Gregory Smith: Observations
By Sam Hunter
If Gregory Smith's new sculptures radiate a cool, urbane intensity, they also express a refreshing simplicity and wit that reflect his New England roots and, simultaneously, embody his art's firmly modernist foundations.
Weighted with pendulous pouches, the Vermont sculptor's The House of Tears (cat.no.7) is a barely balanced construction that pays glancing homage to Giacometti, Klee and Surrealism in general, just as Old Injuries (cat.no.8) obliquely reminds us of the forms and formal interplay of sculptures by Henry Moore and David Smith, minimized and made more precious in reduced scale. The battered, burnished cylinders in Summertime (cat.no. 4) evoke Duchamp's found objects, while The Observation's (cat.no.6) sere, attenuated figure inevitably brings to mind Giacometti's emaciated human forms.
What sets Smith's pieces apart, however, are not the similarities but the subtle differences between them and their antecedents. Whimsical and deft, his art focuses on the personal and poetic rather than the universally heroic, and thus expresses a slightly ironic, quixotic quality that is quintessentially late-twentieth-century American, teetering on the cusp and tipping over into the maw of an unknowable, possibly brave, new age.
The painted pendants in The House of Tears are lugubriously oversized and, with their unblended strokes of crocodile green and yellow, almost alarmingly tactile. One large tear-shaped form is held by such a slim metal thread that it seems about to drop, while another, smaller form appears only partially suspended from a spiraling wire, as if it had dropped, like a ripe gourd on a withering vine. A third, midway in size between the others, is perched on the edge of a three-legged framework that in turn supports the "tears," a rickety house, apparently held in precarious place only by a frail, umbilical tube.
This is a particularly tense and daring composition, unstable and apprehensive in every way; yet its lyrical implications, to wit, tears, are after all meant to descend, and they can be refreshing and welcome. Even the smallest, a dark-yellow pod hanging by a thin metal cord from the twigs laid across the surface grid, appears vulnerable and prone to damage from the sudden shifting or withdrawal of the emotion needed for its full formation. In formal terms The House of Tears is a logical, exemplary heir to modernist sculpture; conceptually, though, its blend of the visceral and ephemeral adds a fine, edgy twist as it hints at other, more distant forbears. Smith's use of obvious stages of life links his sculpture symbolically to the ages of man, just as his adaptation of a vegetal format refers to the moral hidden in seventeenth-century Dutch still-lives, with their elegiac reminder of man's inevitable progression from womb to tomb.
These implications also enrich, and make the case for time's all too swift passage, with Old Injuries and Summertime, executed in 2003 and 2002 respectively. The biomorphic form of Old Injuries resembles a kidney that has been transformed into a quite endearing, Rube Golberg-esque mechanical/geometric form, painted a whimsical, wistful evening blue. Here a toy-like organ is set on a pedestal that resembles nothing so much as Andy Warhol's prototypical object - a tin can, truncated here - while a dented, battered copper pipe lies on its sloping surface as if to emphasize the kidney shape's status as mere junk, thanks partly to the holes that pierce it and the wires attached to, and penetrating, its surfaces like scars or decorative parasites. In nearly every sense, Old Injuries would seem to be a disagreeable object; in point of fact, it is an elegant assemblage that is entirely satisfying both visually and conceptually.
A similar, by now instinctive and signatory lightness of touch combine with a hard-won philosophical acceptance of things as they are to resonate unexpectedly, in the profound and provocative implications of a mere bundle of dented, slumping copper pipes that make up Summertime. Like a handful of old tubes discarded by a clumsy plumber, they boldly reveal their "old injuries"; at the same time, however, their title elicits a more thoughtful overview, and an appreciation of the pipes' lyrical potential. Once utilitarian, the pipes seem to have been rendered obsolete by something else - perhaps the passage of time, or the destruction of the building they might have inhabited, and the replacement by a newer, better or at least flashier product. And Smith, in a spirit not unlike that of a Dadaist aware of millennial concerns about the environment, redeems them through their unlikely transformation.
The pipes are no longer merely relics of a vanished plumbing system, nor are they stern and tiresome reminders of the wastefulness of a consumer society - though they certainly retain whispers of such references. Instead, they become everything their title suggests: a lazy, hot summer day; the torpor induced by temperatures as hot as the polished gleam of the pipes' copper material; the golden, dizzying feeling of melting into luxurious sloth on a brilliant day in August. The dichotomy within each of Smith's new works is admirably subtle and seductive, dawning gradually on the observer as the artist cunningly undermines our first impressions with multiple meanings embedded in a work that goes well beyond the seemingly frank, direct impact of our first glance.
Smith's wit and mannered indirectness, indeed, delineate a lithe wry, utterly sophisticated approach, one in which the work's visual and intellectual overtones delight the observer in surprising ways and then, to the viewer's delight, resonate and continue to develop density and stature in the imagination. The copper pipes of Summertime, like the balletic curved tubing in Evita's Dream (cat.no.5) and the hollow vessels in The House of Tears, have undergone a metamorphosis and emerged as assemblages that tap into a Jungian unconscious. These witty turns and associations subvert expectations without, paradoxically, denying the considerable impact of each piece in purely visual terms. His work since 2000 shares qualities with landmark sculptural statements: Picasso's 1942 Bull's Head, a deceptively straightforward combination of found objects - a bicycle seat and handlebars, seen from a novel perspective; David Smith's splayed, tensile Australia, with its uneasy balance; and the equally precarious Giacometti, The Palace at 4 A.M. Whether or not these are conscious formal references, they deliberately enrich the viewing experience and tease the mind into a a highly pleasurable state of willing acceptance.
Smith's works of the new millennium, however, draw on a somewhat different sensibility, and on a very different historical period. The angst that pervades the predecessors of a work so in tune with poetry that its title transforms a fragile emotion into a tangible - if visionary or rationally improbable - place, The House of Tears, lingers only as a distant memory. The tubes that revel slackly in the warmth of a summer day, brassy in their buff natural state, and the lush, deliciously swollen shape of a fully formed tear becomes its own raison d'etre in Smith's hand. Intellectually, we are made sharply aware of and yet also enjoy the overtones they so expertly and deftly key. Yet, however rich the correspondences and subtle the homage to the past, Smith's art remains the intelligent and truly witty expression of an artist who has mastered the knowing glance, the telling gesture of his own personal reaction to our post - modern era, with all its multiplying influences, complex ironies and fresh possibilities.
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2002 Kouros Gallery, Sculpture Center, Ridgefield ,CT.
1998 Kouros Gallery, Sculpture Center, Ridgefield, CT.