Smith is known for lovingly handcrafting Americana—costumes, furniture and artifacts—with which to interrogate the spectacle of historical recreation. In this she is indeed like a theatrical “set dresser,” someone who designs and arranges props.
Many of these recent works are photographs of objects of material culture from American living-history sites. Printed on fabric, the pictures take on a rustic look, akin to the objects they depict. But they contain powerful autobiographical elements, too. The lovely rainbow-colored skeins of yarn seen hanging in “Hand Dyed Wool, Colonial Williamsburg,” 2014, is a trenchant feminist statement on several levels while recalling Morris Louis’ stain paintings. Within a large, oval, walnut frame handcrafted by a master Massachusetts artisan, “Mirror,” 2014, shows a field of nubby linen on which a photograph of a mirror’s reflection has been printed. It’s a visual riddle, a twenty-first century version of the modern artist’s abiding fascination with mirrors. Less puzzling perhaps, but no less elegant, two tilt-top tables are covered in silk printed with photos of quilt patterns.
Not surprisingly, given Smith’s concerns, pieces are ingeniously displayed. Enamelware pans nested and hung on a wall make an intriguing fetish in shape, color and texture. On the floor, “Itinerant Bedding, Conner Prairie, Indiana,” 2013, is an actual pillow, mattress and coverlet on which has been photo printed the same pillow, mattress and coverlet. Visually layered in this way, the pile of fabric becomes a sophisticated, lush, conceptual piece redolent of human presence. Throughout the exhibit, the images of the costumes, chairs and wigs all reference bodies.
In a tiny masterpiece, Smith has photographed an actual nude (her partner) behind a curtain to recreate Raphaelle Peale’s famous 1822 trompe l’oeil painting, “Venus Rising from the Sea—A Deception.” The mind reels at all the layers of re-presentation; it’s a trope for her historical sleight of hand. Despite the cleverness, there’s a warmth and familiarity to Smith’s work even beyond the fake coziness of places like Colonial Williamsburg, which her art indicts. She suggests that the project of history is always staged, and that historical display is a set that has been cunningly dressed. (Mark Pohlad).
Through January 31 at the Arts Club of Chicago, 201 East Ontario.