Saturday, May 18th, 2013

Repetition as a Tool of Revelation: The Work of Keith Smith

Keith Smith at Bruce Silverstein

April 18th to June 1st, 2013
535 West 24th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 627 3930

Keith Smith’s small, mostly monochrome images at Bruce Silverstein trigger a refreshing, animal sensation of quiet intrigue that’s rarely experienced in art nowadays—something that neither requires critical context nor resort to shock for immediate engagement.

Keith Smith, Alan Undressing, 1978. Gelatin silver print with sheet film and stitching, printed c. 1978, 7-1/8 x 4-7/8 inches. Courtesy of Bruce Silverstein
Keith Smith, Alan Undressing, 1978. Gelatin silver print with sheet film and stitching, printed c. 1978, 7-1/8 x 4-7/8 inches. Courtesy of Bruce Silverstein

The show of brings together, for the first time, a large group of works from Smith’s earliest years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with photographs that combine sewing, drawing and painting from 1960 to 1980. In 1978 he was included in the Museum of Modern Art survey of American Photography since 1960 alongside William Eggleston and Lee Friedlander; although his mixed-media, irreverent approach to photography does not follow the path of his then peers, his works maintains what the press release for that exhibition had exalted as the “pursuit of beauty, that formal integrity that pays homage to the dream of meaningful life”.

Smith is also known for over 200 artist’s books (one of which is on display in this exhibition) that employ the three-dimensionality of the book and a meticulously guided reading experience to incorporate the dimension of time. The individuality of each page competes with the book’s overall progression.  A comparable energy is found in this show of photographs. Smith works from highly selective source images, consisting mostly of ears, eyes, his home and men he loved but could not express his affection towards. Continuity zigzags through each image’s mixed media surface and throughout the show as the motifs are explored repeatedly over 40 years, each time in a different medium and under new circumstances.

Repetition, for Smith, is a tool for revelation rather than desensitization. In addition to illustrating a surge of movement, his gelatin prints of 8mm film expose a kinetic materiality that only becomes salient whilst their subjects are in motion: when isolated from the rest of the body, the hand in “Untitled” (1966) becomes a simple glove that encloses the human touch, a shifting outline activated by the detection of its surroundings. The unique hand drawn elements add urgency and scarcity, counteracting the comfort of print reproductions and establishing a permanent, conscious attachment between the image as a concept and its physical manifestation. The matrix of 30 pans with fried eggs in Bicycle Seats (1967) is created with print emulsion and subsequently colored by hand. The shadows and shifting handlebars almost form a rhythmic pattern which does not diminish the  sovereignty of each pan.

The most arresting works from the show are probably his depictions of men. Hand coloring, stitching and various printing techniques that supplement conventional photography extend the perceptual depth and presence of the dimension of time demonstrated by his book projects, allowing Smith to convey an incredibly intense, nuanced and ordered collection of sensations. A haunting negative (the chemical opposite of reality captured by photographs) of a man removing his shirt, Alan Undressing, (1978), arises through an image of a toned torso whose hand is halfway inserted behind his belt. Fantasy and reality intersect as Alan’s piercing white eyes and a rim of stitches reinforce the image’s tangibility. Another standout picture is 1971 for Book 22, (1971) a collage of a nude young man with surprised eyes curled up in bed. The right side of his body is a darker exposure of the overall image, furiously sewn on with bits of thread that resemble sharp spikes. They are like stitches that close up a rugged surgery wound, needle by needle, uniting Smith’s desires and the young man’s flesh as if they had always belonged together.

Keith Smith, 1971 for Book 22, c. 1971 Photo-collage with hand-stitching 14 x 11 inches. Courtesy of Bruce Silverstein
click to enlarge
Keith Smith, Bicycle Seats, 1967. Print emulsion on etching paper with hand-coloring ,12-1/2 x 10 inches.  Courtesy of Bruce Silverstein
click to enlarge