I visit the Museum of Fine Arts Boston fairly regularly–I’ve seen almost all of their major exhibitions (plus many smaller ones) since I moved here in 2006–and while I respect their vast collections, up-to-date facilities, and significant works in the Impressionist, Japanese, and ancient Egyptian categories, I have found little to praise in the diversity department. Their pre-Columbian holdings are hidden in the basement, their African and Oceanic galleries are weirdly situated, and their main exhibits especially (which I do hold as the most important marker of a museum’s tastes and priorities, since they are the main thing museums will advertise, merchandise, celebrate, etc) leave much to be desired in terms of representation. In the past several years in their large exhibition galleries, they’ve primarily shown white men (Edgar Degas, Dale Chihuly, Alex Katz, Mario Testino, Jamie Wyeth, Richard Avedon, Ellsworth Kelly, etc), authorless objects like samurai armor, or fashion primarily designed by white men. The only major show I can think of with named artists of color is Fresh Ink, displaying the work of ten contemporary Chinese artists (only one a woman). The Quilts and Color show from this summer was notable for its focus on works made by women, even if they were anonymous housewives, but the text associated with the show rarely mentioned the actual makers of the works, instead choosing to discuss everything in the context of color theory and the collectors’ process. There is an admission that these quilts anticipate later experiments in color and optical effects by influential artists like Josef Albers and Bridget Riley, but the fact that the people actually pioneering these ideas are “non-artist” housewives is never mentioned.
All this frustration with the MFA’s lack of diversity is just a lead-up to say how pleased I’ve been with the museum’s contemporary wing as of late. Not only have the ever-changing contemporary galleries become much more inclusive of women and people of color, but the special exhibitions have been far from safe in their choices of artist and theme- usually foregoing big names in favor of exposure for international artists who are less known in the US. They’ve had Israeli photographer Ori Gersht, experimental ceramists, Iranian women photographers, political artists from Latin America, and now, Shinique Smith, an inventive and multi-talented black artist whose works makes an impact in both scale and material. Side note: we went to the same college, which kind of blows my mind because I can’t think of any artists I really love who went there.
Pulling from a range of graphic references–including graffiti, Cy Twombly, calligraphy, fashion design, rock music, breakdancing, 80s nostalgia, and Jean-Michel Basquiat–Smith has forged a distinctive style through her incorporation of lowbrow textiles, sweeping gestures, and collage elements in a variety of works. She is probably most known for her sculptural clothing bundles, representing “bales” of clothes sent from the US and other Western countries to communities in Africa for re-use. Though they make compelling statements about the intersection of race, culture, and consumerism in the clothing industry, I found them kind of underwhelming in the context of this exhibit. I think they’re probably most effective in large groups filling up a gallery space, as opposed to strewn individually throughout the rooms. I felt similarly about her hanging clothing bundle sculptures, collectively titled Parade, which are so interesting but just not placed well here. I wanted more of them peppering the space about my head, so they might truly invoke the parade floats hinted at in the title. I do really like all of these sculptural pieces, I’m just not sure they were shown off to their best effect in this specific display.
Luckily, I had plenty of beautiful things to engage me with Smith’s truly lovely wall pieces, many of which are brand new and haven’t been shown before. These large-scale canvases combine all manner of material, including paint, fabrics, bleach, beads, dolls, and magazine cut-outs, resulting in visually stunning abstract works that benefit as much from a distanced viewing as from a close inspection of detail. Smith is adept at blending aspects of memory and nostalgia in a way that feels universal, filtering her own associations through ambiguous, abstract compositions. In a work like Inner Clock, she pieces together elements of her own youth, deeply intimate symbols as well as actual personal objects. And yet, because of her deft blending of familiar materials, I can still easily find my own experiences in this: the pink-haired doll, the deflated balloons, the pink boa and mannequin arm; all remind me of specific events or moments in my own life, from birthday party afterglow to art class sculpture projects. Similarly, her impressive Of a Particular Perfume easily calls to mind the soft quietude of my grandparents’ house simply in its use of a pink crocheted shawl.
Through such work, Smith ably forges a connection with her viewers, a recognition of object and material that links to memory, tied up in the obscure associations each individual may have to a fabric pattern, a piece of jewelry, an abstract shape. She also references street and youth subcultures in her use of graffiti-style writing and recognizable collage elements, while pulling from a host of other sources. This kind of allusive art-making can have mixed results: Some artists seem overly bent on referencing everything they can, on citing more known works of art so they can elicit a knowing “a-ha!” moment in their viewers. Smith incorporates a lot of re-used and re-hashed material, but always in a way that pleases the eye visually as much as it arouses our nostalgia. She seamlessly works it into her bold, energetic painting style, with sweeping strokes curving and falling across her large canvases, echoing the folds of a piece of cloth or beads strung on a necklace. In a winking response to Abstract Expressionism, she maintains the importance of action and gesture but rejects the sanctification and self-importance associated with that movement.
Smith’s stimulation of the senses is kicked up a notch in the final work of the show (at least, in the way I walked around it): Breath & Line. This installation is set in a small room covered in mirrors, lights, and black graffiti-like calligraphic scrawl, and whispering audio plays throughout, sampling poetry, song lyrics, and Smith’s own breath. In her continued use of nostalgia, she also incorporates scent- one of the most powerful links to memory. It is an understated but powerful piece, beautiful in a way that is slightly haunting. Breath & Line marks something of a turn for the artist when compared to the other works on view in Bright Matter– its black and white color scheme, flat graphics, and hushed voices seem removed from the plethora of loud, cluttered, colorful, playful pieces in the rest of the gallery. But its more serious atmosphere also led me to re-consider the tone of some of those other works as I re-traced my steps back through the exhibition, finding new elements and themes in works I had at first appreciated more at face value. Smith’s technique relies on layering, on piling on, and in doing so she encourages multiple takes and readings, collecting together positive and negative, specificity and ambiguity, and “high” and “low” all at once so that individual works often feel like well-packed suitcases full of her own lifetime of experiences. And perhaps yours, too.by