An Interview with Tracey Snelling

by Kirsten IncorvaiaPosted on

Where do our imaginations go wild? In hollow movie theaters with all-consuming figures on the big screen, or in the thin pieces of paper that make up this year’s Oprah Book Club pick? Our culture’s storytelling hardly leaves room for fill-in-the-blanks yet Tracey Snelling presents an exercise for the imagination in her current 10-Year retrospective at Rena Bransten Gallery. In this multimedia show containing sculptures, photographs and videos, Tracey creates a 3-dimensional scrapbook of once-inhabited scenes. Who lived in the border town and who slept in that hotel room? Why have they gone? What evidence remains?

Tracey’s sculptures are both memories and inventions, nostalgic and foreboding. The textured surfaces and aged colors of her works are soft on the eyes while igniting curiosity to dig deeper in the many layers of meaning. It is a delight and wonderment to walk through the exhibitions of Tracey Snelling; and here she is to explain why. Kirsten Incorvaia finds out the answers to these questions and more in an exclusive interview below.

In your scenes, film stars and advertisement models take the place of “average people” you might actually find in a liquor store or fast food joint. Are these the only faces that will live on as our generation’s cultural artifacts?

Sometimes, the casts in my sculptures are popular actors, but other times they are unknown actors or even myself or my friends. I also use clips of random people from youtube sometimes, which makes an “unknown” person become a “known” person, in a different way. I don’t idolize celebrities in my work though. Rather, I take a celebrity and make him or her a random character. 

How does the collective consciousness feed into these worlds- are the scenes from our memories, our imaginations, our dreams?

I find that the collective conscious often feeds into the interpretation of my work. For the majority of the viewers, there is an idea and memory of a liquor store or a strip club. For instance, a liquor store sculpture can remind someone who grew up in Kentucky of the liquor store down the street, while it reminds another person of a liquor store in Bakersfield. The further away the “location” of the sculpture from the location and culture of where the work is exhibited, the more possibility there is that the viewer thinks of the generic idea of a place, the representations of that place they have seen in film, and their imagination of that place.

This exhibition includes large-scale photographs of your sculptures staged in various backgrounds. How does the inherent meaning of a miniature building change once it is photographed and hung on the wall?

When I photograph one of my sculptures, it’s placed in a certain locale, with a set time of day or night. It becomes more of a particular setting rather than a vague or idealized place. Mood and intent is often added when photographed.

There are a few solo videos mounted on the wall in this exhibition. Did you shoot them? What themes do they explore? 

I have shot some of these, such as the Chinese videos, the sunset image, the still photos in the Border town projection, and the small-scale sculpture shots in the road trip video. At times, the projections act as backgrounds to the installations. They give another layer of information about the work and help to frame the installation.

In your current show, one can pick out several different cultures represented in your work. How does the subject matter and aesthetic representation change as one walks through the different “countries”?

When deciding on how to lay out the exhibit, it seemed that setting up areas based on some kind of geographic location would work best. The show starts in Hollywood/LA/edge of town and moves into border town. From there it turns into the southwest, with a motel motif offshoot. One then enters the life-size Southwestern trading post, which turns into a Chinese gift shop. Upon leaving the store, the viewer is in China.

The show ends with the sculpture “We Are One,” a sort of international call for peace.

Does a specific narrative inspire each piece or do you make it up later?

It varies from sculpture to sculpture. Often I am inspired from a place I visited or a particular building. Though some of the people in my sculptures actually exist and either were part of the original setting or have something in common with it, usually the individuals are more subtle representations of the culture as a whole.

How does the idea of facade and film sets translate from the miniatures to full-scale motel rooms and retail shops presented?
Whether large or small, I look at the sculptures as similar representations of a place and culture. What happens when a store is suddenly life-size and one can enter it is that the viewer literally becomes part of the installation. He or she becomes a character in the setting. While this also happens with the small scale sculptures through the viewer’s gaze and imagination, it’s a different experience when one can enter the space. The combination of large and small can give the viewer the opportunity to look at a place from several different perspectives. I like the idea of a person being in the location, and being able to view the exterior of the location at the same time.

How did gallery visitors react to the large-scale space? Were they comfortable to walk around and explore, or shy at the supposed intrusion? 

While I was at the gallery, I noticed many people walking into the spaces. I also noticed some viewers standing at the entrance of the store but not going in. A few walked around. Though that was rare, I find it an interesting outcome. Perhaps that comes from the notion that art is something to be viewed but not entered.

Who stayed in the full-scale motel room, and where have they gone?

Motels are interesting in that they are transient places. Hundreds of people from all walks of life could have stayed in one particular motel room at some point. Motels are almost like “non-places” in that they are usually just passing locations or a short stop, like gas stations, fast food joints, and diners along the highway. In the motel room in the exhibit, a woman stayed there. Not much more is known as I wanted to keep the character as an abstract idea of a woman.

As this is a retrospective, how does seeing all the work in one room point out your growth over the years? How has your concept changed or matured?

I notice that I continually return to several themes — the edge of town, border town, the Southwest, China, and the Woman on the Run. It seems that my desire to observe other cultures has grown, and I have also been combining cultures together more of late. I have been working in larger scales more in the past few years.

Last time we spoke, you told me about your Oakland-based non-profit arts organization, the San Pablo District Arts Fund. How’s that going?

Right now we are really excited about several projects we have. We have a video exhibit running in the storefront window at 5512 San Pablo Avenue every night called “Rotating Shanghai.” Shanghai-based curator Liu Congyun has put together a series of video art by six esteemed Shanghai artists — Zhou Hongxiang, Lu Chunsheng, Tang Maohong, Zhang Qing, Maleonn, and Zhou Ming. Each week, we rotate to a different artist. We have also been sponsoring readings by the literary group Lip Service West. At each reading, 4-6 writers and other individuals present their true stories. These have been extremely successful, and have been standing room only. For more information and upcoming events, please visit

Editor’s Note: For further reading, please check out Kirsten’s previous interview with the artist on My Love For You.

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