Sight Maps: Recent Work by Rebecca Smith
by Nancy Princenthal
The Ring Sculptures
March 31 through May 12, 2002
Picker Art Gallery, Colgate University (Hamilton, NY)

Maps, like most other kinds of drawing, are an attempt to resolve ultimately irreconcilable realities: the flat and the volumetric, the notational and the tangible.  Even when the information they deliver is purely physical (topography, climate), maps are schematic, synthesizing and abstracting information that is, always, ultimately unstable.  But the New York City subway map, which served as a starting point for Rebecca Smith’s recent Map/Web sculptures (Figures 1, 2, 8 and 10), serves a system that is especially hard to chart (though it doesn’t change nearly as much, alas, as its representations, which over the past few decades have ranged from extremely stylized, as in the bright colors and abstract geometries of the 1970s, to considerably more naturalistic).  Meant to indicate routes rather than the surfaces they cross—that is, direction rather than place—subway maps (like many road maps and navigational charts) represent pure one-dimensionality.  The more challenging, then, is Smith’s decision to use them as the bases for a series of fully volumetric sculptures—or, more precisely, of work that combines fixed metal armatures with movable clay parts to skip lightly from one dimension straight to four.

The first two works in the series, Map/Web 1 and Map/Web 2 (Figures 1 and 2) are irregular, open networks of steel rods that hang on the wall.  Perpendicular at some central intersections and freely curved at the perimeter, they represent the actual map only fragmentarily, and loosely at that.  The second Map/Web is the most heavily elaborated of the two, but both seem lightly drawn; they have the tensile strength of welded steel, but are as visually delicate as the spider webs to which they are also indebted.  What contributes most to their frailty, and their sense of vulnerability, are paradoxically those elements that lend them bulk, that slow down the perceptual grasp of their sleek, high-velocity lines.  These elements, which appear in one form or another in all Smith’s current sculpture, are hand-made rings made of polymer clay, a material as domestic humble and visibly home-made (easily modeled, and hardened in any conventional oven, it is often used by children) as the welded steel is industrial and formal.  Smith exploited the extremely broad choice of color the clay allows, making rings that range from shadowy shades of gray, white, and fleshy pink and brown to bold, school-room primaries, neon oranges and yellows, and pastel blues and pinks.  Slipped over metal rods, the rings spin freely, like teething rings or candy necklaces, or the beads of traditional jewelry, or the counters on an abacus; Smith mentioned, also, the influence of memory boards used in Africa and Polynesian cultures, Luba boards in particular.

In their connection to games, and in their easy susceptibility to manipulation and to chance, the rings establish a manifold set of links to early 20th-century international Dada and Surrealist traditions.  Moveable parts and board games figured prominently in the work of (among others) Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968; as in his lifelong involvement with chess), Jean Arp (1887-1968; whose work both reflected and permitted games of chance), and, perhaps most pertinently, Alberto Giacometti (1901-66).  A pioneered of kinetic sculpture (with, for example, his Suspended Ball of 1930-31; Zurich, Kunsthaus), and also of sculpture that took the form of board games with movable markers, Giacometti, like Rebecca Smith, courted randomness without openly indulging in it.  But his lifelong struggle to wrest credible physical form from the grip of vision—a faculty which he, distinctively, seemed to experience as nearly predatory— and also from the onslaught of equally crushing ambient space further links his work with hers.  Giacometti’s famously attenuated figures, eternally at risk of collapsing into graphic marks and without even paper, or any stable planar surface, to support them, have been described by David Sylvester as an attempt “not merely to crystallize transient sensations but to show the conditions in which transient sensations happen.  … In representing what he has seen, Giacometti objectified the conditions under which he has seen it—the fact that it is seen in space, the fact that it is uncertain where the boundary is between solid forms and space, the fact that it is no sooner seen than it becomes a memory.”

In Smith’s work, this undertaking—to render vision palpable, to negotiate a resolution of drawing and sculpture—is restored to the realm of play.  Though the effort trails the work as a kind of depth-enhancing shadow, Smith welcomed back the humor, and the pleasure, that is latent in Dada and Surrealism.  Map/Web 3 (Figure 2) is an especially playful sculpture; suspended from the ceiling, and also tethered to the floor, it is dominated by a horizon-like bar that develops, at one end, a half-curved, distinctly spider-like web, and at the other a sporty three-pronged appendage evocative of both a lively fish and the hook that might catch it.  Both these linear digressions, as well as another, pentagon-shaped form that stands above the horizon, are hung with clay rings in all colors, from day-glo at the trident terminus to bold primaries in the five-sided form and pale pastels at the other, looping end.  The marked horizontality of this sculpture, the gentle movement implied by its suspension between ceiling and floor, which are developed further elsewhere.  For instance the webs of nautical associations, which are developed further elsewhere.  For instance the webs of Hygroscopic (Figure 3 opposite) and Repine (Figure 17) are made entirely of rope, which is knotted like fishing nets and hung with relatively clunky clay rings that suggest buoys or channel markers.  The soft, draping forms of these wall sculptures connect them to others in which Smith emphasizes a kinship to textiles, and to the crafts traditionally identified as women’s work.  Two Hearts (Figure 18), an irregular web woven of varieties of cord and rope and incorporating a lace doily, along with various clay and beeswax beads, plays expertly on the metaphorical applications of weaving.  Shuttling the weft of graphic mark-making against the warp of sculpture, it also weaves the seductions—or, the snares—of conventional femininity against the rectitude associated with regular gridded form.

Connected to this circle of associations—domestically and mothering, the decorative and useful arts—but from another angle, Action Figures (Figure 23) unites the languages of girlish jewelry and boy’s toys.  In this anomalous diptych, Smith brought together an unusually wide range of media and methods, creating two small figures that each feature parallel upright elements projecting from a narrow horizontal bar, below which hang heavy, necklace-like lengths of rope adorned in double layers with clay rings.  In one case, applied directly to the wall; in the other, they are made of metal bars stacked, to various heights, with multicolored rings.  The innocent, loopy excess of the lavish necklaces, the subdued menace of the barred uprights, and the toy-like manipulables that they share, define the narrative terrain of an unclassifiable hybrid that is part wall-drawing, part sculpture, and part functional object.  Much the same could be said of Map/Web/Net (Figure 10), a grandly expansive work that begins as a map-based metal armature hung with clay rings, and develops in a coil of beaded rope that sweeps to the floor; further extensions include a tenuous web of pastel-colored plastic lanyard, which by its association with simple, childish craft is as defiantly insubordinate as it is delicate and graceful.

As Map/Web/Net illustrated, Smith has not abandoned mapping as a reference point, and in a few new works it figures prominently.  Traffic Density (Figure 16 and cover illustration), for instance, is a quirky work made of painted metal with protuberant little prongs—they suggest twigs—which each support a few clay rings.  The straight-edged but oddly digressive shapes derives from a section of a railway map that illustrates not just main and secondary routes, but also the relative volume of their usage, heavier lines indicating higher traffic density (hence the title).  The odd compatibility of terminology for trees and trains—trunk lines, branches—is reflected in the form of this elusive work, which looks a little like a stumpy, silvery tree, its arms hung not with leaves but, as in some pagan festival, festive clay ornaments.  As a map, Traffic Density is an especially confounding tool, leading us into a congested thicket of associations, beguiling us with brightly colored distractions.  To imagine using it—or indeed any of Smith’s map-based work—as an instrument for guiding travel is to consider the kind of singular locomotion so influentially promoted by Guy Debord and the Situationniste International he led in Paris in the late 1950s.  Particularly relevant is Debord’s notion of the derive, a passage through urban space that is a kind of drift, a slowly cumulative progress.  In a Situationnist pronouncement of 1958, this concept was explained as “a technique of transient passage through varied ambiances.  The derive entails playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psycho-geological effects; which completely distinguishes it from the classic notions of the journey and the stroll. … The element of chance is less determinant that one might think: from the derive point of view cities have a psycho-geological relief, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes which strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.”

The kind of urban geology Debord and his associates described, and the use of it they advocated, can be related even to Smith’s freestanding sculptures installed on the floor (and, twice recently, outdoors), though at first glance they seem so different from the map-based wall works.  Region of There and Gone (Figure 4 above) is a cluster of lumpy, unprepossessing gray cones make by digging pits in the earth and filling them with concrete.  Smith has installed these warty, comically knuckle-headed brutes in a seemingly random configuration, and connected them by lengths of slack twine in a blind, halting progress across the floor.  Writing about the oddities of peripheral vision, the art historian James Elkins has recently observed, “It is not easy to look straight ahead and think about what you see in the margins: and I say ‘think’ because that’s what it is: a kind of seeing that is really thinking.”  Extending her work’s limits past the realm of comfortable vision, whether literally (as in this enveloping floor piece and the even bigger outdoor installations) or figuratively (the infinitely extendable maps, which tend to thin and falter at the margins), Smith created images that give vision no easy purchase; she wove networks, grids, and webs that lead perception beyond the possibility of satisfying gestalt, along passage marked by drift, toward a realm that could only be called imaginary.

This installation, like many of Smith’s sculptures, has another life in a pencil and watercolor drawing.  Though some of her works on paper are preparatory, all those included in the show (including some that help the artist work out the complicated assembly of sculpture) have self-sustaining presence.  Drawing 2 for Map/Web/Net (Figure 6), for instance, is both a detailed work plan, on which materials and processes, dimensions and position, are carefully indicated, and also a freestanding image, vividly rendered in pencil and watercolor.  Drawing for West Park (Figure 21) is also preparatory, for a work made of strips of welded metal.  Executed in colored tape (and again including a kind of punch list, written in pencil), this drawing’s free, irregularly-bounded rectilinear grid is accepted at several intersections with burn marks made in the process of welding the sculpture to which it relates.  On the other hand, the small Spider Web Drawings (Figures 7 and 9) are only loosely connected to the three-dimensional works.  More freely drawn, largely in watercolor, they show fairly naturalistic webs overlaid with rudiments of a street or transit map, the two systems nearly congruent in some passages.  Similarly, Raised Level (Figure 20), a larger drawing, negotiates abstract, man-made linear systems of transportation and organic growth patterns found in the natural world.  Whether descriptive, preparatory, or more allusively related to the sculpture, Smith’s drawings occupy a fluid position, as maps of works that itself reflects cartography gracefully elaborated notations for objects that hang suspended between two and three dimensions.

In a 1994 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Robert Storr brought together a wide variety of artists under the heading Mapping, among them Alighiero Boetti (1940-94), Oyvind Fahlstrom (1928-76), Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Kim Jones (b. 1944), and Richard Long (b. 1945).  In an interview, Storr explained that he had taken an approach to the subject indebted to the elegant allegories of Jorge Luis Borges, explaining, “In Borges you find a series of alternating and self-elaborating patterns.  His writing doesn’t freeze propositions, it shifts them around.”  Though neither the literalism of John’s and Boetti’s map imagery, nor the specificity of Jones’s (to U.S. military encampments in the Vietnam War), nor the cosmological impulses of Fahlstrom’s—nor indeed any of the distinctly individual perspectives represented by the artists in the MoMa show—relate directly to Smith’s sculptures, Storr’s reference to Borges would also serve her work well.  Its shape-shifting transformations, in which the linear skeletons of maps become the hatch-marks of drawing, the threads of open-weave textiles, and the (deceptively) frail strands of spider webs, are, like Borges’ fictions, knotty, scintillating, and labyrinthine, but finally open-ended.

In our time the figure of the “web” inescapably evokes electronic telecommunication: the Internet, the World Wide Web, the whole digitally-wired planet.  And though Smith distanced her work from this connection, the Internet’s dematerialization of information is not unrelated to her work.  Writing more than 20 years ago on the then widely debated implications of using grids in abstract painting, Rosalind Krauss said: “The physical qualities of the surface, we could say, are mapped onto the aesthetic dimensions of the same surface.”  By articulating this unlikely but powerful equation, she continued, the grid exercises peculiar—even “mythic”—power.  Wrote Krauss: “It makes us able to think we are dealing with materialism (or sometimes science, or logic) while at the same time it provides us with a release into belief (or illusion, or fiction).”  It is just the same transit, from the physical to the fictive, that Rebecca Smith’s work traces.

© Nancy Princenthal 2002