New York

Josh Smith, Scholes Street, 2019, oil on linen, 84 × 72 1⁄8".

Josh Smith, Scholes Street, 2019, oil on linen, 84 × 72 1⁄8".

Josh Smith

Philosophers addressing the problem of infinite regress—the impossibility of finding a first cause, since every cause must itself have a cause, which in turn must have a cause, and so on ad infinitum—make a turtle joke: If the world is supported on the back of a giant turtle, as posited in Hindu mythology, what in turn supports the turtle? The answer: It’s turtles all the way down. To think Josh Smith had that joke in mind while working on his exhibition “Emo Jungle” is tempting, not just because of the show’s surfeit of turtles—one part of the exhibition contained fifty-five paintings of them—but because the idea of eternal return seems active in his thinking. All of the turtle paintings were the same four-foot-high size (give or take an eighth inch or so) and were hung abutting one another in a friezelike installation filling three walls of the gallery’s large east room—turtles all the way around. The animals also share pretty much the same schematic shape and scale, so that they seem to have been painted with a template—or perhaps a small set of templates, for though similar they were far from identical, their heads being turned now one way, now the other, their legs altering in angle and curvature, and, above all, the surfaces of the paintings varying wildly in pattern and color. Heightening the already powerful sense of recurrence, all of the works in this spring/summer show—the turtle paintings and over seventy more—were given the same date, 2019, as if produced in a repetitive rush in the dozen-odd weeks following New Year’s. (When I bumped into the artist in the gallery, he told me they actually took him two or three years.) How many ways can you do the same thing? Clearly an infinite number.

Smith’s love of repetition marries with his beginnings as a printmaker and reminds me of Jasper Johns, another artist whose print practice informs his painting. Replication, reversal, modification of what’s already there: Smith and Johns share fascinations with printmaking devices like these, but where Johns’s sensibility is brooding and cerebral, Smith’s is closer to lurid. Another “Emo Jungle” series showed a hooded figure holding a scythe that identified him as the grim reaper. To me more successful than the turtles (while it’s a deliberate quality of Smith’s serial reprises to flirt with viewer boredom, that frieze may actually get there), these paintings often feature a large sun or moon in the background, or a landscape or sky, evoking Edvard Munch in their amorphous streaks and expressive palettes, and Smith had made pleasantly fussy decisions about the works’ edges, supplying a variety of decorative borders. These tricks made them morbidly funny: Death comes for us all, but when he comes in so many colors, and in such bravura combinations of stripes and curves, he is virtually endearing. Another series, each of whose paintings was called Human Animal (whereas most of the reaper paintings were variously titled, proposing the conceit that they are differently themed), showed a creature half-human, half-spider; yet another set red devils holding paintbrushes (perhaps self-portraits?) against reddish grounds. A couple of pictures of palm trees against tropical sunsets, and one of Smith’s literally signature renditions of his own name were also in the show. Where Johns picks obscure motifs and obscures them further, Smith goes for the cheesy accessibility of a postcard.

That doesn’t stop him from asking interesting questions. You might, in his multiplying repetitions, be seeing a visual equivalent of Bob Dylan’s unending Bootleg Series, with its myriad versions of the same songs in different arrangements, as if Dylan were buttonholing you to say, “I can do it this way; I can do it that way.” Being charged with making art, artists are necessarily interested in how it’s made, and how differently it would mean or connote—if indeed it would—were it made only a little bit differently. Hence, fifty-five turtles. Johns once wrote of artmaking, “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” If apparently less methodical in mood, Smith’s turtles and reapers remain Johnsian strings of something elses, practiced not on an object but on a motif.