Sweeping Gestures
by Nancy Princenthal
Rebecca Smith: Recent Work
August 13-October 9, 1994
The Hyde Collection (Glen Falls, NY)

Broomsticks, ironing boards, dinner plates; these make one point of entry for Rebecca Smith’s work, and they suggest a gender-specific biographical terrain.  Broomstick Skirt, 1991 (fig. 1), is a concise, iconic figure of constraint and steely determination: thrust in a bucket-molded cement footing is an upright wooden handle tied around with a bolt of sheer blue fabric, which drapes demurely below over a sprung metal spiral.  The archly titled Lady Painter on Board, 1992 (fig. 2), shows a quartet of ungainly white plaster orbs, stacked on a precarious diagonal axis, straining against the prosaic ironing surface meant to smooth daily wrinkles.  A resemblance to a surfboard in heavy seas is also intended, as is the fact that, like Broomstick Skirt, this sculpture seems firmly and irremediably stuck in place.  Provincial Ware, 1993, finds a cheerily flowered plate immersed in a swirl of plaster that looks like rough fired clay—the image is of country-style dinnerware spinning gamely in the primal stuff of its own formative matter.  These are the fixtures of domesticity asserting their dominion over the forms and materials of abstract sculpture.  Here, the important claim of household chores supports the even more irresistible momentum of the figurative impulse, which is sufficiently powerful that, once introduced, it tends to subvert the most balky abstraction.

But Smith is not just a homemaker and mother of which her work speaks.  She is also a daughter, to David Smith (a third reference in Lady Painter on Board is to an early sculpture of her father’s called Portrait of a Lady Painter).  If her broom sweeps determinedly against an arid formalism, it is not an instrument of simple storytelling, either; in a sense, it was never really available to her as such.  This isn’t trivially anecdotal—it is, in an extreme form, a condition that all artists arrive at, even if they don’t start there.  If post-modernism has reached a point of stability, it is on the breadth of the understanding that no object is innocent to art.  Smith herself insists that her work’s impulses and meaning go beyond the narrative field of domestic arrangements.  Indeed, her most recent work tends more decisively to abstraction.  Corner Piece, 1993, wrestles with the problem of how a solid, discrete object can ride athwart the coordinates of Euclidean space.  A deliberately messy sculpture, made of aluminum and painted plaster that drips counter-gravitationally in evidence of the varying positions it held during its creation, Corner Piece seems to reach from some primordial repertoire of shape and surface toward the representation of two hands, three digits apiece, straining for a clasp.  The force of this kinesthetic association lends strength to the basic dynamic of a sculpture installed at the intersection of two walls.  But for all the primitivism of its form, and the frank awkwardness of its spatial predicament, Corner Piece takes up a problem addressed many times in this century, by artists ranging from Vladimir Tatlin to Fred Sandback.  Smith’s use of the corner between two walls is, in the sense, as bound by culture and history as her use of a common cooking utensil.

Two sculptures of 1992 create physical tension by facing off paired conical plaster forms within an open aluminum frame.  In You Will Know Then, the opposition is archetypically male vs. female, with a single, central protrusion staring down a more softly modeled, doubled mound.  Ten feet of aluminum separates the opposing plaster forms in Separation by Death, which are nonetheless held in the paralyzed grip of perpetual confrontation.  A trio of rough white plaster spheres bends protectively over a fourth, incomplete sphere in Fate of Placement, a small sculpture.  In all of these works, there is a latent body of figurative associations, reinforced with varying specificity by titles, that inflects the forms without rendering them merely descriptive.  Even Woman Casting a Shadow, 1991 (fig. 3), a stack of wooden spheres footed by an aluminum cube and ironing-board-shaped base, both lathered with plaster, seems to have been titled more to organize a net of allusions than to name an originating figurative subject.

Skincolor, 1993 (fig. 4), is in large measure a non-object form.  Its title refers to a friend who is gravely ill, and the movement this piece traces is of merely insupportable decline, in the shape of a sagging body of brown-painted plaster propped up by a three-sided aluminum base—an open box whose sides are, it seems, being bent perilously by the weight of the supine plaster body.  But again, figurative associations seem secondary to more fundamental issues of mass, surface and scale—and, not less, of the relationship between painting and sculpture.  As much as a body, the long spill of plaster reads as a single paint stroke, or, at least, a graphic gesture made flesh.  Here, too, Smith speaks in dialogue with other artists, including Ralph Humphrey, for the sculptural density of his work, which overturns the conventional metaphorical relationship between windows and paintings, and Oldenburg, for softening and spreading forms whose dignity demands they stay rigid and small. 

As evidence that Smith is concerned with confounding disciplines, there are both an ongoing series of paintings on aluminum, and the increasing use of looser and more expressionistically applied paint on the sculpture itself.  Breastfeeding Piece, 1993, for instance, is a nearly three-foot-tall form that fights to be called a bust, its stacked plaster globes dripping with latex in shades of purple and ocher; meant to celebrate an experience of intimacy and joyful abundance, it also carries undertones, in its top-heavy, engorged forms, of discomfort and confinement.  In the smaller Salt and Pepper, 1993, paint cascades down one of two paired, peach-pit-encrusted forms as if poured from a salt shaker; the real spatula stuck in the top of Kitchen Loaf, another small sculpture of the same year, serves up a loaf of plaster-embodied paint both pictorially and sculpturally—it describes its subject, and stands in for it, physically acting out its part.

At the same time, Smith has been working on a series of oil paintings on shaped aluminum panels which while flat and hung on the wall, are vestigially sculptural—the surface is the same, in fact, as that which often serves as base or pedestal for Smith’s three-dimensional work.  Some of the paintings, with their juicy paint and scalloped edges, seem to speak ironically of femininity as a visual style.  But the most recent, such as Roadster (fig. 5) and Cloud (both 1993) are more resolutely abstract, their bubbling, fluid forms articulated by swirling arabesques of paint.  Stressing the opacity of the work’s surface, proceeding inwards from irregular contours that don’t frame illusory windows but instead establish the painting’s interior spatial coordinates, Smith works toward an integration of two-and-three-dimensional form.

In the vigorous dialogue between abstraction and figurative assemblage that animates Smith’s work, the figuration tends to coherent narrative, while the abstract forms are subject to an entropic pull toward disarray.  When Robert Smithson elaborated on the concept of entropy for the purpose of sculpture, it was to articulate a theoretical support for the Minimalist rejection of referentiality, of relational composition, of time.  But in popular usage, entropy suggests the inner will of physical matter towards chaos, a meaning that has tended to color Smithson’s legacy as well.  In Smith’s art, abstraction is often an omnivorous force that swallows domesticity whole—the very kind that, in the form of growing blobs of latex, split a broom in two in Marjorie Strider’s 1972 Sculpture Brooms.  But for Smith, abstraction can also be a species of found object, without particular privileges or handicaps.  An educated skepticism, and an easy familiarity with the vocabulary of both post-minimalist “feminist” sculpture and its critique, inform Smith’s work.  But what really gets it going is a sense of exuberant pleasure in both the business of daily life, and the equally daily engagement with abstract form in space.

© Nancy Princenthal 1994