Monday, August 30, 2010

Art in America/Shinique Smith

Vested Histories: Shinique Smith

Painting has a romance with itself, and its history; fabric's attractions are always to someone else. An intrinsically disembodied medium, fabric connotes apparel. Yet what it suggests—nudity and erotic intimacy; the line in the sand between profanity and propriety—seems too loaded to be properly unpacked. Fabric seems to always ask "who?" As in: who wore it, owned it, discarded it, designed it, sweatshopped it, mass-marketed it , knocked it off, etc . When fabric is used in the construction of an artwork, this whisper of "who" follows the work, disrupting the object's autonomy. In the case of artist Shinique Smith, whose sculptural work primarily comprises used clothing, re-configuration and re-contextualization are uncertain steps toward that autonomy.


The 39-year-old Brooklyn-based artist is well known for innovatively combining readymade and non-art materials for assemblage that could be described as embodying the "Unmonumental" aesthetic (Smith's work was exhibited in the New Museum's 2007 show of the same name). Now, her work is set to be exhibited in her first large-scale comprehensive US retrospective, opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami on September 16.

Smith is exhibiting pieces primarily from the past 10 years, and in a recent studio visit I was greeted with a few of the stars of the show, including a newer work comprised of a disemboweled stuffed toy lion strapped to a speaker and coated with fabric and gold lacquer. The piece, which sat amidst the artist's towering collection of color-coded fabrics and creepy, sublime array of plastic doll houses, evidence's her interest in tearing the trappings of childhood from their known environments. Also on view were some of the artist's "bales," sculptures of varying size that Smith makes by binding together layer upon layer of color-coded fabric. Along with these pieces, in the MOCA retrospective the artist will be showing her expressionistic paintings, which in their drapey formlessness recall Robert Morris' wall pieces and in their layering of gestural calligraphy, quotations of Jackson Pollock. Smith is the kind of artist whose works seem both of and apart from sanctioned art history. As much as her lyrical canvases harken painters past, the calligraphy, which in sight specific pieces extends beyond the canvas to the wall itself, is equally the spawn of an aesthetic sieved through tagging and graffiti.

A sense of an alternate, even renegade history is evident in the bales. The artist says that, in relation to her more free-form paintings, these works represent the implosive energy in her art practice. Smith invests each sculptural assemblage with a sense of history and psychology, in part because each of her bales is made with the cast-off clothing derived from her own closet. "Some of the clothing that I wear and/or purchase for myself is always inserted into my works," says the artist. "Inevitably, there are things I have bought things for myself solely for their pattern and color. I suppose at first I weeded my own closet due to a need for material, but over the years I realize I had a subconscious desire to include my own memories or histories among those of others." The bales also include the former vestments of ex-lovers and friends.

Smith's magpie aesthetic underscores the artist's interest in personal mythologies, and how our memories of objects and attire—possess keepsakes with sentimental value help us create our identities and personal histories. In regard to this creation of persona, it is also intriguing that the artist has also recently endeavored to translate her artwork to the choppy waters of fashion, which is a controversial realm for a fine artist, given the peril of a slippery agenda regarding women, race and class. "I have been working on accessory designs, handbags and scarves," says Smith. The artist also designed a textile for fashion designer Peter Som last season, but seems fairly unequivocal that her interest in creating and wearing fashion takes only a supporting role to her artwork. "When I was younger I was spending more energy and creative thought on what I wore and how I presented myself, but I realized that I needed to flip-flop that energy into my work." Perhaps the most interesting uniform in our closets is the one that allows us to be who we want to be.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Art in America/The Bidoun Library Project

Bazaar Library

The street booksellers in the Village, some of whom defiantly sell their vast and varied selection right in front of the Barnes and Noble on Sixth Avenue, represent New York at its bibliophilic best. The printed works they sell represent their own secondary economy: big ticket fashion magazines, anthologies and art books are purchased at full price by those who can afford them, then get passed down at a cut rate to NYU and New School students via street sellers, who have an enviable overhead and unenviable climate control. This evening, The Bidoun Library Project, a newly-formed archive of Middle Eastern publications compiled byBidoun magazine in conjunction with The New Museum's Museum as Hub program, has invited some of the Village's street booksellers to bring their words eastward and set up shop in front of The New Museum. On Friday, September 10, the Bidoun Library Project will also feature an audio-video presentation at the museum. Here, we speak to Bidoun Senior Editor Negar Azimi about the project.

AIMEE WALLESTON: How was the Bidoun Library Project conceived? What was the ultimate goal?

NEGAR AZIMI: Initially, the library was born of the instinct to simply get books we happen to love and that are often hard to find in the Middle East out there circulating: rare artist monographs, avant-garde magazines, children's books, comic books, zines—you name it. The Bidoun Library had its first outing in Abu Dhabi of all places, but has since taken on a life of its own, adapting to every new location and situation. Before New York, it has traveled to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Beirut. Next, it will move on to Cairo.

WALLESTON: How does the Library interact with the print publication? Is their a conversation between the two?

AZIMI: In many ways, this version of the Library was born of an issue of the magazine we made called "Pulp," which began a long-term engagement with thinking about the ways in which print culture was implicated in representing the Middle East. We are concerned with both books as distinctly 20th Century phenomena, nearly defunct, and as something that may have multiple lives given the cause and context surrounding its birth. We're also looking at the book as an "object": something coveted, fetishized, instrumentalized and so on, interests us. Bidoun, itself as a magazine, is implicated in this tangle of concerns, from its own material-ness, to its attendant agendas and concerns.

WALLESTON: Are the publications you've collected mostly printed in the Middle East? Do you think our Western-centric ideologies and points of view could be broadened with the dissemination of more Middle Eastern texts?

AZIMI: The publications are a huge mix of things. Books about the Middle East produced in the US or what was the Soviet Union, books about Islam made by the converted, Kathy Acker's Algeria, propaganda texts of any and all stripe, cheap romances, Marx and Orwell in Arabic, even an Arabic Superman. Above all, the Library addresses the Middle East as an idea, the different ways it's been represented, bastardized, hijacked and more in print culture--both from within the Middle East itself and from without.

WALLESTON: For the event at The New Museum, how was it decided to invite the booksellers from the Village to participate?

AZIMI: Babak Radboy, our Creative Director, is a long-time collector of rare and strange eclectica from the print world and has long been interested in the particular "canons" the booksellers of New York sit upon. In this case, they hail from Senegal and sell a whole lot of vaguely defined "classics." This is, in a way, our attempt to engage the notion of the canon.

WALLESTON: Does this project interact with any of the New Museum's current shows?

AZIMI: In an uncanny way, it does collide with Brion Gysin's show. We have some Gysin literature, but we're also just generally interested in the counter-cultural encounter with the Middle East as an idea. You know, the Gysins, Ginsbergs and Burroughs of the world hung out in Tangier, and elsewhere.