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Upside-Down Frown

Hills Snyder makes unsettling statements with the smiley face

The spirit of Count Orlock meets the smiley face in "Yesferatu," Hills Snyder's exhibition at Gallery Sonja Roesch. But Smiley, that sunny yellow icon with the vacantly cheery, I've-just-had-a-lobotomy grin, is the real star. Snyder extracts the familiar icon from the pop-culture storage shed and turns it into a 21st-century statement.

The smiley face was first given life in 1963 by graphic artist Harvey Ball as part of an insurance company's program to boost employee moral. But the symbol didn't gain widespread popularity until 1970, when novelty entrepreneurs Bernard and Murray Spain put the image into tchotchke production. They saw the face as a marketable image similar to the peace sign, but with broader, middle-of-the-road appeal. Smiley aimed low, just wanting everyone to "Have a nice day."

Now that the fad has passed, we see smiley faces only occasionally -- in the juniors' department as an indication of retrochic, in Wal-Mart commercials to promote the low, low prices afforded by paying foreign workers slave wages, and now in an art gallery as part of an ironic response to the post-9/11 zeitgeist.

Snyder's Dr. Chlorophyll
Snyder's Dr. Chlorophyll

Snyder uses the shiny, glossy plastics we associate with slick commercial signage to create objects that look authoritatively manufactured. He cuts smiley faces into Plexiglas, which he then lays over an eclectic collection of images. The resulting juxtapositions range from naive to sardonic. In Dr. Chlorophyll (all works 2002), Smiley covers a comic-book image of Dracula opening his cloak and bearing his fangs -- stereotypical castle and bat-silhouetted moon in the background. Snyder is intrigued by Dracula's historic role in the cultural psyche as an outsider scapegoat, a repository for all that is evil. It parallels our contemporary war against similarly one-dimensional and unambiguous "evildoers."

We have transformed dark, ancient folktales into great entertainment, just as televised war and terrorism turn actual horror into a marketable television commodity. But the final irony may be that a well-made horror flick evokes more fear than the actual holocaust as seen on your Sony.

In the image Snyder created for his show invitation, titled Shall we stay up together for a while?, a dark black cloud rises up against a fuchsia sky while the two ghostly dots and a curved line smile. The question is, stay up and do what? Watch the thunderstorm, Letterman or the end of the world?

Everybody Has One feels like an obscure allegory for contemporary world politics. A clear Plexi smiley face covers pencil drawings that show Snow White's poison apple dangling from a clawed hand like a deadly weapon, Dumbo soaring obliviously through the sky, and Pinocchio's nose growing as he lies again and again. In fact, small Disney silhouettes lurk throughout the gallery: Dumbo and his mother cavort in marbled blue Plexiglas, a luminous hot pink Tinkerbell swan-dives from a great height, and Brer Fox, from the mothballed Song of the South, sits discreetly in the bottom of a window.

The shapes and colors of Snyder's Disney silhouettes are immediately visually appealing -- then there's that click of recognition. You realize you've been so deeply Disney inculcated that two Rorschach blots become instantly recognizable as Dumbo and his mama. What else did you absorb?

Snyder has a fascnation with Walt Disney, partly because the man who masterminded family fun for millions was also accused of being an anti-Semite and a racist. The Disney corporation is still criticized for stereotyping its ethnic cartoon characters.

Another "duplicitous historical figure," according to Snyder, is Henry Ford. Ford's assembly-line manufacturing transformed automobiles from luxury items to attainable forms of transportation. Of course, he also gave money to Hitler and published a racist diatribe titled "The International Jew, The World's Foremost Problem." Private Sector, Snyder's six-panel outline of a Model T, triggers an oddly circling association: The current situation in the Middle East can be seen as an outgrowth of the Ford progeny's insatiable thirst for oil.

For Snyder, the smiley face also functions as a kind of neutral everyman stand-in, and he integrates it with colors that are symbolic of diversity. For When You Say That, the large circular smiley face is composed of strips of mirrored Plexiglas in the colors of the gay pride flag; the viewer, standing before it, is reflected back in bands of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. For Bald Piebald, Smiley is tiled with two angular sections of black and white Plexi, and topped off by a piece of rosy pink. The pink is the same über-Aryan hue that art supply manufacturers used to unequivocally label "flesh."

The exhibition ends with Where Are You (While the World Keeps Turning), in which four framed sections of clear Plexiglas join together to make one large smiley face. The perfect circle of the head is drawn in graphite on the framed paper, but the eyes and mouth are defined only by barely visible cutouts in the plastic. Here, the smiley face seems pure, open and neutral -- like a coloring book outline with limitless possibilities. The title is a pointed reversal of Alan Jackson's ethnocentric, 9/11-themed song, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)."

Snyder's work is infused with the political, but it doesn't control the viewer's interpretations. Instead it simply knocks over that first domino to set in motion a chain of associations.

 
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