Currently on view at Artists Space in New York, artist Jack Smith’s adventurous, ground-breaking oeuvre is the subject of an ambitious, expansive two-floor exhibition exploring his work in the 1970’s and 80’s. Smith’s work sits at the core of much of the American underground’s creative output of the last quarter of the 20th Century, uniting a group of artists invested in the eerie and weird, the surreal, and the abject as strategies to push (or even antagonize) the viewer’s understanding of their format, and the world around them. One can easily see the impact of Smith’s work in John Waters’ filmic output, or Mike Kelley’s sculptural and performative riffs, to name a few. Smith’s work was equally influential in its do-it-yourself mentality as it was for its sheer ability to create worlds and populate them with a swirling, surreal cast of characters that seemed to work both as surrealist escape and autobiographical interpretation of the world of Manhattan during the post-war years.
The show at Artists Space does its best to follow Smith’s work, which, as described above, is remarkably elusive in its final forms and artifacts. True to form, he often sought to move beyond commodification and capitalization on his own work, often referring to notions of “lucky landlordism” or “claptailism” in his work to underscore his opposition to the commodity logic of his field. In one work downstairs, Smith is depicted as wondering aloud as to just how a gay man might be able to use art to escape the trappings of the world around him, even as this same world comes calling to buy the work.
The show makes much of this opposition in its curatorial scope, focusing in particular on the era shortly after Smith was evicted from his SoHo loft, “the Plaster Foundation of Atlantis” in 1971, an action that resulted in him having to move his performances and and pieces to ad-hoc theater spaces, clubs and the city streets. The show, as a result, is in some ways a portrait of a changing city, pushing Smith to the margins of its own art scene as the world around it drew ever-closer to a professionalized, ever-more sanitized framework. Smith’s work is almost, as presented here, a portrait of its own gradual disintegration, made as it is pushed to its own limits and gradually forced to move out into the city rather than continue to build its own internal world in a set space.
Yet the fragments of his work live on in this exhibition, offering a window into a world so richly populated with imaginative characters and concepts that the viewer might still feel themselves transported well beyond the bounds of the exhibition. In the first room, a series of slides from his “boiled lobster color” photo shows are paired with an actual crustacean underneath a vitrine, a strange pairing of artifacts that underscores Smith’s willingness to imbue any chosen object with his uniquely playful humor. Elsewhere, his video works offer a similar take, turning the world around him into a deconstructed swirl of bodies and colors. Smith presents a world ready to break down into a jubilant orgy of energy and creativity at any moment, and the works on view offer the window into his abilities as both magician and ringmaster.
The show closes September 9th.
— D. Creahan
Jack Smith at Artists Space [Exhibition Site]