New York

Joe Smith

Wolff Gallery

Joe Smith’s use of evocative common materials in his small sculptural arrangements—panes of glass, broken bottles, gravel, sheet concrete, rough-hewn blocks of wood—recalls both Robert Smithson’s cross-sections of industrial environments and the material investigations of arte povera. But Smith’s work lacks both the sociological/archaeological dimension of Smithson’s work and the environmental, almost ritualistic quality of, say, Gilberto Zorio’s installations. Instead, his small setups have the quality of didactic models, as if they were demonstrations of the associational syntax of the particular materials and forms he employs.

In Monkey, 1987, a shaped cement “stone” that looks a little like a head hangs from the wall beneath a protruding shelf of glass, and overlapping shadows fan out across the wall below the stone. This exemplifies the way Smith uses the contradictory qualities of his materials: the glass is both solid and transparent, protective and dangerous; the chunk of concrete, in its opacity and heft, provides a counterpoint to the glass. The theatrical quality of this work, which further emphasizes its modellike character, is also found in many of the other pieces shown here, such as Bridge, 1987. Here, sheets of glass form a covered-bridge shape, which rests on two white-painted blocks of wood. Several other blocks of wood, either cubes or other rectangular solids, are arranged around or in the central glass “bridge,” with one small cube inside it pressing against the glass toward a larger block outside.

Other pieces refer to the stylized geometry of Modernist-influenced furniture and interior design. Untitled, 1987, consists of a small oval of glass that lies flat on a white-painted pedestal, and a matching piece of glass that is tilted up by one of three multicolored blocks of wood (which, however, are still rough beneath the gloss of paint). The delicate geometry of this arrangement is accentuated by Smith’s attention to the precise details of his materials: although both panes of glass are “clear,” each has a slightly different cast, and their sweeping curved edges trace lines of different colors—one a pale greenish yellow and the other a deeper bottle green—across the space of the piece.

In their associative theatricality, these works recall the elegantly ironic objects of the Surrealists; occasionally they even take on some of the machinelike qualities of Surrealist objects. The danger in this is that even minor bits of stagecraft can distract attention from the materials that are at the heart of Smith’s dramas. The most successful pieces here are simple to the point of seeming inevitable. When Smith complicates his structures, he sometimes seems to be straining after effect. In Presence and Threat, 1987, for example, a small box made of panes of glass wired together hangs over the edge of a slab of sheet cement balanced upright, while a smooth, egg-shaped rock hangs on the other side of the cement slab, serving as a counterweight to the glass box. Here as elsewhere, Smith plays off his materials against one another, with the fragility and seeming insubstantiality of the glass placed in opposition to the compact solidity of the stone. Added to this is the sense of potential destruction in the arrangement—that if the stone falls, the glass box breaks. But the engineering of the piece—the web of wires that holds the glass box together, the wire from which the stone and the box dangle—never allows us to forget that this is made, not found, and thus undercuts the associative power of the play of materials.

Other pieces here, particularly two works in which jigsaw puzzles have been put together with their pieces out of order, from 1986 and ’87, seem even more forced and obvious. In general, though, Smith’s simple arrangements let the various connotations of his materials, as both manufactured products and objects of perception, come forward with great clarity. In doing so, they propose yet another set of oppositions within the materials, allowing us to see them as both historical and timeless, natural and cultural.

Charles Hagen