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Circus of the Night
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Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis presents an exhibition of paintings, drawings and sculpture by artist John Snyder. (Image courtesy of Weinstein Gallery)
Art is often about doing something new and different, but painter and sculptor John Snyder finds his inspiration firmly rooted in the past. Snyder's latest show, now on view at the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis, features gigantic paintings reminiscent of Italian works of the 14th century.

Minneapolis, Minn. — John Snyder is an artist of many talents. A painter by trade, he plays the accordion and writes stories for fun. He's also a wood carver. Snyder used to work as a carpenter at the Walker Art Center. He says wood doesn't demand as much work as a canvas.

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Image Snyder and "Circus of the Night"

"To me, there's already this life that it has. There's something believable about it, where I could maybe just have a small reference to a face on that and it feels alive to me, versus a painting which requires a lot more work."

But Snyder feels compelled to paint because it's the only medium that conveys the complexity of the images in his head. The two small rooms of the Weinstein Gallery are filled, from floor to ceiling, with his three latest paintings. Two of these, titled "Communion" and "Judgment and Creation," explore Snyder's own struggle with the human condition.

He uses images of saints, martyrs, and mythic figures, as well as those of people or experiences from his own life. He portrays his own niece as Mary Magdelene, smoking a cigarette while a halo glows about her head.

Snyder also pays homage to artists who have inspired him -- people like Italian Renaissance painter Giotto and African American folk artist William Edmunson -- by depicting the artists themselves or specific images from their work that have stayed forever etched in Snyder's mind.

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Image "Judgment and Creation"

"I've had these certain visual experiences in life where there's a figure that remains so perfectly intact, or a painting that remains so perfectly intact, inside of me," says Snyder. "There's something that's eternal about that image for me, and so my own visual landscape includes those images."

Snyder had never worked on such a large scale before. These new paintings are so big he had to build walls specifically for hanging them while he worked. Often he climbed scaffolding to paint the uppermost stretches of canvas, only to descend and find the perspective was wrong.

For two years Snyder persisted. When frustrated, he would stop for a while and carve masks, swords and angels. He also listened repeatedly to two pieces by Estonian composer Arvo Part. Snyder says this music evokes the world he was trying to paint -- a place that collects all the rites of passage of the human soul.

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Image Detail from "Communion"

The third and largest painting depicts what Snyder calls "The Circus of the Night" - a piece of canvas nine feet high and 24 feet long. Jugglers and musicians perform alongside images of Adam and Eve, demons and angels. A blue horse rides in a sky framed with red curtains. For Snyder, life is like a circus -- crazy and beautiful, strange, yet perfect.

"It's really a simple metaphor for how -- in a moment or in a lifetime -- we can have these little shifts of reality that take us very far away, but bring us back to just about where we are right now, but in a little bit different place. And that travel that happens is really fascinating to me," he says.

Snyder's paintings, carvings and drawings are on display at Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis through Aug. 23. Snyder says he hopes the paintings will someday find a permanent home in a public space, where people can come to contemplate what their own circus of the night might look like.

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