Friday, October 30, 2015

Lots With Little

Exhibition Review

JOSH SMITH “Sculpture”
September 11 – October 31, 2015
New York

Doing something unexpected has become expected of Josh Smith since he first made the infuriatingly egotistical yet ingenious move of painting his own name.* By repeatedly finding new ways to challenge the public, he has built up a contemporary legend rather than an easily pinned down body of work.

Smith’s current exhibition at Luhring Augustine Chelsea features painted works on cradled plywood rectangles, whose mainly white surfaces are marked by skittery lines of graphite. Most of them have splotches of color from ink, watercolor, paint pen, or grease pencil. Earlier marks have been painted over in white (or erased), and the surfaces are artfully scuffed and smudged, which adds to their richness. Several of the smaller works show a delicate pattern of vertical cracks all over, as if they had been left out in a barn for some time.

The initial impression is that these redo Cy Twombly’s drawings, especially those of the 2000s, like the spiky Sesostris series. What color there is matches Twombly’s palette: reds and violets, a touch of green or turquoise. But Smith’s pieces also have the wide-open white fields and sparse, simple delineation of MirĂ³’s mid-1960s paintings, and Smith’s vertical or angled linear marks sometimes resemble birds or insects.

The artist doesn’t give you much. There is an almost perverse reserve in his laying down only a few, skinny, countable marks on each surface. Yet somehow, maddeningly, the pieces work. Though they remain ciphers, they manage to create space and to suggest movement using limited means. Their complex textures are engaging. The scale is satisfying.

The twenty-two works in the exhibition (ranging from 32 x 26 inches to 63 x 51 inches) are a perfect fit for the gallery space, distributed according to size in the various rooms. Not easily distinguishable at first glance, the works are more compelling together than any one would be alone, as was also the case with the monochromes Smith showed as part of his double New York exhibition in 2013. Here you sense that the artist may have created many more of these works than are on view. 

The first paintings I saw by Josh Smith were on plywood panels, 5 x 4 feet, hung on the wall with washers and screws at the New Museum in 2009. Smith later made works with the same dimensions but on canvas, perhaps having been encouraged by his gallery to create what collectors understand as “paintings,” namely works on canvas with stretchers, which can be sold for more money. In the current exhibition, each of the works, on plywood mounted on foam, is framed in a white shadowbox, and the checklist gives a thickness for each (2-1/2 inches) in addition to its height and width. Hence the title of the current exhibition, “Sculpture.” One can imagine Smith saying, as he showed his new batch of panel paintings to the gallery director: “This is what I have been working on lately. So call them sculptures.”  

--Jeff Frederick

* The “name paintings” build abstractions around the absurdly obvious structure of the letters of the artist’s own name. Their unconstrained self-aggrandizement taps into something primal, both in the making and in the viewer's reaction. They are graffiti as a protest of the baldest and most desperate kind against death.

Images: all works Untitled, © 2014, 2015 Josh Smith; courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.