds. But for Snelling, she understood when it was time to stop. "One just knows when a work is finished."

Tracey Snelling: Clusterfuck 9
Thru Sept 15, Free
San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art

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