Critics’ Picks

View of “Barbara T. Smith: The Smell of Almonds: Resin Works, 1968–1982,” 2015.

View of “Barbara T. Smith: The Smell of Almonds: Resin Works, 1968–1982,” 2015.

New York

Barbara T. Smith

Andrew Kreps Gallery
22 Cortland Alley
February 28–March 28, 2015

There was a time when the words “Orange County art scene” did not summon images of Real Housewives and dolphin statuary. In the 1960s and ’70s, Southern California was a hotbed of experimentation, resulting principally from the preponderance of art schools there that fostered a multiplicity of practices, ranging from the ephemerals of Conceptual and performance art to the endurance of sculptural form. Barbara T. Smith—who attended two of the most defining institutions in the region during that period, Pomona College and University of California, Irvine—has consistently engaged both ends of the aforementioned spectrum.

Works in the exhibition are brought together by their common material: resin. This synthetic is associated with a particular SoCal brand of artwork often referred to as finish fetish. Finish as well as fetish become more than euphemisms in Smith’s Field Piece, 1968/72, a module composed of larger-than-life phallic “blades,” through which naked people, as a blown-up photo illustrates, were encouraged to frolic, triggering light and sound with their weight.

However, unlike Southern California sculpture that is characterized by smooth, sensual surfaces that work so hard to create distance from the human body, most of Smith’s resin pieces appear gloppy, even dirty, and evince close association with their maker. The centerpiece of the show is documentation and remnants from The Holy Squash, 1971, a collective eight-day ceremony at the UC Irvine Gallery that resulted in the casting of a gourd “to remain an object of reverence for centuries.” Unlike Craig Kauffman’s iconic synthetic bubbles of the same era, “the faintly purple lozenge of about 150 pounds” in the words of the artist is all about interiority, not surface. As in a number of other objects in the show—where Smith used resin to encase ephemera, photographs, scribbles—the material’s primary function is a kind of obdurate commemoration, giving longevity to relations and material that dominant (read: patriarchal) culture considers of little worth.