There was a time, not that long ago, when we thought about art as an extension of ourselves. We spoke of a body politic, a body of work, a signature style. Josh Smith took this way of thinking about style and the artist quite literally: he painted semi-abstract paintings of his name on the canvas. Although this end-run around a long history of painterly thought could have remained a one-liner, Smith's recent works at Luhring Augustine show him in the process of developing a larger vocabulary out of this initial framework.
The connection between the word and image dominated the discourse on painting in the last century. Barnett Newman (who was an equally gifted writer and painter) wrote about his own work, "I'm the subject. I'm also the verb as I paint, but I'm also the object. I am the complete sentence." Smith's early works, with their twisted, morphed, and scribbled "JOSH SMITH" motif seemed to illustrate Newman's take on his painting process. Smith, like other artists who have tried to weave word and image together (Christopher Wool, Mira Schor, and even Julian Schnabel come to mind), seems to have realized that, though the word is powerful, the urge to paint is often stronger. Newman wrote several definitive texts, which would influence the generation of artists know as the Abstract Expressionists; the most important of these, "The First Man Was an Artist," outlined the importance of the human need to create a personal sign as the primary impetus for art making.
In these new works Smith seems to be following that train of thought, in a less ironic way than we might have expected. Depictions of skeletons and insects, leaves, and Koi fish are layered between swaths of brushy paint, and, of course, a lot of JOSH SMITHs. Smith also plays with the amount of touch he allows to each area of the canvas, mediating his brushwork with silkscreened oak leaves, for example; or, in another instance, painting over his scrawled name with a reclining skeleton. Collaged elements are incorporated; a large advert for Albert Oehlen stands out prominently, as if Smith were pointing to an aesthetic precedent.
In these paintings the death motif dominates; the short-lived insects, the skeletal remains, and dying leaves are obvious enough references. Smith proves himself capable of nuance, however, with the Koi fish. His screenprinted fishies don't follow the traditional style of the Japanese print -- their little arched bodies seem to be swimming counterclockwise. Koi (like shark) swim or die; unlike shark, they only swim clockwise. Flopping the images gives us a unique twist on the symbolism of the fish. It might seem a little early for Smith to be dwelling on death in his art; and we might be a little suspect of his motivation, coming so close on the heels of his insistent JOSH SMITH paintings.
T.S. Eliot said, "[Art] is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality." In other words, we turn our emotions into art, the better to make them universal. This may be at the heart of what Smith is trying to get at. He has consolidated the thinking of his artistic forebears, taking the vital gesture of their work and turning it into a sign. A series of several sculptural works, cobbled-together traveling stage sets with backdrops painted JOSH SMITH in place of scenery, seem to drive this point home. The empty sets, with only the sign of the artist, await an audience. Like some setting for a Beckett play, what seems at first like a sad joke packs a pathos-filled punch. Deep at the heart of Smith’s projectisa Godot-like sense of waiting, whether for the next move in his aesthetic game, or simple inspiration. At any rate, Smith has a captive audience for the moment. - Bradley Rubenstein
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.