Malcolm Mobutu Smith: Touch and Circumstance

By O'Donnell, Laura | Ceramics Art & Perception, June-August 2007 | Go to article overview

Malcolm Mobutu Smith: Touch and Circumstance


O'Donnell, Laura, Ceramics Art & Perception


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MALCOLM MOBUTU SMITH, COMBINING THE visual language of graffiti art with the observance of ceramic and contemporary art history, makes sophisticated sculptural forms based on repeated and opposing elements. In his exhibition, Touch and Circumstance held at the Parkland College Art Gallery in Champaign, IL, USA from September 28 through October 26, 2006, Smith continues a theme he calls "rigmarole involving cup-like vessels that play with graphic cloud images, graffiti and his African American spirit". The show consisted of 17 works: nine cups on wall pedestals with colourful graphic backsplashes; four large sculptural forms on pedestals; and four digital prints. The title of Smith's show references a sense of jazz improvisation in which the artist/musician sets up a situation to react against and must be ready to take advantage of circumstances that arise. That said there remains a set of parameters to work within. In ceramics each touch of the clay reveals new information. Smith looks to see things in each movement within the creative process that set up new possibilities. So, in essence, making and looking occur at the same time.

Smith's work shows the influence of nature (natural world elements such as tree trunks and clouds), contemporary culture (graffiti and jazz), and past cultures rich in ceramic history (Africa, South America and Asia). He combines elements from these sources that he is intellectually drawn to with his intuitive process of working with clay. Formal aspects of the works in this show that stand out involve the relationships and reversals between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space.

Whereas, at first, influences such as ancient Chinese ceramics and contemporary graffiti art might appear unrelated, on closer inspection they bear commonalities. For example, cloud forms appear in Chinese art and they also are found as a stylistic form in older style graffiti writing. These influences come together in works such as Burner, a sculptural form based on intersecting undulating cloud-like silhouettes with a form extending upward into space, mimicking a teapot spout or a trail of smoke. Beneath this projection, the viewer reads back through layers of recognisable imagery: a flat house shape superimposed over an interstate symbol, which partially masks the word 'Sea' written in dimensional graffiti-style letters. These may be read as symbols, perhaps self-referential, as Seaone is Smith's tagname. The other planes of the sculpture contain more flattened imagery such as a decorative art nouveau inspired flower/plant form, stylised clouds and more graffiti-style writing. True to its name, a 'burner' in graffiti lingo refers to a good piece with bright colours and good style.

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The influence of graffiti reappears throughout the show. At times it appears in an overt manner, such as a word or symbol drawn in graffitero's script, in others it is more subtle, as in the play between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space or the notational quality of the composition. Plasmatoctic, containing arrow and lightning bolt forms ubiquitous in graffiti art, has a composition based on swirls and diagonals implying movement.

For example, the red arrow arising obliquely out of a voluminous swirl leads the eye outward and then the curved top of a lightning bolt plane behind turns the gaze back toward the central mass of the cup. Opposing forces, such as the complementary colours of red and green, the black interior and the white exterior, the vessel-like volume versus the flat shapes protruding from it, as well as the spontaneity of the 'tag' combined with the discipline of ceramics further enhance the dynamic energy of the 'cup'.

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