Sally Smart

Robert Lindsay Gallery

This exhibition of Sally Smart’s large collage constructions was a collection of madwomen and female freaks. In Smart’s accomplished and ambitious images, these extraordinary female figures were vivisected and scattered across the gallery walls in reassembled satin, calico, canvas, and paper body-parts, like a host of gender-conscious Shrouds of Turin. Smart divides and stretches her figures so that their gestures and acrobatic contortions collide and overlap with a cubistic sleight-of-hand; the division between inside and outside, usually marked by the body’s envelope of skin, became blurred.

In The Anatomy Lesson, 1994–95, a group of these women dissects and seems to discuss a clothed cadaver whose sex is, perhaps significantly, also female. This piece represents a continuation of Smart’s previous series about the Fox Sisters—spiritualist frauds who toured America during the 19th century—as well as even earlier works that celebrated one of the artist’s famous feminist forebears in pioneering South Australia. The Anatomy Lesson is an inversion of her earlier paintings of séances: the occult has been replaced by science in an image of unlicensed dissection, possible criminality, and esthetic hide-and-seek. The work extends Smart’s exploration and recovery of alternate feminine histories, which she mediates through a vocabulary of montage, trompe l’oeil stitches, and historically conscious formal irony. Her sewn and pasted figures are both elusive and on display, as, even with the pictorial clairvoyance of apparent X-ray vision and chaotic cut-up cubism, they remain legibly corporeal. The Anatomy Lesson’s illusory, life-size materiality, its effect of bricolage, and its visual punning oscillate between a parody of Modernism and an image of its opposite—the marginal and possibly separatist edges of history. For both visions of culture, art has essentially been an experiment, and Smart’s versions emphasize the significance of labor in each: respectively, the values of sheer productivity and the value of self-improvement. The artist, in turn, sets the viewer to work decoding forms and meanings, for in these collages there is a proliferation of arms and legs, but no sensuous pictorial space to speak of, and depth is exclusively created by the overlapping of shapes. Her assemblages valorize labor and its ability to transform matter, recapitulating a familiar equation between artmaking and alchemy.

There is a certain aridity to the dexterity of Smart’s constructions, and her often dazzling inventiveness is accompanied by a definite but narrow emotional register. Her works avoid the appearance of fluidity, depth, and seamless illusion, in favor of a clearly indicated didactic and dialectical idea of figuration based on visual clues. This explains her attachment to binary systems such as science and magic; she threads these dualities together in immensely productive oppositions. An essayist once asserted that Smart’s pictures testify to the irrational. The comment signals the limitation of the artist’s works, for while they testify with great eloquence, they do not embody; they confuse naming an action with its performance. Her works assume, like most art about the subversion of codes, that language actually communicates. Smart’s sewing exceeds the sartorial, even if her particular engagement with the trope of the permeable body—so important in Queer and electronic multimedia theorizing—elides a clear connection between language, art and ethics, inadvertently perpetuating the idea of the artist as window-shopper.

Charles Green