New York

Melissa Smedley

Franklin Furnace

Though Melissa Smedley’s sculptures are clearly the descendants of furry teacups and spidery hat racks, unlike their Dada and Surrealist ancestors, they are neither extravagant nor irreverent. A pragmatist of sorts, Smedley reformulates cast-off objects and clothes, appliances and electronics, for real, albeit quixotic, purposes. Her “recombinant objects,” as she calls them, suggest tools and props, though it is difficult (if pleasurable) to imagine what their uses might be without some sort of demonstration. Hanging from the ceiling in her most recent installation Water Table (all works 1995)—which also included a video—was a pair of shoes concocted of wooden blocks and felt; rice paper projected outward above the soles like clouds, while bundles of dried weeds trailed behind. In the video, entitled Practicing for the Millennium, Smedley wears this footwear to trudge through the stark landscape of the Colorado River basin swept by dragging weeds. In another scene, Smedley, dressed like an eccentric painter out for some plein air, pushes the 20-foot-long Walking Stick (made of bolted sections of tree trunks fitted with wheels and two empty picture-frames that serve as windshields) in front of her like a huge divining rod. Her video demonstrations of the uses of these quirky objects prove they are best wielded by the inventor herself; Smedley enacts a performance in which the props demand a harsh choreography.

As a whole, the sequence of vignettes in Practicing for the Millennium describes a strange kind of ecological survivalism. Smedley is shown hard at work in a landscape of alluvial mudflats and artificial seas that Robert Smithson would have loved. Tides explain that this “natural panorama” is the result of grandiose waterworks that have run amok. Smedley’s video persona seems absurdly unwilling to accept the entropic effects in which Smithson reveled. Railing against ecological waste, she performs athletic feats that seem especially bruising in light of her small, rather frail-looking body. In a scene called “Horse Shoes,” she jolts along laboriously, her feet strapped to a pair of sawhorses. In “Salton Sea,” she proceeds through the heat in her felt-block shoes, holding aloft a teapot that she deposits on a reflective satellite dish. The teapot whistles. Having set up a house nearby (or, rather, the outline of one, a child’s drawing in 3-D), Smedley has fashioned, with no small effort, an ambiance of hospitality. In an especially excruciating night scene, she bears a yoke dangling six red buckets, in which she carries water from the river to the sea. The utter absurdity of these actions is foiled by the compelling sincerity of her effort.

What predominates in Smedley’s work is an American-style optimism bred of her apparent conviction that anything and everything offers a purpose, if given the chance. When Smedley, à la Rube Goldberg, attaches a discarded computer keyboard to a makeshift kettledrum to a garden of teacups and saucers on an old box spring, and places a huge clay ear in a tub of water on one side, as if to listen, and a tub of corn on the other, as if to feed the hungry, one can only hope that the world is going to dictate a message—one, perhaps, about the mysterious relation of work to play.

Faye Hirsch