New York

Courtney Smith

Roebling Hall

The double-edged title of Courtney Smith’s recent exhibition, “Build Up,” signals that we are entering a realm of multiple functions, of things seen as both themselves and something else. Smith’s primary material is furniture—sometimes she transforms vintage pieces into something new; sometimes she builds new pieces with something besides their traditional function in mind.

The show was dominated by a room-size floor-based work, Paraparquetry, 2007, consisting of twelve hundred brick-size “furniture fragments” (per the checklist) arranged in the intricate tessellating design of a parquet floor. The mismatch of components is the work’s point—the remnants of other purposes are forced into one another’s company, violently inverting the gentle art of organized collecting. There is a certain harmony to this piece, but there is also a restlessness created by the visible details of the fragments’ various provenances—a neat line of exposed dovetail joints, a couple of tarnished old drawer pulls, stray lines chalked here and there—and by a vertical rise and fall in the assembly, so that the floor, rather than being flat, resembles a kind of low-lying city with building units set at regular intervals. The open-ended, slightly off-kilter match of materials and landscape manages to suggest both utopia and bureaucratic nightmare.

So the dualities stack up—or are built up, to use the artist’s own language—each adding a layer of visual, linguistic, or functional liveliness to the work: original use and refashioned use, the permanent-seeming installation made up of parts culled from movable furniture, the utopia made of castoffs. There is also, in the pleasing visual rhythms of the floor, a kind of latent hostility. The pieces that stick up seem likely to trip viewers—their insistence on being acknowledged running patently counter to our expectations of a floor.

This same ambivalence is present, although less aggressively so, in the sculptural works that resemble furniture, particularly in a set of three white pieces—two armchairs and an armoire—each titled Blank Verse and dated 2007. The chairs look wretchedly uncomfortable, and it is unclear whether the armoire actually opens; like Roy McMakin’s drawers that are a fraction too big for their dresser and his lighting fixtures that seem to have fallen to the floor from the ceiling, Smith’s constructions examine the territory between use and uselessness, here mining a slightly more paranoid vein.

The “Blank Verse” series seems to have grown out of a previous set of works, in which clusters of plain plywood boxes appear to consume vintage furniture like a virus. These new works, constructed in boxy shapes painted a uniform bright white, have a similarly shifting feel, as if the units that formed them were still in motion and might end up in a configuration altogether less prosaic—perhaps giving up altogether the pretense of accommodating a human body and shifting the locus of phenomenological power. The opportunity of the blank slate does not, as we might have thought, belong to us; instead of inscribing ourselves on this work, the work could very well inscribe itself on us.

Emily Hall