New York

Ray Smith

Ray Smith’s mural-size paintings and mock figural sculptures have a witty, aggressive edge. At the same time, they are profoundly philosophical and allegorical—peculiarly somber conceptually—for all their strident, almost garish coloration. The grand Mexican odalisque of Baño Turco (Turkish bath, 1991–92) is Smith’s answer to Ingres’ lily-white, idealized whores. Her intense sensuality, seen in three views, transcends theirs to embody a more vigorous, realistic, accessible sexuality. It is as though Smith were contrasting cold European and warm primitive woman celebrating the latter as erotically superior to the former. (August Strindberg thought that this distinction was the core of Paul Gauguin’s art.) The animals make the sexual point explicit, especially the fox that recalls D. H. Lawrence’s story. It is carefully painted in hallucinatory detail, so focused that its symbolic meaning becomes evident, without destroying its fantastic character.

There is a ripple of mania running through this work, which becomes explicit in The Tossing, 1992, a painting depicting a group of brown-skinned women, in various apparitional states. Some seem to have white cream on their faces, as if to preserve their beauty and youth, but the makeup also unconsciously betrays their ethnicity. These figures are presented in the swim with various (no doubt male) fish. One is somewhat phallically inflated and motley-colored, another (a gray shark) has a woman’s leg in its mouth, suggesting perversion. The mania is apparent not only in the sharp scale-shifts within the painting but in the frenetically repeated lines that suggest erratic tree rings, water ripples, or abortive, unreadable scribbles.

The sardonic figure sculptures make explicit the surreal and art-historical joke that animates Smith’s oeuvre. These sculptures mock the long line of Modernist totemic figures that appear in a variety of media, beginning with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1927, and including the Surrealist mannequins, and the mythopoeic, punning figures of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Smith’s sculptural figures are conscientiously pseudo in their mythification, mystification, and syntax, and so ironically poetic as to be prosaic. Indeed, the struggle between poetry and prose informs all of Smith’s work, which brings into question the Modernist poetry that reduces the living figure—especially when it is a woman—to a peculiarly sterile (however dynamic), surreal construction, as if taking revenge on it. Smith rebels against this reduction and sterility, which reduces the human to an absurd abstract hodgepodge. Not only does Smith turn this hodgepodge into an informal mannerism, but his paintings offer us an alternative to it, suggesting that it is passé. They return us to the sensual, powerfully whole figure.

Is Smith a neoprimitive revivalist, a belated advocate of a debunked exoticism? Is he another post-Modernist appropriationist, as Guernimex, 1989, suggests? I think not. Rather, out of the Modernist and Mexican means available (he is strongly influenced by the Mexican muralists), he creates a self-exploratory, autobiographical art, dealing with the inescapable contradiction of his half-American, half-Mexican identity. The animal bespeaks his sense of outsiderness, as well as his ambivalence about and aggression toward women. His art has an energy that suggests both a drunken rage against life and a violent celebration of it. It deals with the existential realities of sex and death (his animals tend to have a predatory look) in a mock-vulgar, swaggering way, much as popular Mexican art frequently depicts the skull, as though its depiction could master the unmasterable drives. Again and again conflict appears in Smith’s art, whether in the form of the animal/woman tension, the kitsch/ avant-garde tension, or the ironical formal and material juxtapositions of his sculptures. Smith’s is what a genuinely multicultural art should be: not the regressive affirmation of an unquestioned, socially received, and/or bio-ethnic identity—the taking of a self-limiting label as reality—but the articulation of the conflict between different, simultaneously given, cultural identities, which brings them all into question, releasing the life force implicit in each from its cultural bondage.

Donald Kuspit