Rebecca Smith’s Tarrawarra Catchment
by Barbara Flynn
Tarrawarra Catchment
April 19-August 14, 2005
TarraWarra Museum of Art (Victoria, Australia)

As an artist, Rebecca Smith reacts to her surroundings, making art informed by location and the places that are important to her, like Lake George in New York State and New York City.  And while she brings to a new site-specific work a repertoire of experience and means for symbolizing thought visually, the artist remains open to possibilities suggest by the new place.  Thus, for this first exhibition in Australia, without presumption, she has expanded her vocabulary by incorporating the details and data, in a sense, of this country.

One of Smith’s favoured materials is colored sticky tape.  The way she makes a drawing is to stick the tape down, reverse direction and pull it back on itself, bunch it and bend it, pool it and layer it.  She works fast, then pauses to assess what she’s got, and plans the next move.  As an artist, she is comfortable with the act of making, and to watch her is to see that her methods and actions convey both love of the material and a lack of fear.  She is at once methodical and bold, proceeding after careful research and forethought, while still allowing the unexpected to occur; in fact, her appreciation of the detours that appear as part of the process of making is palpable.  This is obvious to anyone looking at the finished work: as one follows the lines around and reconstructs the drawing, excitement is conveyed not just through the vibrant color and texture of the pushed and kneaded tape, rather it is as if a drama unfolds—a drama intended by the artist but with the viewer now in the role of playwright.

Smith’s desire to express the physical reality of a place finds optimal expression in the immediacy, luminosity and tactility of the tape medium.  What interests her about Australia in particular is the visual image conjures up by the map of the continent and its changing shoreline, along with specific aspects of the Tarrawarra region, including the geology of its water catchment and drainage system.  Details and contours from such local diagrams and maps are transcribes in the Tarrawarra work, combined with the visual manifestation of the ideas and topics that currently engage Smith, the concerns she has brought along with her, a mapping of her mental life.  Smith considers this ‘mindscape’ a valid subject for art, and sets out to capture it.  Thus, she expresses her current preoccupation with Gregg shorthand and the evolution of language by transcribing into tape characters from shorthand and Nushu, a dying language developed hundreds of years ago as a system of secret written communication by uneducated, rural women in Jiand Yong Prefecture, Hunan Province, China.  Smith’s work hinges on the belief that change can be effected through the act of expression, or as stated to the Northwest Asian Weekly in 1996 by Yuang Huanyi, the last known practitioner of Nushu, “By writing, so much suffering disappears.”

References like these in Smith’s art are inflected by her experience as an urban woman of this century, allowed to work unrestrained and to express herself openly.  Notation systems like Gregg shorthand and Nushu were used by women of her mother’s generation and earlier, trapped in low-paying jobs and unpaid domestic servitude.  By choosing them as components of her notation system for the Tarrawarra installation, Smith is functioning as empathetic advocate, telling us that these women should not be forgotten.  In the process we are reminded of one of the most abiding possible functions of the artist, to act as conscience and memory, as Smith does here.

A relatively new, recurring form in Smith’s work is an inverted V-shape resembling a striding woman and made up of multiple layers of short pieces of tape in a broad range of colors.  Building up the tape in this way suggests a concentration of energy and possibly, also, a potential as yet unrealized.  In this way the inverted V-form reinforces the message conveyed through Smith’s citation of Gregg shorthand and Nushu, both languages of women striving to make something of themselves.  In fact, much of Smith’s language communicates the intensity and challenge of line on the cusp.  A quotation from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield rendered in tape as part of the exhibition—“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show”—captures the hope and expectancy we feel at the moment of embarking on a new adventure or, for those of us who are older, on the occasion of making a major change, or choosing a new way of life.

Smith’s forms are reduced and refined: they become the most economically possible expression of a notation.  Ideally, no flesh remains, just the under-lying skeletal structure and bones.  The position asserted in “that structure delivers, perhaps even embodies, content” (fax from the artist, December 7, 2004).  Important reference sources that have assisted the artist in developing this view include Edward R. Tufte’s Envisioning Information: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1990), in which techniques for presenting data and ideas as concisely as possible in visual language are examined.  Concision is important, as is an economy of means which can read as a certain rawness or roughness—a quality that connects Smith’s practice to other early manifestations of art, like cave painting.  Smith sees the four walls of the TarraWarra space as a sort of container or cave, within which various communication systems—some artificial and some organic, representing different groups and cultures, and straddling different moments in time—are brought into proximity ad dialogue with one another.

The map and the spider web were two important early inspirations for the series called the Ring Sculptures, with subtitles like Map/Web 1, 2 and 3 and Map/Web/Net (1996-2000).  As art historian Nancy Princenthal has pointed out, the starting point for the Ring Sculptures was the New York City subway map, a flat one-dimensional rendering of a complex system indicating routes and direction rather than place.  Princenthal goes on to say that, ironically, the sculptures made from this inspiration are fully volumetric, “skipping lightly from one dimension straight to four.” (Rebecca Smith: The Ring Sculptures, The Picker Art Gallery, Colgate University, Hamilton, New York, 2002).  Smith has come to feel an affinity for Aboriginal art in its predilection for mapping and for the manner in which it uses line to stand for meaning.  And perhaps the key to what’s ahead can be found in the fact that her tape works and Aboriginal paintings both make the leap between line—one-dimensionality—and four dimensions, between the concise visual cipher and the complex story and world view it stands for, between the literal reality of material (sand, pigment, or in Smith’s case, tape) and our ability as artists and viewers to abstract from that reality.

© Barbara Flynn 2005