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For an artist who uses his own name, writ large, as the leitmotif for his expressionistic paintings, Josh Smith is surprisingly self-effacing. Currently showing at Susanne Hilberry Gallery, Smith sloughs off a recent New York Times review calling his work "stunningly sophomoric." He regards the review positively, as validation of his existence in the art world. He claims he's "proud that someone could be that upset" about his work. Talk about making lemonade! Then again, it's easy to be sanguine when, before the age of 30, your work is on the Saatchi Gallery Web site, Art Forum features you, and you've got shows lined up from New York to Europe to Japan.
Considering Smith's success in the fickle art world, then looking at this exhibition of paintings, collages and photocopied "books," you might misjudge him as a swaggering neo-neoexpressionist in the Schnabel or Basquiat mold. That would be a mistake. As for scrawling his name across his work, in an interview, Smith explains during an interview that he "struggles with making abstract painting," so he decided that his name could be used as a foundation upon which to build layers that comprise his "messy" (his word) or slapdash (mine) paintings. He also mentions he's trying to guard against work that "misrepresents" him. His solution is so close to a joke that it can't really be a joke, can it? (When discussing the matter, he seems quite serious.)
Often, such as when he borrows the inelegant style and palette of Philip Guston in his abstract period, Smith's concept works. Other times, when the letters of his name look like creepy octopus tentacles or kitschy spin art, it doesn't. The paintings work best when everything is knitted together, Cézanne-like; when the letters are integrated into the background and have an energetic push and pull that can be read as enigmatic landscapes. The work is fun, too, since his name must be deciphered like a code. The letters vary in style from bulbous and sinuous, to agitatedly calligraphic, to meltingly obscure, to muscularly gestural, reminiscent of late de Kooning. The paintings absolutely don't work when Smith fails to unify his compositions and adds yes, "sophomoric " weak, cacophonous passages that don't formally coalesce, revealing his immaturity.
Smith is trained in printmaking, so an essential experience of this exhibition lies in the multitude of small bound "books," numbered editions that float on strings at varying levels from the gallery's beams, swaying just a bit, poetically. The content of the books is actually printed ephemera he's collected and scribbled upon: real estate listings, stuff he's found in airports, simplistic drawings. He says he enjoys experimenting with the process. But apart from the magic of the installation, the books are aesthetically banal. They're deadly dull black-and-white photocopies of crap that's better left in the trash can.
Then there is the matter of his large collages, consisting of newspaper pages and posters for his shows, specifically one now up at Air de Paris. Smith explains that these works are influenced by the Russian constructivists, but El Lissitsky would disown him. Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch and John Heartfield wouldn't accept him into their club, since his compositions lack the dynamic rhythm, the fanciful juxtapositions and the political or sociological purpose that exploded in early avant-garde collage (even Rauschenberg's). If slapdash can suffice in paint, it's just plain inept in collage. Not to mention disrespectful to the medium. Smith's collages call to mind Oscar Wilde's supposed dying words: "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do!"
Also exhibited are Smith's small "palette" paintings: canvas palettes he's used to make his large paintings and, without any reworking, has deemed "good abstract paintings." They aren't. Badly positioned between his bigger works, they look lost and insignificant.
The fact is that the Hilberry space is simply too exquisitely designed, too pristinely minimal and just plain too big to best exhibit Smith's wide-ranging and youthfully exuberant practices. He's been lauded (oddly enough, also in the Times) for his improvisational, chockablock installations in cramped and grubby spaces, where he's had to pile work on the floor. Yet he claims in this instance to have been too respectful of Hilberry's beautiful floor to use it hence his decision to hang his books. That was a great idea. However, taken as a whole, the exhibition feels padded and inauthentic. At least he has one thing going for him: you sure can't forget his name.
Through Sept. 16, at Susanne Hilberry Gallery, 700 Livernois St., Ferndale; 248-541-4700.
Christina Hill writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.