Art, Events March 23, 2010 By Jessica Lott

     This is the sculptural representation of an older, possibly ill woman with cropped hair who makes several ambiguous appearances in the eight-foot, pen-and-ink drawings that constitute the majority of the exhibition. The drawings’ subjects are women represented at different stages of their lives and alongside a repeated visual vocabulary of inspiration (birds, light bulbs, blooming flowers) and entrapment (cages, bars, sealed windows, coffins). The show’s progression is more dreamscape than chronological, although we do conclude the exhibition in a sort of mourning room with several startling and powerful drawings of illness and death, including Sisters (2008), arranged around an imposing wooden coffin, Heute (Now)(2008), its cover propped open like the lid of a piano, and containing (once you circle around to see inside) a surprising and enchanting growth of small glass flowers.
     For a show about an inherently dynamic process, that of creating, and produced by a very energetic artist, the overall visual effect is oddly static. At times Smith’s execution seems to be working at cross-purposes with her concept. The birds, an image of escape, the boundlessness of inspiration and the creative imagination, are thick-bodied aluminum constructions that dangle like heavy ornaments from the ceiling. The light bulbs are similarly awkward objects, both physically and metaphorically.
     The lightest elements in the room are the large sheets of wispy Nepal paper, the texture of shed snakeskin. On them, the women are drawn in a flat, two-dimensional hashing of lines, a style that may have its own adherents or critics, with their feet rendered frontally. They are occasionally locked in wooden embraces and gestures. Collectively it’s an interesting and controversial take on the visitation of the creative spirit as evoking a type of paralysis. The women’s expressions are mostly blank, with occasional slight traces of fear or longing. It’s difficult to distinguish repression from freedom in these emotionally frozen rooms, which may indeed be the point, but still, there is something confused about the delivery. You leave feeling a bit haunted, more than anything else. The strongest presence is a phantasmagoric one, this beguiling older woman with the shorn hair, who drifts in and out of these scenes, most powerfully in one of the concluding drawings, I put aside myself so that there was room enough to enter (2008), in which she seems to be releasing a younger woman from her body with the same inscrutable look of longing, acceptance?
     Some of the most successful sculptural pieces are those installed in the adjacent 18th-century period rooms in the Decorative Arts galleries. Although they are clearly recognizable as Smith’s work, these eerie large-headed puppets, in states of unraveling, seem geographically and conceptually divorced from the rest of the show. In So and so and so and so (2010), two papier-mâché figures, illuminated by a flickering video projection, are holding an embroidery ring whose material is indistinguishable from their own bodies — a reminder of how women’s identities were tangled up in their domestic responsibilities. Smith’s installation asks you to read these well-tread period rooms, standards in any museum visit, very differently, imagining the lives of the women who inhabited them, and the ocean of experiences and freedoms separating us from them.

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