Line Drawing: On the Blue Cage Sculptures of Rebecca Smith
by Michael Brenson
Blue Cage Sculptures
March 22 – April 28, 2007
Jeannie Freilich Fine Art (New York, NY)

Rebecca Smith’s Blue Cage Sculptures are drawn from architectural memory.  Constructed entirely with straight lines yet wonderfully irregular and odd, they suggest ground plans of ancient cities and maps of urban blocks or districts.  They also suggest skyscrapers, apartment buildings, suburban houses, or the portal to a one-room church.  Thus stories they transmit are not only of orientation and shelter.  The flat one-and-a-half-inch-wide steel lines, arranged in a plane and installed parallel to and a few inches from the wall, recall the gratings city dwellers fix in front of their windows to protect against break-ins.  In Barnes Ice Cap, it’s possible to recall the remains of the World Trade Center after 9/11, that haunting broken armature that suddenly aligned downtown Manhattan, where Smith lives, with the history of enemy aggression from which most people raised in the United States had felt immune.  It’s also possible to see in these sculptures the schematizations of urban areas on the radar screens of American bombers, and perhaps even the satellite images of severed and evacuated neighborhoods following their missions.

The sculptures are steeped in art history as well.  With their vertical and horizontal axes, they suggest utopian abstraction, from Russian Constructivism and the Bauhaus to Piet Mondrian—first in Europe and then even more in New York City, where he settled in 1940 and, inspired by its New World syncopations, had one last artistic breakthrough.  But the predictability of Smith’s axial geometry is always undone or over-powered by movements and patterns that bring into the sculptures figurative reverberations: a Minoan dancer here, promenading partners by Paul Klee there, hints of running and skating figures by David Smith, the artist’s father, many of whose sculptures, like hers, are animated by the liberating energies of improvisational music and dance.  Her field of associations, too, is expansive and unpredictable.  Karagol Dag Glacier has the dispersed, mischievous playfulness of a children’s party.  The four horizontals of Layered Clouds, each a different length, seem to slither across the wall like lizards’ tongues.  The extended diagonal and vertical of San Rafael Glacier suggests the tentacles of insects, feeling rather than invading, helping to bring into this sculptural series inquisitiveness along with speed, knowing through limbs along with ocular analysis.

The strips abut in one of two ways: they are woven behind or resting on.  The weaving is finely tuned, the placement as gentle as one hand cupped in another.  Although the sculptures are constructed from stock of roughly 20-foot-long strips of steel and the front and back of each strip are painted the same blue, no parts or any sculpture are the same.  The final lengths of the strips may vary from a few inches to more than six feet.  While some lines have the straightness of the Modernist grid, the strips with which Smith chooses to attach the sculptures to the wall are bent at one or both ends, and other strips have the spiral twist of a drill or dress.  Rarely are two openings the same size.  Sometimes a line is slightly cockeyed.  A horizontal or vertical may be turned sharply up or down, or left or right, to form a diagonal that veers in another direction.  Some strips suggest the functionality of levers; others seem to have popped from an adjoining horizontal, like mushrooms from the ground after a rain.  The way in which a line seems to goad or kick can be comical, as if, within a rigidly coded domestic structure, someone posed an impertinent question or suddenly started to jog.  Movement is the order of the day.  With all the evidence of deconstruction and loss here, and of narrative traced of holding on and holding back, the pressure is toward animation and release.

The sculptures begin with pencil drawings on paper.  Using strips of one-and-a-half-inch tape, Smith enlarges the drawing on the wall.  Laying and fidgeting with the tape can muddle and personalize the lines; their surfaces can become erratic and crinkled.  At this stage, many images suggest not only urban networks but also gigantic insects, and with them languages of sprawl and swarm.  This builds into the process a connection between the metropolis and the anthill, between the present and prehistory, between macrocosmic and microcosmic life.  From the tape template, the steel strips are cut, hammered, and forged by Marc Roussel, with whom Smith works, adjusting angles, lengths, and joints until each sculpture is finished.  Smith evenly brushes on the oil paint, its shade of blue evoking the chromatic variability of sky and water, day and night.

Most Blue Cage sculptures are named after glaciers, those amazing, sometimes immense, and increasingly endangered masses of ice and snow whose predicaments are dramatized by Elizabeth Kolbert in "Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change", a book based on a series of New Yorker articles, to which Smith refers.  Formed slowly, over enormous time, glaciers give humans access to epic processes through their geological histories of the Earth.  These frozen worlds are still homes for people with living links to ancient traditions.  Their plight is related to that of ice caps, ice shelves, and ice sheets, whose realities Smith also acknowledges in titles in this series.  Like these other formations, their names homey and remote, the shrinking glacier is an emblem of ecological peril that raises basic questions: What is the prognosis for embedded knowledge?  How do the histories of ruin and survival inform the present, in which, as Kolbert points out, we can observe climate change in real time?  What does it mean to live fully and responsibly within a deteriorating, increasingly compromised global body?  By attaching the names of glaciers on every continent to graphic networks that evoke intimately familiar patterns and experiences, Smith collapses the distance between the fate of glaciers and that of early 21st century urban existence.

Glaciers are not just markers of global warming.  They are prodigious things.  Like icebergs, they are symbols of the unconscious, evidence of mythical formation and time that provides a jolting contrast to the human obsession with instant access and corporate definitions of globalization.  From their surface, walking or looking down on them, their depths are not apparent.  They are punctuated with fissures and crevasses, openings that from above can seem as innocuous as an indentation in sand.  Within them, however, down and in, are passages that can descend and criss-cross for miles and, like an insect’s burrowed tunnels, be so intricate as to be almost impossible to map—passageways in which periodically people disappear.  Within these formidable and inconstant accretions are mysterious and irreplaceable stories.  Anyone who has walked a glacier is likely to think differently about scale and time, and about the human relation to Earth.

In Smith’s sculptures, each steel gesture, no matter how short, how apparently left over, has purpose.  Every nook and cranny of a neighborhood, and every bus stop, every window, apartment, and street, has value.  If the steel lines are seen as thoroughfares, energy seems, as with an Abstract Expressionist brushstroke, to be carried from edge to edge.  Movement is multidirectional—east side, west side, all around the town.  Just as important, it is down.  These sculptures seem determined to retain the capacity to dig, either imperceptibly, like a taproot, or like an oil well, to bore underneath.  They anticipate journeys below the horizon line or street.  The potential for excavation is part of their identity and pleasure.

Yet these sculptures are insistently open.  Nothing is obscured.  We can witness every relationship, including those that communicate distress, and see and reach around every line.  One of the intellectual challenges raised by these sculptures is their respect for historical memory and the archives of the Earth and simultaneous refutation of any culture of the hidden.  Moving in many directions, welcoming manifold languages of experiencing and knowing including psychological and ecosystem awareness, these sculptures insistently and joyfully act.

© Michael Brenson 2007