Domenick Ammirati on Josh Smith

Article excerpt

IN FALL 2005, when Josh Smith was invited to fill a sliver of the basement gallery at New York's SculptureCenter as part of that institution's In Practice series, he responded by moving more or less the entire contents of his Harlem studio into the space. This installation strategy, Smith told me, was less a choice than a capitulation to sheer necessity--his studio was so crowded he could barely squeeze in one more tube of paint. The claim seems entirely believable, given the artist's reputation for hyperproductivity; on the other hand, Smith may have been drily joking about that very reputation (people constantly tell him he makes too much work, he says). Whatever the case, the SculptureCenter installation--curiously titled Schmerzhoehle, which is German for "pain cave"--gave both artist and artwork a little breathing room and afforded perhaps the most complete overview to date of Smith's diverse output. The first piece to greet visitors was a big gray and white canvas emblazoned with the artist's name, JOSH SMITH, in waggling, childish letters against a chalk-boardlike ground. The same motif, the artist's name, appeared again and again in the works on view, in dozens of other crude, vigorous paintings and collages, some hung conventionally but most leaning against the walls one in front of the other, flea-market style. Crammed into niches were makeshift tables that displayed handmade books, also bearing the words JOSH SMITH on their covers. Smith typically makes a flyer or a poster for each of his exhibitions; here they were flyers--lime green and scattered across the floor, to tread upon or take home.

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In addition to all this, Smith presented some thirty wooden bar stools, daubed with black paint, that seemed to offer an entreaty--"Sit, ponder with chin in hand"--even as they made it difficult to navigate the long, narrow space. The stools had also been on hand at Smith's show the previous spring at Reena Spaulings Fine Art in New York, where you could hardly move without bumping into one. Achieving an appropriate distance from which to regard the paintings on view required taking an uncomfortable (if not embarrassing) perch. On both of these occasions the vaguely anthropomorphized stools seemed to satirize art appreciation. Not quite furniture, not quite sculpture, they were some third thing altogether: para-art objects, material witnesses inviting you to identify with their air of stooped incomprehension. Just looking at them, you felt yourself moving one step toward objecthood yourself--and mass-produced objecthood at that, since the stools, blandly generic in design, looked as if they had come from Crate and Barrel. There was more than a bit of humor to this "pain cave" arrangement. As philosopher Henri Bergson noted, "Gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine"--an observation that lends a self-conscious air to the industriousness with which Smith produces great quantities of paintings, drawings, collages, prints of all sorts (from photocopies to lithographs to silk screens), books, miscellaneous objects, and even experiments in electronic music. As a governing principle, rate of production extends from the psychological to the aesthetic: Smith's collages, for example, are barely composed quasi-archival repositories of random printed matter, from hip-hop street-team posters to his own leftover exhibition announcements. Similarly, while the phrase handmade book often connotes diaristic preciosity, many of Smith's own works in this genre take the form of uninflected, off-the-cuff appropriation, as with TN Fish, 2004, a compilation of photocopies of Smith's sketches after plates from a book on the aquatic life of Tennessee, or a number of volumes made of copies of newspapers.

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All of this activity results in what should be understood not so much as a body of work as a flow--or better, ebb and flow. …