New York

Seton Smith

Tom Cugliani Gallery

A preoccupation with architecture’s ideological underpinnings is widely recognized as one of the mainstays of post-Modernism. For artists, this focus often entails bringing certain philosophical and psychoanalytic propositions to bear on otherwise unreflected aspects of architecture’s social embeddedness. Seton Smith has clearly embraced this approach. Her sensitive photography, choice of elegant materials, and feeling for past epochs evoke a tranquil, romantic mood. Yet in their own quiet manner, her various tableaux question the signifying force of our built environment. Smith successfully conveys a sense of presentational modes as images—and, conversely, of imagery as a kind of presentation. She shares a predilection for this kind of reversal with other second-generation feminist conceptualists, such as Annette Lemieux, Judith Barry, and Vikky Alexander: all mount a discursive inquiry into certain types of representation.

Each of the five works included in this show constitutes an ensemble of disparate elements. Leaves with Red Plexiglas and Blue Door, 1988, juxtaposes a black-and-white photo of foliage placed under red Plexi and a shaped Cibachrome of an arch-topped door, complete with gilded molding. The first image is placed in a matching red frame, while the second is backed with Masonite and unframed. The two elements are close enough to be grouped, but not touching. Three different photos make up the piece Snuff Bottle Photo with Fortification Photo and Alter Ciba, 1986–88. Laminated on two contiguous panels is a large black-and-white print of jade snuff bottles. To the right of this hang a smaller Cibachrome of a massive altar, located in a Florentine chapel, and a black-and-white closeup of an exterior stone relief depicting the plan for the outer walls of a medieval fortress. Other works feature sculptural elements, including one that pairs two sets of marble steps with a large sheet of plate glass, into which a schematic image of an amphitheater has been sandblasted. Smith props the glass sheet against the wall and places the steps on the floor directly in front of it. By realizing, in part, the physicality of an entire amphitheater, the steps work metonymically. However, the way Smith uses sandblasting recalls, uncritically, what has become a signature trope for Matt Mullican.

As Georges Bataille observed, architecture tends to express society’s ideal being and, in so doing, obscures the more troubling tendencies upon which it is predicated. Despite the nostalgia that surrounds them, temples, castles, and cathedrals of the past continue to function as emblems of privilege and domination—the greatest monuments prove to be the clearest indices of power. In this, they are more conspicuous than their latter-day counterparts. But if Smith is in some way exposing the repressiveness inscribed in all manner of artifacts, from snuff bottles to temples, then the art object, as a historical entity, must also count as an invidious marker. Certainly, the relative dissociation of art from everyday life qualifies its sublimatory potential; as such it can more readily convey the Dionysian aspects that architecture’s manifest Apollonian side conceals. Yet the supposed purity of the art object makes it an even better vehicle for sublimation. The question that underwrites Smith’s project is the distinction between sublimation and repression in art and architecture—where does one begin and the other leave off?

John Miller