It's not hard to pin down why haunted houses draw more enthusiastic crowds than contemporary art exhibitions do. Visitors to haunted houses expect to be immersed in experiences that are surprising but not confusing.
Contemporary art, even when it immerses its audiences, can be difficult to understand, and the confusion it causes can feel alienating. This isn't a blanket criticism — difficulty often is worth dealing with — just a lead-in to what's special about artist David Snyder's current show at Michael Benevento Gallery in Hollywood. It's like a haunted house in ways, as it makes confusion almost delightful, though in a dense, sometimes dark manner.
To understand the effect of Snyder's show, it helps to know a bit about the setting. Michael Benevento's main gallery has no sign, so first-time visitors often drive or walk past before realizing that the entirely black storefront at 7578 Sunset must be the place, then try the locked door a few times before ringing the bell. Once they've been buzzed in, they might walk through the front hallway and two small exhibition spaces before seeing another human being, since the office is in the back.
For his debut show at Michael Benevento in 2011, Snyder made the storefront more homey in an off-kilter way, installing a white stucco façade with two high windows, a very low window box, an unfinished plywood door with a knob and a mail slot at ankle height. Inside, he installed two more houselike façades with messes of shoddy materials cluttering up their back sides.
Anyone who saw that 2011 show — or saw Snyder's frenetic Me TV installation at the Hammer's L.A. Biennial last year, a hodgepodge home with walls leaning into each other and screens all over playing shows in which Snyder starred as exaggerated versions of himself — might find the initial straightforwardness of his current show surprising.
The gallery's façade remains mysteriously unmarked, the walls inside are white, and the first room includes just two paintings in slate-colored cement frames. One has half-circles of rustic red stacked atop one another and another is mostly black, and taller. Or (spoiler alert), at least the room seems to include only these, until the ceiling begins to whir and clunk back and forth above you. Since the show opened, Benevento has seen people scream or back out when this happens.
"Somewhere above this white ceiling that looks perfectly functional is something that's off," says Snyder, who suspended a secondary ceiling below the main structural one and put a low-horsepower engine inside it. A motion detector triggers the engine, then a weight attached to it shifts its balance.
"There's a visual and physical lack of 100 percent access," he explains of the work in his show, which he titled "Ectoplasm," after the slimy, gauzy material psychic mediums have claimed to excrete during trances — spiritual energy made visible. "The entire project circles around these unseen mechanics that go toward supporting our ability to see something."
Snyder, who is from Rochester, N.Y., moved to Los Angeles to enroll in the sculpture MFA program at UCLA, where he graduated in 2010. Some things about his work recall artists such as Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw or Jason Rhoades, who started working in the 1980s and '90s and made pop-referencing sculptural environments that merged high culture and low, with their own internal logic.
Works like Kelley's restaging of high school assemblies or Rhoades' Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret might assault viewers with too many sensations sourced from television, nightclubs, clothing stores or high school yearbooks. But overstimulation has a different effect in Snyder's case. Seeing the work in his show, you could picture him flipping through television channels or standing outside of a 99 Cent Store, and just saying, "Wow, wow, wow," trying to understand where all these outlets and objects come from and how to relate to them. In this show especially, his works feel like amalgams of materials and sensations that become idiosyncratically otherworldly, all presented in a way that seems to say to viewers, "Please help figure out what all this means."
The gallery's main room, which comes after the shaking-ceiling room, includes an 8-foot-tall, 8-foot-wide growth shaped like a grimy weeping willow, with brown and beige skin made of different kinds of dough, paper pulp and marshmallow. It's called Portrait of a Nugose and, if you squat down, you can see the legs of the wood infrastructure underneath it are wearing shoes, and that there's some sort of machinery on the inside. Once you've walked halfway around, a motion detector registers your presence; the inside lights up and sounds — clanging, whirring, radio voices — start to emanate. This happens because a stylus on the inside circles around, hitting different copper plates as it spins, though there's no way to understand that by looking at it from the outside.
Down the street, in Benevento's second storefront space, Snyder has installed, under dim lighting, concrete-coated scaffolding that leans diagonally — it resembles the underside of bleachers. It holds about 40 chairlike forms covered in worn, multicolored sheets. They all face the backside of a large screen that's showing a movie Snyder made.
"Watching a movie is a social experience: You sit with strangers and have your senses overwhelmed. So if I had a movie, I would obviously need a theater. And if I had a theater, I would want it to be a full house and be about the viewer being present among others," Snyder says. He initially thought he needed people there constantly, but that wasn't logistically feasible. "I was going all through these ideas — adjusting levels and knobs — hypothetical knobs. What if there were chairs that implied people? What if it was a chair that implied the body? Then I ended up with these [shapes] that had all these figurative qualities of chairs but weren't chairs."
That's how he often works, he says: "Boiling and boiling the DNA" — of, say, a movie theater — "until it is denatured and distorted."
You have to go around to the other side of the screen to watch the 29-minute film, which Snyder made with members of his family as actors. His youngest sister plays a real estate agent who is trying to sell property to spirits. A 3-year-old niece and slightly older goddaughter are children in attendance at a magicians' society meeting. No one memorized the script. Snyder would just tell them what to say before turning the camera on, and they would parrot his words back to him. All the characters seem to be talking before they've totally thought through what they mean.
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The same niece from the film inspired Portrait of a Nugose. She has an imaginary friend named Nugose who likes marshmallows and other things she likes but who is always missing. She repeatedly makes excuses for him, or her, or it.
Snyder liked the idea that he could never get the Nugose right, no matter how he chose to represent it. He built its overcomplicated DIY machinery and outer skin first. "Then I realized it needs to have a heart," he says. "I went back to my niece. She decided it should be cake."
Now there's a pile of cake doughnuts, one with pink frosting, right at the center. You can see them through a slit on the side. "The heart of this thing has to do with enticement and desire, in a way that's very off," he says. It makes a frenetic, irrational number of sounds, is unwieldy to navigate and has that heavy, opaque skin you can only peek through. "Then it's, like, 'But look, I've got doughnuts!' "
DAVID SNYDER: ECTOPLASMS | Michael Benevento Los Angeles, 7578/7556 Sunset Blvd., Hlywd. | Through Nov. 2 | (323) 874-6400 | beneventolosangeles.com