Agniet Snoep's Kafkaesque Still Lifes

By Eric Hope on April 4, 2014
Strawberry Photo Courtesy of Agniet Snoep.
Image Courtesy of Agniet Snoep.

Picture if you will, a background so black it becomes a void.  In the foreground, a strawberry long past its prime and covered in a moldy coat sits counterbalanced by an insect ready to pounce.  The details are sharp – colors are crisp and a sense of foreboding hangs in the air; a still-life yes, but one pregnant with a sense of impending action.  Bridging centuries of tradition, quiet narratives stir in the mind’s eye as you stop, look and (in cases) listen to the work of Dutch photographer Agniet Snoep (Ach-NEAT Snoop).   If you have been to the (e)merge art fair, then you’ve partaken in a small taste of her work (she is represented by Amsterdam’s Amstel Gallery).   Her upcoming exhibition titled Alive and Present, opening April 12, 2014 at CONNERSMITH, marks her US gallery debut.   I recently caught up with her via Skype to learn more about her approach to photography and readily apparent attraction to insects.

Snoep’s fascination with video and photographic processes developed at Amsterdam’s Rietveld Academie, where she graduated in 1994.  Upon graduation she received exposure most graduates only dream about when she participated in a group show at the prestigious Stedelijk Museum. The success of her video installation, a tableau focusing on the faces of strangers, opened the door to a government grant to further her studies and subsequently, a sabbatical to New York City.  It was in the Big Apple that a theme came to her – one that she has been focused on for the last several years.

Cyrtotrachelus Buqueti Image Courtesy of Agniet Snoep.
Cyrtotrachelus Buqueti
Image Courtesy of Agniet Snoep.

Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, or more directly, the notion of life transmogrifying from one identity or form to another, inspired her first major body of work (itself titled Metamorphose).  The series features beetles arrayed in what the artist describes as a tableau vivant, where said insects seem to eerily take on human characteristics.  Through cleverly manipulated changes in scale, “bugs” of all varieties seem to stroll, frolic or even swim in distinctly human environments.   A disquietedness develops; the mind seeks to place these “actors” into an emotional narrative usually designed for humans.  Snoep relishes that struggle and its accompanying sense of dis-ease: “My goal is that you look at my work and feel empathy or anger or tenderness or joy or curiosity.  That [struggle] is the final interpretation that you make yourself.”

Dead Frog With Flies, 1630 (approximate date) Ambrosius Bosschaert Image Courtesy of Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris.
Dead Frog With Flies, 1630 (approximate date)
Ambrosius Bosschaert
Image Courtesy of Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris.

A variation of that theme plays out in Snoep’s latest major body of work, the aptly named Still Life series.  In 2010, the artist found inspiration in a diminutive (seven by eight inch) Dutch still life painting titled Dead Frog with Flies, painted around 1630 by Ambrosius Bosschaert.  As it turns out, Bosschaert is a distant relative on her mother’s side, creating a personal as well as artistic linkage to the work.  A quick internet search of Bosschaert reveals an oeuvre chock full of floral motifs; so what is it about his particular work that impacted Snoep?  A key clue lies in a 1935 essay by Dutch writer F. Bordewijk, who saw the work in an exhibition and described the scene as such: “The macabre impression of the present is immediately intensified by the sinister of what is coming.  So it doesn’t show the excess of the horrible, but leaves room for the imagination of the viewer.” (translation courtesy of the artist’s website).

Dead Frog Image Courtesy of Agniet Snoep.
Dead Frog
Image Courtesy of Agniet Snoep.

In my first viewing of the series at (e)merge, I was immediately struck by artistic threads connecting it to centuries of the still lifes;  the images themselves are a wonderfully fresh, modern interpretation of the genre.  Imagine my surprise then when she tells me, “I’m not a still life photographer.  I [merely] use the genre to express my theme.”  Time and again, we circled around this notion of theme.  In this case, the flies, and their specific relationship with the frog (of disdain? disinterest?) spoke volumes to her about the ways in which we view both our own mortality and our interactions with the world around us.  While there is a deeply-rooted cultural connection, for Snoep the process of the still life, its laser-like focus on hyper-realism and the minutiae of life, is a vehicle for storytelling, not an end to itself.

Perhaps that notion needs unpacking.  Snoep views the creation of her work in a series of three concentric stages.  The first stage might best be labeled “technical”, where the viewer initially reacts to the components of the image (ie. the animal and botanical elements) and reflexively assesses how the image is made.  The second stage immediately follows as we absorb the ways in which color and the formal elements interact.  We can consider these two stages to constitute the process of the still life – the qualities that define a still life as a genre unto its own.  In that regard, her work does have a cultural connection to its antecedents.

Lychee Fruit Image Courtesy of Agniet Snoep.
Lychee Fruit
Image Courtesy of Agniet Snoep.

But it is the third stage where Snoep’s interests lay.  Beneath the technical and visual aspects is a fundamental search for meaning.  It is at this meaty stage, just as we try to interpret the visuals’ meaning and personal connection, that the artist pulls the rug out from under us.  In our conversation, she provides an example of how these stages might progress as we reflect upon the moon.  First we see the orb situated within the backdrop of the universe.  We then notice the ways color and shading (caused by sunlight and surface geography) begin to alter our perception.  Finally, we start to associate a mood or feeling, as craters take on facial expressions.  We begin to anthropomorphize this piece of rock, creating a personal narrative that contextualizes something foreign to our daily existence.  How that tale unfolds is solely within our grasp.  In her own way the artist aims to set up a similar dynamic on a more diminutive stage as we grapple with our transient relationship to the world around us and perhaps ultimately, our own mortality.

Snoep creates this dynamic by making visible tiny details we casually overlook.  She prefers not to dwell upon the technical aspects of her work as these discussions distract from the narrative; suffice it to say that forms and scale are manipulated to highlight those details.  For instance in Lychee Fruit, a still life featuring a crab, lychee and dahlia, one begins to notice how the microscopic hairs on the body of the crab naturally mimic the surface of the fruit’s husk.  One’s mind almost unconsciously begins to create relationships between visual components which may or may not actually exist in real life.  Or, take Octopus, where an octopus and beetle stand in formal opposition.  Snoep notes the “tension” between the two animals, as if a battle of wills is silently being waged across the space of a few inches.

Octopus Image Courtesy of Agniet Snoep.
Image Courtesy of Agniet Snoep.

While the range of “props” and formal compositions may change, I begin to sense a fragility common across images.  Assuming I have her theme figured out, I opine that each image is a commentary on the transience of human life.   With a sense of lighthearted needling, she asks me why I assume they are fragile; “who says they are dead?” is her response.  In an instant, I realize that my preconceived notions are personal narratives masquerading as fact.  Where I see fragility, you might see vibrancy; where there is morbidity, there is also poignant beauty.  Contrasting – even diametrically opposed — interpretations are simultaneously correct, for in the end each narrative is intensely personal.  Herein lies the subtle power in Snoep’s work: while the path you walk is your own, she also outfits your packs for your journey.

Agniet Snoep: Alive and Present runs April 12th – May 31st, 2014 at CONNERSMITH, with an opening reception Saturday, April 12th.  The artist will be in attendance.  For gallery hours and directions, visit their website here.  For more information about the artist, visit her website here.