BARB SMITH: Cup
Gallery 315 | October 13 – November 12, 2017
When a new experience affects your established perception of an object, it is called apperception. Perhaps apperception’s greatest gift is the pregnant pause—the moment you engage in what Baudelaire called “fertile laziness.” Barb Smith’s solo show at Gallery 315 creates such a fertile space of contemplation and recontextualization.
As you enter, you are confronted by five evenly spaced wooden pedestals, all but one holding a childhood game. Most Americans of a certain age will recognize the cage from Mouse Trap and a kissing doll that leans forward towards a mini aqua resin wall. There is also a chess set made out of cap gun bullets and two pieces of blown glass that were connected while still molten and then used to play a game of tug of war. But before you can fully enter the exhibition and examine the familiar games, a pedestal at the door forces you to pause. The pause feels purposefully constructed, as if both welcoming you to the room and downshifting you from the pace of the street.
Floor tiles at the base of the pedestals divide the room into walking lanes and as you slowly step into the room and circle around the pedestals, you notice their backs have been cut open and filled with objects. To get a better look, you shift from the usual upright gallery-stance and lower yourself to the ground. As you do, you take on the vantage point of the child at the level where play happens. At least, this is what Smith seems to be asking us to do as we scan the objects inside the pedestal, which are a world away from the games resting on the surface.
At ground level, you also notice that the floor tiles are inlaid with the same scaly surface as the top of the pedestals. The effect is a collapsing of planes that causes you to wonder what’s inside the floor tiles. What ensues is a kind of destabilizing Eames’s Powers of Ten zooming out as you start to see the room as a container, then the building, then the larger city. Eventually the objects now at eye level begin to draw you back in and you notice that every piece is handmade, carrying the remnants of Smith’s process or referencing her past exhibits.
Each object draws you into a rabbit hole of association. The second pedestal is raw with the instruments and immediate effects of trauma in the form of bloodied bags, bruises and chains. The third has more order, as if further removed from trauma. Clay pots are neatly arranged, the chain links have been freed and placed in a corner. The fourth is closed but for a cut along the corner, as if it began to open and thought better of it. Here, there’s a palpable shift in your view of the pedestals as objective containers; they become subjective, almost aware of their contents. By the fifth container, you’re left with a coffin and what looks like a crater. But tucked away in the bottom is the exhibition’s raison d’être, a piece of memory foam dipped in aqua resin and molded into the shape of a child. The “inner child” is the most heavy handed of all objects and as such, it seems to suggest that each pedestal is a different version of the same Self, a Self that has gone through a traumatic event, healed, and is beginning to cope with the long-term effects.
There is something voyeuristic about looking inside the pedestals, like you have wandered inside someone’s bedroom and are sifting through their belongings. At times you feel like you’re seeing too much. But then, these objects were made to be found. What emerges is a kind of confession. At times it carries a glint of desperation and borders on over-sharing, perhaps because these objects have been kept inside for so long that the backs of the pedestals were not carefully opened, but blown off. Either way, it’s impossible to resurface from each pedestal without considering what objects lay dormant inside yourself.
ADAM BEAL is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.