New York

Josh Smith, Untitled, 2013, oil on canvas, 60 x 48".

Josh Smith, Untitled, 2013, oil on canvas, 60 x 48".

Josh Smith

Josh Smith, Untitled, 2013, oil on canvas, 60 x 48".

My hobby: posting artworks on Instagram, sequencing the purity of the monochrome into that endless reshuffling of history that now defines contemporary life. Josh Smith’s two-part exhibition at Luhring Augustine’s galleries in Chelsea and Bushwick balanced a brushy group of monochrome canvases in Manhattan against an Edvard-Munch-goes-to-the-Bahamas grouping of palm-tree silhouettes (and a modest selection of oddball, endearing ceramics) in Brooklyn, requiring the viewer to travel physically as well as mentally. Smith has often mixed unexpected images within a single show—e.g., his 2011 exhibition at Luhring Augustine included paintings of stop signs, insects, leaves, his name, etc.—but this time each exhibition adhered to a tight focus, as if the artist wanted to be sure that the memory of the first stayed with you during the longish trip to the second.

“I make a piece of art just to prove that I exist in my own way. And I can’t make something nice. I have to make something that makes me uncomfortable,” Smith has remarked. What he does supereffectively is make other people uncomfortable, too. In Chelsea, Smith’s apparently slapdash yet Fordist monochromes issued a frank assault on those sensibilities that still hold tightly to the sanctity of that format’s purity, its revealed materiality, its divine nothingness. The apparent single-mindedness of the monochromes played off the slutty, spindly black palm trees as they wave dolorously against radioactive Hotel California sunsets. These paintings—some the very same size as the monochromes—provoke strong reactions, too, for all their apparent easy-sleazy motel-tryst allure. They’re irksome because they play fast and loose with kitsch representations, yet they are quite resolved (viz, good) paintings. The discomfort engendered by these twin shows could be traced to multiple sources, and Smith’s opportunity to orchestrate the resonance of these references expanded with the counterpoint of a second venue.

In his 1986 essay on monochromatic painting “The Primary Colors for the Second Time,” Benjamin Buchloh elaborates yet again the distinction between the historical avant-garde and the neo-avant-garde with respect to originality: “[W]e are confronted here with practices of repetition that cannot be discussed in terms of influence, imitation, and authenticity alone. A model of repetition that might better describe this relationship is the Freudian concept of repetition that originates in repression and disavowal.” In choosing monochrome as the focus for the Manhattan show, Smith resurrects this most uncompromising version of abstraction, along with the concomitant arguments for painting’s necessary demise. But in so doing, he also evokes the “other” time and place of art classes. Both gestural and formulaic, the works suggest the awkward, deceptively amateurish absorption and repetition of forms and genres from art history. The straightforward colors and surfaces linger somewhere between earnest and offhand, and the pleasures of opticality—that privileged variety of looking at nothing—are blunted.

The palm trees in Brooklyn—simultaneously recalling motel art, which is to say kitsch, and Munch, with anxiety percolating in every picture, sometimes to the point of hysteria—play out pictorially what the Manhattan show adumbrated conceptually. The trees are almost Halloween horrors; they reach out menacingly and/or comically, Walt Disney does Mulholland Drive. Trees of death à la Friedrich or Böcklin? The sublime relocates to Venice Beach. But the brilliantly, dreadfully colored sunsets enfold everything from Richter-ish abstractions to creepy clown faces; I saw lots of peering eyes and liver-lipped smiles. Dirty hands reach down from the tequila sunrise to drag us back to the beach.

Taken together, the shows resonated as a kind of transport—aesthetic, art-historical, literal—and the sway from rich and established Chelsea to Bushwick felt appropriate. The “styled” lives across both boroughs echo the most trenchant aspect of Smith’s paintings: Their “realness” conveys the uncomfortably visible process of trying to express oneself or something meaningful in yet another already inhabited territory.

David Rimanelli