Critics’ Picks

Cauleen Smith, ASTERISMS, 2016, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Cauleen Smith, ASTERISMS, 2016, mixed media, dimensions variable.


Cauleen Smith

Center for Contemporary Art & Culture
511 NW Broadway Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design
January 3, 2016–January 6, 2017

For those finding it difficult to see beyond a post-election haze, this show’s kaleidoscope of talismans, filmed utopias, and jazz sounds offers a welcome apparition. A room-size installation, titled Asterisms, 2016, is the most ambitious work to date by Cauleen Smith, an artist steeped in structuralist filmmaking and Afrofuturism. It conjures a future that is bright for all bodies.

A constellation of four monitors facing radially outward forms the installation’s core. Each screen plays footage recorded by cameras looking upward and outward at natural and human-made Shangri-las, such as puffy clouds, a geodesic observation tower, a modernist building, stars, and a gliding monorail. These cinemascapes serve as backdrops for tables of objects, some drawn from the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s collection, that suggest various paths to fabricating a new world. For example, in one arrangement a pair of ceramic crows (by Rick Bartow), two plastic Clonette dolls (colonial-era toys from Ghana), and a Japanese kusamono composition (comprising potted moss and grasses) stand in front of footage of the Watts Towers, and later a tree, as if populating the vistas behind them. In another arrangement, a wooden Tanzanian puppet, a translucent glass bowl (by Benjamin Moore), and a suiseki stone are set in the sea, and then against a clip of a rocket leaving earth. Elsewhere, there are sci-fi books and a pile of candies taken, according to a note, from one of artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s homages to his dying lover and to renewal in the face of death. Cameras capture footage of each “diorama” against its changing background and send their feeds to projectors that cast the images on the walls above the installation. As saxophone notes by Joe McPhee soar, every register of the room is in flux. Asterisms is a reminder that we can, and do, manifest what will be.