Barbara T. Smith Andrew Kreps / New York

 

Whether elevating a lowly vegetable into a holy relic or aggrandizing details of nature, Barbara T. Smith’s devotion to the essential particles of life is expressed in contemporary substance. Her exhibition at Andrew Kreps opens with the multimedia altar Holy Squash (1971), a room devoted to a certain gourd and the ephemera from its surrounding ten-day performance staged at the University of California Irvine Gallery. The roughly hewn mold of the oversized Hubbard squash lays like an egg on a weathered wood crate, while a low plinth, resembling a gravestone but serving as an altar, holds the resin centerpiece, its dark plum skin wrinkled and translucent. A cast of a modest bouquet of roses provides a humble offering; a line of dingy foam sheets are propped against a nearby wall. Smith decided to create a religion revering communal spirituality and nourishment around the shell, enshrining it in resin to preserve it for centuries; once the resin was cast, the Holy Squash was baptized. In the back of the gallery, sixteen fiberglass resin rods hover several feet high. Field Piece (1968–72) is a cross section of grass, each column a blade. As one walks between them, the shadows change the coloring, leavening the inorganic material to respond to and interact with each visitor.

The decision to focus on Smith’s use of resin is just as revealing as any chapter of the Los Angeles artist’s oeuvre. During the 1960s, she transitioned from being a stay-at-home wife and mother in suburban Los Angeles to co-founding the experimental gallery F-Space in Santa Ana and staging provocative, feminist actions that offered an alternative to the prohibitive patriarchal models of Christianity and the nuclear family nesting in suburbia. Created decades deep into a tumultuous history in which pursuing an artistic career cost her a divorce and separation from her three children for seventeen years, the warmth of fingerprints covering sacred objects, made of a toxic, dangerous material, is evidence of a literal engagement with a treacherous materiality, making something that holds divine powers even as it glows with poison.

 

Flash Art issue 302, March/April 2015

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