New York

Philip Smith

Jason McCoy Inc.

It may come as a surprise to viewers of Philip Smith’s recent paintings that he was included in the ground-breaking “Pictures” show at Artists Space in 1977 along with Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince et al. His early interest in challenging the narrative function of pictures, however, made perfect sense in this context; Smith presented everyday images in unfamiliar formats, thwarting normative “readings” of them. Like his “Pictures” colleagues, Smith has always made work that jostles with art-historical tradition, yet instead of deconstructing art history and proposing revisionist solutions, in subsequent work, he has employed tradition to raise more questions.

The approach Smith initiated around 1984, whereby images are incised into oil- and wax-covered surfaces has fully matured in the new paintings. Inspired by the Egyptian and Indian art and religion, the earliest of these featured small, loosely rendered figures, stacked in two-dimensional space. These new canvases are highly layered and look like valuable antique artifacts. Smith draws not only from the history of Western art, but from minor and marginalized traditions as well. Classical motifs coexist with cartoon characters, and symbols of medieval heraldry sit in uneasy proximity to colonial American figurines and Eastern deities. An Egyptian sense of space dominates, pushing all elements to the surface. Smith borrows from such varied sources as dictionary and textbook illustrations, tarot cards, coins, and even antique wallpaper. The result is a chaotic world of images culled from a collective historical storehouse.

In Court of Law, 1989, one searches in vain for connections between the swirling chairs, dragons, corncobs and disembodied eyes. Figures are engaged in hypnotizing each other, fighting, or passing judgment. This work doesn’t tell a single story, but suggests many.

Clocks figure prominently in Assorted Mysteries, 1989, a canvas onto which symbols of medieval royalty have been incised. These are superseded in importance by giant ears of corn, crossed in pairs as mock coats-of-arms. The repetition of certain elements is a key factor in Smith’s work. In Love, 1989, the figure of a court jester is depicted singly, in doubles and triples. They appear as if summoned by a seance, or tarot reading gone awry. In its title, Biographies of Great Men, 1989, creates narrative expectations, yet only the vaguest of scenes are provided, offering “moments in time” punctuated by more floating clocks. Details such as a pairs of eyeglasses dwarf the actual historical players who are shown sword fighting, ruling, discovering, inventing, and dying.

In Eyes of Saints, 1990, rows of tondi suggesting portraiture contain unlikely subjects. Colonial American dancers, giant fingerprints, flowers, and houses enjoy equal status by dint of their placement within the frames. No hierarchy exists among these images, and marginalia and decorative elements are as much the subject as are the figures.

A Dios, 1990, employs the full range of Smith’s iconographic repertoire. Eastern and Western traditions mingle as chairs, padlocks, zombies, and jesters share the same shallow space. Large suns dominate this composition, like ancient deities. Smith’s sensibility is symbolist; the mysterious tone of these paintings owes more to his use of various mystical traditions and minor art forms, than to the canon of high art.

Jenifer P. Borum