ALLISON SMITH AND ELLEN ALTFEST | BELLWETHER
Allison Smith and Ellen Altfest, who are currently showing their work at Bellwether, offer two highly personal visions of America, one inspired by the domestic environment and one by the natural world.
Upon entering the first gallery we are confronted with Allison Smith’s wonderland of New England handicraft culture. Here are a series of installations incorporating quilts, candles, jars of maple syrup, pewter cutlery, soap doilies, and floral arrangements. Using a variety of techniques Smith manufactures fake souvenirs, which she traps under glass, behind chicken wire, or in oaken cabinets. Thus we have decorative candy, wax keys, plastic daisy chains, paper bellows, and so on. These artificial heirlooms are designed to generate questions not only about the materials she uses but the very nature of craft itself.
The most promising piece on display, the “Mom-n-Pop” cabinet seems at first to be a wistful reference to the abundance of the fabled general store, its shelves stocked with a wealth of handmade items. On closer inspection however, its meaning becomes less stable; cucumber soaps-on-a-rope dangle suggestively, light bulbs are cast from beeswax, and the jars of syrup announce “Pure Sap.” Any nostalgic connections we might make are undermined by Smith’s insistence on the sly double entendre and nothing is quite as it seems. Mounted above an invisible picture rail “slipware” paper plates tease the eye and in another corner of the gallery a pair of paper pockets or moth-wings adhere to the wall.
Decorated with an intricate gouache pattern of heartbeat flame “stitch” they seem to speak of domestic industry. However the title “Bundling and Furtling Pockets” apparently refers to secretive erotic practices, the sinful pursuits of idle hands.
In this show words have as much significance as things. The descriptions of the pieces on the accompanying handout read like fantastic shopping lists or spells. Indeed, the title of Smith’s display “Stilleven, evenStill” (the 17th century Dutch term for still life mirrored back on itself), underscores the cerebral nature of her project. There is a certain kind of detachment that is conveyed through the clinical presentation of these vanitas objects. Removed from their context and presented on immaculate shelves, such props lack the warm tarnish of age. Juxtaposing the ready-made objects she has chosen with the ones she has made, Smith is inviting us to question our cozy assumptions about the past. I must confess though, that I felt slightly uneasy about the relentless word play and complex aesthetic of her work, as though the intellectual force of the arguments crowded out the art itself.
Leaving behind this cluttered atmosphere we cross into the second gallery where some of Ellen Altfest’s most recent paintings are displayed. Altfest’s closely observed compositions of trees, rocks, and logs reveal a microcosm of the Connecticut countryside, which is her inspiration. On one wall for instance, is the sinuous torso of a tree aggressively placed in the center-ground, its branches cropped to fit the frame. Next to it is a craggy portrait of a rock stippled with multi-colored lichen and fretted all over with a lymph-system of tiny cracks. Altfest works in tremendous detail using very fine brush strokes over a large surface and, as is the case in these examples, often employing the extreme close-up. Every object is in focus and deep space is rarely represented. Hence our sense of perspective is blocked and our preconceptions about what we are seeing challenged. Monumental rather than picturesque, these depictions of the most conventional of subjects exemplify Altfest’s originality. It is refreshing to encounter an artist who is so keenly engaged with her material and one who asks us to reconsider that which we thought we knew so well.
Looking at these pictures is an intensely restless experience. Partly because of their high magnification, a sense of scientific scrutiny is created, yet paradoxically the more we observe, the more scattered and abstract the works become. Altfest’s meticulous style keeps the eye roaming across the surface of the canvas, losing itself in the textures of foliage and stone. This is decisively retinal art and the impression of acid green leaves persists even after we have moved on. There may be only a few paintings here, but there is a great deal to see.
In treating subjects that appear essentially familiar, both of these artists offer ways to rediscover and perhaps even reclaim the past. However, their focus on the very stuff of American life, be it rural or domestic, indicates that such communion is fleeting if not impossible. By offering us disjointed scraps of “reality,” these works operate on a deeply surreal level. Therefore, instead of reaffirming our connection with the past they actually represent our estrangement from it. Finally it is our own sense of longing that registers most powerfully, haunting the mind with a profound sense of loss.