Controlled Deconstruction: Joe Smith’s Softside at David Petersen Gallery
By Lea Devon Sorrentino
Most mass-produced items that we find in our homes develop a personal connotation. An old recliner that feels like a warm embrace after a long day or a comforting, over-sized mug brought back from a long weekend vacation, only used on sick days, can remind us that objects can take on a special meaning. Covertly the transformation or destruction of those items can strike a chord that disrupts the created definitions and simultaneously reinforces the reality of the object’s original intention.
This is the scenario that Joe Smith presents in his solo exhibition Softside at the David Petersen Gallery. Large blankets, coated monochromatically or minimally with acrylic paint, hang sparsely on the walls and from two thin cross beams placed in the middle of the gallery. These paintings are accompanied by 4” x 6” photographs with wide, white borders in slim, white frames, and sculptures comprised of buckets filled with blue solution and wood beams rest in the center.
At first glance, aside from the clearly unhampered cover carefully hung towards the back of the gallery, the blankets are unrecognizable. Only closer examination revealed that what I initially took as sculptural squares were actually thin hanging blankets. But in an instant, curious discovery departed and gave way to underwhelmed recognition. I briefly imagined the blanket under the thickly coated paint as being soft and warm; then the blanket turned into a merely functional material that held paint, a canvas. The personal implications of the blankets are lost and replaced by a detachment further reinforced by monochromatic color. The painting at the center of the gallery contains a flagpole placed diagonally across the blanket to provide a structural brace. This pole reads like a floating stretcher bar and, used functionally, loses its literal definition and implied connotations.
Smith’s paintings appear to be hung precariously around the gallery. Yet the choice of fasteners and placement is clearly calculated; the paintings are not haphazardly tacked up. The orchestrated installation suggests a subjective intent behind the placement, but the lack of information doesn’t direct me to any specific idea or rationale, and does not lead me to any conclusions.
A satin-trimmed, red blanket, intended to be a painting, stands out and emphasizes Smith’s premeditated hanging choices. The almost-square blanket whose top is dropping slightly has a sharp pull to the bottom left where it sags onto the floor. The bright red disruption was a welcome changed for me compared to the other, more muted-color paintings hanging throughout the gallery. I found the bold fasteners and meticulous arrangement of the other paintings just as structuring to the material as stretcher bars would have been, so it was unclear to me why the artist didn’t use the conventional stretching methods. However, Smith’s carefully considered methods when applied to the red piece allowed me to pursue other possible interpretations that were not afforded to me in the other, overly calculated paintings. The ambiguity of the sloping corner or the clearly visible fasteners made this particular piece the only work which accurately portrayed the statement provided by the gallery: The paintings function as objects that can “invoke myriad references”.
Framed photos of personal effects from the artist’s studio are interspersed with the paintings on the walls. Their small size invites a personal experience, but the large matting and sterile framing strip them of any suggestion of intimacy. Though the photos make up a separate body of work, their orchestration and destruction of objects aligns them with the paintings. For example, a photograph shows a lightly colored, see-through men’s dress shirt that is affixed to a wall by the inside shoulders. The shirt frames a print out of W. E. Hill’s optical illusion,My Wife and My Mother-in-Law behind it. The items might all belong to the artist, but here they are used as tools, stripping them of any personal connection. I no longer look at the shirt as someone’s possible Sunday best, but as a material that creates or holds a composition. The constraint infused into each piece sets up a subjective dialogue between the artist and the artifact that runs through the entire exhibition, but the repetitiveness of that dialogue becomes muting to any other possible interpretations of the work.
As I walked around the gallery, a certain rhythm seeps in: These items are personal (or could have sentimental value), they have been altered, and now the items are different. The objects have been abstracted, transformed into something different, but in the process they have been redefined as mere materials to create a product that is presented objectively. Personal meaning is lost. I found myself resisting the creation of a subjective meaning for the paintings and photographs; the intention and direction by the artist was controlling. I found this a strange, and often sterile, place to be when looking at abstract work. Any visceral feelings about a piece were dissolved by the artist’s need to convey the overbearing concept of altering a particular object (blankets, shirts, books) to forge something new.
Smith’s sculptures seamlessly fuse the tactics he relies on in his paintings and photographs. Two, blue buckets filled with a copper solution sit on the floor. Each bucket has a single, four-foot beam resting in it. The fluid saturates and seeps into the wood, resulting in a rich blue watermarked pattern that is formally pleasing. The top of one structure is coated thickly with the solution, which lends it a reflective shine. While the buckets and beams are clearly staged, the soaking fluid indicates a slow destruction over time, investigation, and change. The deliberate and careful placement and construction of these two objects is not forced like the tacked up blankets that rely on my personal interpretation of the material to conjure a meaning. A sense of toxicity inheres in the bucket, solution, and deep, tar-like substance, but it is accompanied by synergy between the rich tones and patterns created: The two sculptures contain something “parasitic” but at the same time “symbiotic,” as the gallery’s press release puts it. I felt a closeness to the dark reflective shine of the single, solution-coated beam. I caught hints of my likeness and other images and light dancing around. Through this piece I was given a chance to question the objects’ relationship and felt uncharacteristically close to these more lifeless materials in comparison to what I felt about the connotation-filled blankets and studio shots. There is clear intention here, but Smith’s motives for creation do not supersede an individual interpretation of what these sculptures could mean.
Surprisingly, Softside at many points comes to rely on widely accepted, figurative characterizations of the objects Smith chooses. Self-help books, dress shirts, and blankets can all have symbolic meanings, but any interchange I tried to create independently with most of the work was overshadowed with the objects’ newly transformed literal function. At the onset, the exhibition seems to imply that an interpretation is expected of each viewer, but such open-endedness is curtailed by the artist’s intentions, which seep into each work. The overall sense of dysfunction maintained through Smith’s tampering with items brings an order to Softside that overshadows the individual alteration of the objects. The treatment of each piece strips away any kind of inherent references that the familiar items could evoke, and reduces the work to pieced-together materials.