Sunday, February 7th, 2010

Josh Smith at Deitch Studios

November 25th, 2009 to March 28th, 2010
4-40 44th Drive, Long Island City.
Deitch Projects: 212 343 7300.

installation shot of the exhibition under review
installation shot of the exhibition under review

Deitch Studios, the waterfront second-space of Deitch Projects, succeeds in practice where many other galleries do in name only as a true “project room”;  a kind of well-funded playhouse where shows are chosen with an eye towards bold moves, experimentation, and flirtation with possible failure. The current exhibition Josh Smith: On the Water—youthfully energetic and built up from a premise akin to a dare—neatly fits the bill.

The show is comprised of forty-seven five-by-four feet paintings executed in measured intervals directly on the gallery wall.  Even without the press release telling us that the paintings were done in what must have been a hectic three and a half days, we can sense the tension between the demands of a challenge—producing a certain amount of paintings in a given time—and its material outcome.  Speed is as much an ingredient in the resulting works as paint and drywall, and the forty-seven paintings evidence their hasty coming-to-be in swingy strokes, easy one-form motifs, and unfussy transparent washes that glow with the white beneath.  The artist has continued his practice of working with simple and central images, and the paintings present variations on three basic motifs; a fish, a leaf, and the artist’s own child-like signature. The latter is often riffed to a point of pure abstraction, producing, quite winningly, works that look like perfect symbols of “painting”—like objects that might be the subject of wry commentary from gallery-going characters in New Yorkercartoons.

The best works are vibrant and fun, and show the chops of a painter who takes delight in straightforward, rambunctious picture making. (The direct application of paint-on-wall viscerally recalls the childhood sensation of dragging a crayon off-limit onto forbidden surfaces). Exuberance happily trumps strategy, and in its strongest moments the exhibition suggests the workings of a mischievous sprite from a rowdy night before.  The constraints of the chosen rectangular format and the placement of these paintings also work to activate the imagination, as the loopy strokes of the works pressing tensely up against their “frame” remind us that the only thing containing these paintings are spiderweb-thin pencil lines.  There is the hint that the images could, if released, extend indefinitely onto whatever two-dimensional opportunity might present itself.

But Smith doesn’t reach the high-mark of producing a knock-out show of one-session paintings. The risky premise certainly adds energy to the enterprise, but not an exemption from the basic rule that weaker paintings will bring down stronger ones, whatever good/bad painting criteria one might be using. A few of the paintings succumb to repetition and fatigue, begging the question of whether the artist might have arranged it to have a little less painting and a little more time to tip the scales in his favour.  There is a pervasive sense of arbitrariness throughout On the Water. Questions of “why three and half days?” or “why 47 paintings?” appear to have no better answer than “why not?” The strict use of three unrelated motifs also seems ill-considered, given that the more complex forms clearly yield more interesting results, as with the sinuous catfish subjects delineated in slithers of electric pinks and greens.  The “signature” paintings, basic doodles of “Josh Smith,” are simply weak unless pushed to abstraction: egocentric without being individually expressive, devoid of content without being formally interesting.  Even a slight departure from this system of rather dull personal symbols could have provided a range of armatures strong enough to support this artist’s impressive energies and considerable talents.