New York

Shinique Smith

The Proposition

Walking among Shinique Smith’s boxy sculptures is like wandering through an abandoned city in which the presence of those who have vanished is still palpable. Some of the works are tall and solid, as imposing and insistent as memorial stelae; others are small and square, the kind of things you’re likely to trip over, like the gravestones of children. The fact that all these sculptures are made of bundled clothes and other cast-offs—old skirts and stray pom-poms, garbage bags and action figures, even a T-shirt bearing the logo for the 2004 Armory Show—adds a suggestion of compound narrative, retaining too the melancholy of the secondhand.

The sadness of unwanted things has been thoroughly mined by such artists as Mike Kelley and Christian Boltanski, but in her best works, Smith’s impulse is more akin to the intricate assemblage practiced by Petah Coyne. Voodoo Children, 2005, is made entirely of black objects—a Playboy purse with the handles wrapped around its body, black clothes tied off like sausages, and bunches of dark, sparkling fabric—with calligraphic graffiti rising on the wall behind it like smoke from a funeral pyre. The constituent parts, despite or perhaps because of their tacky glamour, evince the kind of dejection that comes with abandonment—the work transcends its parts and conveys the mannered grief of a Victorian memento mori.

Not all of the sculptures in the show are as effective as Voodoo Children, but taken together they have an appealing dignity. The sculptures are accompanied by a series of related works on paper. Two of these are elegant works of layered graffiti; the rest are collages of images clipped from magazines, each one titled Bundle Study and dating from 2005. The images in the studies—jewelry, feathers, hairstyles—are arranged in clusters and waves that channel the flourishes of graffiti and look like the result of one of the bundles of clothes exploding. A collage and a bundle are formally comparable—both are assemblages of disparate elements—and Smith has paired the two so that there is an uncanny resonance between them. Where the sculptures are compressed, the collages are expanded, and the interplay between these attributes is vital.

Smith’s video Letter to Johnny, 1989/2005, articulates an emotional and temporal version of this formal push and pull. The video is a love letter to Johnny Depp, in which the artist offers herself to the actor on “a friendly, intellectual, everything kind of basis.” She gives a chatty and brief tour of her small room and agonizes about how hard it is to reveal one’s true self through the limited information offered by personal accessories. “I’m not what you see here,” she laments of her collection of posters and drawings, “I am, but there’s so much more to me that I think you should know.” It’s an exercise in self-revelation that’s painfully awkward—for most of it, the camera is pointed squarely at Smith’s chin—in which moments of accidental self-exposure alternate with hints of regret. After an interlude of dancing to music with lyrics about cocaine and sex, she says, defensively, “I just like it because of the beat. I don’t do drugs . . . I do smoke—but you do, too.” Evidently an actual video letter recorded by the artist in 1989, and now resurrected as a work that uncannily echoes the fates of the cast-off garments in her sculptures, it is no longer what it first set out to be. Like those beat-up shirts and skirts, it has transcended the discomfiture of its origin to become something stranger and greater.

Emily Hall