Postcards don’t usually say much: On the front, there may be a picture from the museum or country your friend is visiting; on the back, a few lines that convey some small affection. This delicacy is what makes postcards special. They carry feeling but not the freight of too much personality—they delight and ask for nothing in return. Or at least that’s what I felt about Keith Smith’s postcards, which the artisan bookmaker has been sending to friends for five decades now, a number of which have been brought together for this exhibition.
The postcards sit well in the gallery precisely because they aren’t intimate. They’re certainly not overburdened with text—some carry the artist’s signature, neatly printed, or poetic non sequiturs, such as “LATHER WAS THIRTY YEARS OLD TODAY . . . ” Smith uses the cards as little canvases or bulletin boards for his imagination. With photo negatives, drawings, cutouts, and stamps, he creates modestly sized collages from images that happen to surround him (often they are images of the artist himself).
The form is important. Collages retain the verisimilitude of their sources but displace them from continuity and order. As a result, such works convince us that the original arrangement was arbitrary or at least changeable. Smith’s postcards suggest as much about our lives. Untitled, 7:12 PM, 24 Dec 71, 1971, for example, is entirely blank but for a tiny, tilted drawing of a bird. Charming enough—but the real message reveals itself when you find a bird-shaped hole on the card’s stamp. The liberated bird reminds us to liberate ourselves from boring habit. There are other ways to live, it says, other places to visit.