Anj Smith, Sport Luxe, 2016, oil on linen, 19 3/8 x 16 7/8".

Anj Smith, Sport Luxe, 2016, oil on linen, 19 3/8 x 16 7/8".

Anj Smith

Anj Smith, Sport Luxe, 2016, oil on linen, 19 3/8 x 16 7/8".

Anj Smith’s pictures come in handy formats; a few are so small as to suggest intimate possessions designed for easy transportation. In this exhibition, “If Not, Winter,” thirteen paintings and a suite of seven etchings were spread out over the gallery’s walls with plenty of space between them. The motifs to be discerned in the hermetically closed world that Smith renders in works as precise and luminous as an old masters were as diverse as they were allusive: a crescent moon; what might have been a tattered piece of fabric; a monstrous face; an upwelling of dirt; a no-man’s-land; a fantastic (or traumatized) creature, half woman, half animal; and, time and again, sprawling tangles of branches, brushwood, netting. The genres—landscape, still life, portrait—are familiar. Yet, by looking more closely, we realize that such boundaries partitioning the world are permeable, that its regions are hybridized.

The bodies Smith depicts, half-naked and thinly veiled by translucent layers, are grotesques—misshapen and disfigured, yet engaged in a fluid exchange with the world that propels a process of renewal. The woman in Rhinoceros, 2016, lowers her head as though posing for the portrait of a saint. A garment stippled with colorful patches serves her as a kind of shawl, her hair tied up in an odd bun that makes for a hornlike protrusion; the title alludes to Dürer’s famous 1515 woodcut. The sheer fabric billowing around the head of the ambiguously gendered figure in Sport Luxe, 2016, veils a face that is hardly ethereal: The subject appears to have been the victim of a savage attack that has left one socket edged with a black bruise, while the skull, the thick hair marred by shaved spots, has been split open like a nutshell. It might almost be a ravaged landscape, the earth parched and fissured. In Excretia (In Varying Forms), 2016–17, Smith has two mythical creatures with almost transparent bodies dance above thick, irregularly shaped smears of lumpy impasto in a revolting shade of brown. Opera Aperta (Open Work), 2017–18, meanwhile, depicts a twilit scene, as though capturing the moment after an environmental disaster. A ghostly animal head in washed-out red, its contours frayed, is bedecked with strings of a goopy substance that get tangled up in a web of delicate lines. They connect the creature across the expanse of the painted space to the black fabric of an inverted umbrella that seems to have failed to provide any protection. Alluding in its title to Umberto Eco’s poetics of the open work of art, the painting presents a vibrant contradiction between the closure implied by its formal and technical refinement and its semantic openness.

The beholder had to examine the paintings up close to make out the fine seams crisscrossing the fabrics; as in Sport Luxe, these contrast with the cracks in the skull. Every single coat of paint, however thinly applied, however ephemeral the effect, may harbor a secret. Like Hieronymus Bosch, Smith encourages us to almost undo the distance between painting and eye and to spot bizarre details, scattered fragments of a world of the mind, anecdotes from epic narratives. In Sport Luxe alone, we discovered a stalk of wheat woven into the hair, feathers threaded into the garment, and seashells that break through the skin; other works contained bones, pieces of wood, branches studded with blossoms, fossils, and diminutive scaly or hairy animals. Seams and sutures holding together or reconstructing not just fabrics but bodies as well were perhaps the most widely recurring element. Smith adds to this jetsam lodged in the strata of paint by infiltrating the imagery of consumer culture: Fashion-label logos, a comic-book speech balloon, generic decal icons and temporary tattoos, smiley faces, a contorted plastic straw, a melting grass-green Popsicle, and red lipstick stains the paintings like leaky detritus. The incorporation of consumer and subculture items thickens and clouds the transparency of the pictorial layers. Illegibility and equivocation, especially in the grotesque and queer bodies, animate the pictures and their various strata; beauty, disgust, desire, and dread mingle at the core of Smith’s painting.

Maja Naef

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.