New York

David Smith

P. P. O. W.

David Smith works with a deliberately limited set of semiotic codes about the Vietnam War, which varies slightly with each piece. Among these codes are numbers in rows, silhouettes of military aircraft, insignias, and photographs bordered with dates. The artist “saw combat” as a marine in Vietnam. But for Smith seeing and recollection are not unambiguous referential acts. In a text accompanying the exhibition, he describes his use of “invention” to “regain memory,” constructing images on the basis of logical, military codes. The various elements are arranged according to both computer-generated patterns of randomness and specific acts of memory. The role of randomness in war is itself an acute memory for Smith. In a sense, his work subverts the memory of codes that were originally intended, in part to provide a way of distancing the subject from traumatic experience.

Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke, Near the Rockpile, 1988, for example, is a diptych with one panel a dull brass color and the other, gold. The green numbers printed across each of them in rows can, in succession, refer to x and y coordinates, the image of a CH-47 helicopter, a particular color, or the probability of an image recurring. In the lower left-hand corner of the first panel, numerous aluminum silhouettes of a chopper are dramatically overlayed and crowded together. This visual text is too idiosyncratic to be deciphered. Instead, associations between the semiotics of war are foregrounded. The coordinates refer to mapping and, hence, to a specific relationship with place. Smith also uses camouflage, either as a background or in fragments as a repeating image. In war, camouflage is not supposed to be recognized. Here, it is: we are too close, and the all-important element of context has shifted. This emphasis on spatial distancing becomes associated with abstract patterns of color contained within military insignias: painted representations of these appear as panels in other works. A “ribbon key” was provided so that the viewer could distinguish a purple heart from a Combat Action Ribbon (CAR), for instance, but this key seemed ironically to evoke the absence of a universal key to memory.

Part of what makes Smith’s work seductive is that the codes for war turn out to be very close to those of video games. Furthermore, this version of Vietnam is a very distilled one. Smith compares his work to religious icons,adding in a statement, “The viewer will know I am his memory of war and he must not forget me.” Despite its solipsistic bias, Smith’s work has a courageous, timely kind of honesty that rings true about trying to see through a mirror of signs.

Richard C. Ledes