Shinique Smith: Refuge
California African American Museum
March 14 – September 9, 2018
By Shana Nys Dambrot
Shinique Smith’s works are composed and constructed arrangements of found materials, augmented with art studio gear, on a continuum of painting, sculpture, and installation. While largely known for recycling discarded clothing, Smith also incorporates other domestic objects and personal effects like photographs, broomsticks, bits of furniture, wrapping paper, basketball hoops, tarapaulins, shoes, and more in that vein. She then reformulates these raw masses into richly detailed, colorful, poetically abstract and surreal works of art, animated by the paradoxical magic of objects which are utterly transformed and yet remain entirely what they were.
The origins, intended use and sometimes the specific backstory of the things assemblage artists make use of are always part of the finished whole. Smith is not really an assemblage artist, per se, however this dynamic holds in the ways in which her source material functions in the work. Clothing is both a protection and a status conveyer, essential yet consumerist, frequently resold when gently used, a social signifier and in some cases a personal message board. But it is also a huge part of landfills and other wastefulness, and its production is often not only economically unjust but also environmentally unfriendly. Above all however, clothes are worn by people; used pieces of clothing are a kind of malleable archive, constituting proof of the existence of all those who ever wore the garments.
In this way, Smith’s choice of clothing as her primary material carries a kind of portraiture-infused energy, one in which hidden figures are acknowledged and perhaps something of their person can be inferred from the clothes they designed, once wore, or gave away. This aspect of personal presence is amplified in the anthropomorphic character of Smith’s free-standing sculptures. In “Bringer” and “The Watcher (Moon marked she walks in starlight)” this is quite apparent, as the former conjures a bent figure on all fours from the armature of a table, and the latter creates a monumental, female icon that holds court like a spirit who gathered its majestic form from whatever was at hand. It is both comforting and eerie, nostalgic and ominously stoic. It does indeed watch you in return.
But going beyond the evocative and emotional use of these kinds of telling materials, Smith does far more than re-present them for display; her transformation of them includes the same levels and kinds of techniques and processes as any painting or sculpture studio. Her work is every bit also an expression of idiomatic personal style, aesthetic, and both cultural and globally art historical gesture. Smith’s use of acrylic paint and sumi ink, both within works and across walls in site-specific installation, serves to simultaneously unify and obscure the proliferation of accumulated things. In “This Year’s Girl” the volumes of auric cloud calligraphy executed in sumi ink expands the already-epic tapestry of garments and possessions it frames, like the smoke above a fire.
Ink and paint also create passages of disruption and cohesion inside the boundaries of Smith’s more conventionally formatted presentations. In works like “Eutaw Place” and “Through native streets,” objects extend beyond the borders, but within those borders, an effervescent array of textile is manipulated in a manner akin to impasto brushstrokes, and with the same effect. Equal similarities exist within these works to radical textile artists, as to the giddiest heights of Abstract Expressionism. The sheer monumental joy of “Sky Cloth” exists both at the scale of an ambitious abstract painting, and at the granular level of up-close scrutiny of patterns, surfaces, and seams of the textiles themselves.
Organized by independent curator Essence Harden, as part of the exhibition, Smith dedicated a corner of the gallery space to “Donation Center,” where toiletries, tarps, clothing, and art/school supplies were accepted through the show and later redistributed in communities of need. “Mitumba Deity II” includes not only a soft-sculpture altar throne, but also a wide area of carpet and cushions (furry beanbags in abundance) where audiences were encouraged to linger in relaxed contemplation and conversation. So in the end, alongside an appreciation of the remarkable beauty, emotion, aesthetic power and fine artistry of the works, one is once again encouraged to consider the humble humanist origins of the stuff of which it is made.
Photos: by SND. All works at CAAM appear courtesy of David Castillo Gallery, Miami.