New York

Susan Smith

John Gibson Gallery

Susan Smith works with colors both bold and muted, with found building fragments both crude and refined but always warmly textured, and with canvas. From these elements she assembles rectangular constructions which vitalize the tension between sculpture and painting, and among object, observation, and illusion. From a distance her work appears an exercise in pictorial illusion; a closer look reveals the compositions’ concern with space and with the recontextualizing of objects in the framework of art.

The strength of Smith’s work is its mercurial character. Her constructions are at once sure abstract compositions and images with strong narrative associations. The additive process of construction and collage ironically suggests a process of revelation through excavation. Smith finds her architectural fragments—wood panels, moldings, sheet metal—on demolition sites, littered fields for a new kind of archaeology where the past is instantly and aggressively invented through destruction. One feature of these sites seems to me particularly relevant to Smith’s work: after the debris has been removed the only remembrance of the demolished structure, and of the inhabitants who once moved through its spaces, are ghostly cross sections, the shadows of the walls that previously adjoined flanking buildings. I suspect that this process of architectural pentimento has informed Smith’s work, and that she feels some desire to recapitulate the memories of activities, movements, colors painstakingly selected, and forms cautiously assembled by building tenants.

But Smith is not simply a mimic; she is also a collagist who can juxtapose formal elements with suggestions of the content of inner lives. In Red Stencil, 1984, she makes a panel from three vertical boards. Precisely mounted on the two flanking boards are strips of canvas, one tan and one beige. On the cream-colored middle board is a delicate red stencil, a Western interpretation of an Eastern cliche: the repeated image includes a stooped figure, an arched bridge, and a bowing cherry tree. These found images pierce the static composition of the construction as they seem to cascade down the center. In Blue Horizontal, 1984, Smith creates a canvas collage of blue and beige bisected and joined by a horizontal architectural fragment, a plaster molding. The abstract composition is enriched and complicated by the intruding evidence of another kind of construction sensibility, an architectural one distanced from the pictorial.

Smith’s subtle pieces pack a psychological punch. Products of the calculations of a capable eye and hand, they still remain surprising, touching, and provocative in the same way that the unanticipated discoveries of personal histories at demolition sites do. Smith understands that tension is often best communicated through quiet persistence, that recycled materials imaginatively applied will link the past and the future, and that found objects as compositional ingredients can be both abstract and anecdotal.

Patricia C. Phillips