New York

Ned Smyth

Holly Solomon Gallery

Installation art has become an imperative instead of a prerogative: it denotes the artist’s seriousness in wanting not only to make an object within a space, but to make it relate to the space. From El Lissitzky’s Proun Space and Kurt Schwjtters’ Merzbau comes the heritage of artists-who-would-be-architects—artists acutely aware that context plays a crucial part in reading content. This type of concern was cruelly dismissed by Frank Lloyd Wright as a type of “inferior desecration” (architects, well aware that no space is neutral, know who’s boss), rather than interior decoration, but would he have said that about Whistler’s Peacock Room?

Two dazzling installations occupying separate rooms in the Holly Solomon Gallery remind us that original installation art predates Lissitzky and Schwitters and Whistler—the cathedral-like caves of Pech-Merle and the cavelike cathedrals of the Gothic era. Ned Smythe’s and Thomas-Lanigan-Schmidt’s have these latter examples in mind.

Smyth, one of the rare sculptors whose outdoor work is always made with a particular situation in mind, (rather than plunking down a sculpture he’s made on just any site) attempts a most ambitious interior project. Eclectic, decorative, and congested, Adoration and Adornment quotes from pagan and Christian ritual shrines, and uses cast concrete, fabric, and tiled elements to transform the gallery into a meditative arcade, complete with rotundas and ark.

The iconographic items that keep repeating—in various forms—in Smyth’s work are the fish and the palm, both symbols of Christ. Smyth’s fish are playful, lively swimmers bulging out of their relief surfaces. His palms come in a variety of shapes and sizes: as fabric silhouettes patterned with frolicking fish; as fabric sculptures of woolen herringbone trunks and green rayon fronds; and as tiled and concrete colonnades, sophisticated architectural elements that are virtually Smyth’s trademark.

Interspersed with the flora and fauna are hand-molded and painted concrete capitals, gracing spare concrete columns, brimming with flora and fauna of their own: lilies, lily pads, cheerful cherubim on a purplish grape-juicy background. And interspersed high up on the walls are painted-and-molded concrete garlands of pagan gods (Bacchus, Hephaestus?) that are not unlike Baroque grotesques decorating architecture.

Smyth’s installation is more than an art historical gloss on various modes of coexisting Italian architectural styles, more than an encyclopedia of the ways to make an icon. Adoration and Adornment is a very modern solution to the very ancient problem of depicting the spiritual: Smyth conflates Gothic with Barococo with Roman pagan with Seventh Avenue schmatta-worship, achieving a hybrid that is an epigone of contemporary contradiction and complexity.

Carrie Rickey