Voyeuristic Artist Tracey Snelling Reminds Us To Look Closer

Tracey Snelling is an alchemist and a kaleidoscope; through her art — be it sculptures, experimental film, or photography — she’s able to elevate the secular to the sublime. She takes ordinary and oft-depressing places — motels, strip malls, dilapidated buildings — and renders them exquisitely. She reminds us to look closer, and that nothing is what it seems.

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Detail of 7 Eleven

A born and raised denizen of Oakland, California, Snelling says she’s always wanted to be an artist. (Or a musician. Or an actor.) It is both a vehicle for her own self-expression and a means to spur social change. When asked why she makes art, she says:

“I just have to. I don’t know what else I would do. Something makes me do it — I’m not sure what. Even when there’s no reason, I have to do it. It’s important because it makes people feel that there has to be more than just cars and TV and all the other crap.”
A section of Snelling’s latest sculpture — One Thousand Shacks

Her work urges viewers to peel back the warped linoleum; swing by that half-lit strip club or kitschy Native American trading post; linger in the 7/11 parking lot. It’s here where consumerism, loneliness, the commodification of the human body, and the pursuit of pleasure and meaning all collide. Lost highways and old buildings bare the scars of their lives and the people who’ve passed through them.

Interestingly enough, Snelling’s work is typically either inhabitable — designed to subsume the viewer — or pint-size . . . or both, interplaying between miniatures and life-size installations to achieve a fragmented but larger vision.

Snelling has wended her way through many locations and many mediums, but her obsession with “places you’re not supposed to look” has permeated her work since, 13 years ago, she made her first 3-D sculpture. And now, it has led her to her latest project, One Thousand Shacks.

Standing 15-feet tall and 10-feet wide, Shacks is dedicated to raising awareness about global poverty — between its sheer size and its barrage of colors, lights and sounds, it’s decidedly un-ignorable. And that’s precisely the point.

“It’s an overwhelming thing — I want to capture the viewers’ attention and make them feel this overwhelming issue,” Snelling says. She wanted it to be impossible to simply stroll by, “to push it aside and forget about it.”

In her artist’s statement, she reminds us that 1.5 billion people live in “extreme poverty,” according to the United Nations; its eradication is perhaps the greatest challenge — socio-culturally, economically, legislatively, and otherwise — that we face today.

Snelling is attempting to combat it in a small, but potent way, combining the “fiction” of mixed media with real footage of individuals throughout the world; when combined, the viewer is able to glimpse both the magnitude and the surprising diversity of this problem.

“Ending this scourge will require the combined efforts of governments, society, organizations, and the private sector . . . On the back of the wall of Shacks, wires, lights, media players, screens, transformers, and raw wood can be seen. This jumble of wires, wood, and various electronics echoes the haphazard, often hand-built-out-of-scrap essence found in many under-served areas. I hope to bring a larger awareness to the problem of poverty through this installation, and on a deeper level, to express the full experience of humanity — the good, bad, and in-between.”
Detail of One Thousand Shacks

Snelling says she is walking a double-edged sword, however; she is keen to illustrate the pain and degradation that accompanies poverty, but also doesn’t want to strip these individuals of the triumphs over their circumstances. It’s a multi-faceted conundrum. These people are in peril, but they’re not powerless.

“I want to show all the environmental, health, and social issues — all these problems that happen when people don’t have money for food. They’re forced into prostitution — there’s a lot of abuse that can happen. People having to sort through dumps to find metal parts to recycle. It’s all very hazardous . . . but for people who grew up in very poor areas, there are also wonderful, happy times — it’s not all horrible; I didn’t want to make it all a negative, sad thing. They’re strong and resilient. And I want to show that.”

And Shacks does indeed show a vast array of realities; the photographs and videos tucked into glowing windows toggle between squalor, dogged survival, domestic violence, family, and immaculate homes of found materials. Snelling also explores the intersections of religion, faith, and persecution — a provocative theme that crops up in her other work as well. “Religiosity is highest in the poorest nations of the world,” she writes. “How does someone in such dire need view their circumstances when related to God?”

woman on the run
Woman On The Run: Sculpture / Life-size Installation

For Snelling, it’s difficult to parse out views on feminism and female sexuality from those on organized religion. Woman On The Run, first mounted in 2008, is a fragmented multi-media project combining installation, photography, and film that reinvents itself with every new presentation. Taking its cues from 1950s and ’60s film noir heroines, “it is for the viewer to decide whether she [the subject] is the victim or the perpetrator,” Snelling writes. “Is it a study in feminism or the manifestation of outdated perceptions of women?”

Woman on the Run: Detail / Installation

In Manoir Frenetique (Frantic Mansion), Snelling created a dark Victorian-esque tower sitting atop a gnarled cliffside, dripping with a dark goo. It’s erotic . . . and disturbing. Through its windows, you can glimpse iconic scenes from foreign art films — there within the Mansion, women delight in sex and physical pleasure. The dissonance between the women’s obvious joy and the sinister nature of the house serves as a stark reminder that a sex-loving woman is seen as, well, more than a little scary.

“People are still frightened by that notion — we’re so adverse to female sexuality. Women should be able to have as much sex as they want and express themselves as sexually as they want, just as men should and can. I don’t like this idea that women can’t [express themselves sexually] because it’s ‘bad’ — a lot of that [shaming] comes from religion.”

This past September, Snelling completed a video work — The Immaculate Conception — that took aim at some of these enduring concepts, as well as at her own childhood growing up Catholic. She challenges the dangerous trope that “good,” God-fearing women don’t savor sex.

“As a child, for a short time, I thought I was pregnant with God,” Snelling laughed. She also likes to savor some of the ritualistic irony present in religion — “I mean, you stick out your tongue to take a sacrament.”

On Friday, November 20, Snelling will reveal One Thousand Shacks to the public in Oakland — if you’re lucky enough to live in the Blessed Bay, you should go: Idan and Sharaine’s Studio — 2989 Chapman St. 42A, from 9–11 PM.

[I’ll be attending the press viewing an hour before that and plan on quaffing no less than one bottle of wine, so if you see me all vampire-mouthed and toddling about doe-legged in what are sure to be impractical shoes because it’s Friday and I love that shit, please forgive me ahead of time. And definitely say hi.]

Rumor has it One Thousand Shacks is poised to take quite a trip following the opening, but it’s all hush-hush for now.

Meanwhile, if you’re in L.A. you can check out Snelling’s work at New Image Art in early January; in Brussels at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in 2050: A Brief History of the Future; Imagining Home at the Baltimore Museum of Art; or at Moving Objects in Cologne, Germany.

She sounds busy right? She feels that way too. “I’ve given up on the idea of relationships until December.”

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