Last week I went to the MFA in Boston to do research for an essay. The essay is on impressionism, and after looking intently at a beautiful Degas, I wandered the Rococo halls, basking in the fanciful paintings and porceilan tea-sets. As I strolled along I took a turn into the contemporary wing and caught a glimpse of a stack of fabric, tied together in a structured tower. Curious, I walked into this contemporary exhibit…
If I had been traipsing through nineteenth century Europe, I was now fully immersed in Wonderland! Shinique Smith’s “Bright Matter” exhibit was the psychedelic answer to Degas.
Smith’s exhibit is a compilation of a decade of her work, as well as several new creations. The towers of tied up clothing are only one aspect of a multimedia project that aims to portray the physical and psychological effects of light and color. This mission statement became clear when I looked around the room at the incredible collages and paintings sprawled across the walls. However, the connection to the clothing towers seemed oddly disjointed. In a video interview with the MFA, Smith revealed her inspiration for these towers was the concept that people wear clothing to present themselves to society. These towers bundle together what could be the sweatshirts that have fallen out of a high school student’s locker. Another inspiration was the bundled-up look of the Christmas presents stolen by the Grinch in the classic tale. Despite these inspirations, she maintains that these towers are still a self-portrait, and that she sees herself in every single one of them. Perhaps it is her own self-awareness that she has projected into these towers. Why would she choose such a monumental size and shape? Their very existence is overwhelming, and seem to represent Smith’s own perspective of the detrimental effects of self-presentation- a reliance on material objects, wastefulness, and restraint for social conventions. The rope suggests a binding of one’s spirit, which Smith portrays as vibrant and full of energy in later works. Below is a close-up of one of these scultpures.
The collages and paintings in “Bright Matter” were more connected to the overarching theme of the exhibit: our experience with light and color, and it’s tangible as well as psychological effects. My personal favorite work, “Of a Particular Perfume,” is inspired by a child’s early memory of a grandparent, and his or her visual, physical, and fragrant associations with that family figure. The pink shawl evokes a soft touch, the vivid color a specific feeling of joy, and the lilac swirls a suggestion of lavender scent. Without even reading the plaque that explains the connection of this work to the senses, I felt a calm wash over me looking at “Of a Particular Perfume.” I felt nostalgic gazing at the soft yarn, draped haphazardly over the expanse of pink and purple swirls, like the sweaters my Grandmother used to knit flung across chairs as I raced outside to look at her flower garden. Smith’s collages provide the necessary sensory elements for viewers to connect their senses with memories. Every viewer has a unique experience depending on their associations with these colors and textures.
Smith’s exploration into light, color, and the human experience is powerful in “Belly Button Window.” The black marks were created with Smith’s own limbs as paintbrushes, as she rubbed her arms and torso against he canvas. The place were her belly button ought to be is replaced by a pasted-on Rose window, a motif popular in European cathedrals. Smith describes the bellybutton as important because it is the source of life and energy. Riffing off of a Jimmi Hendrix song, the title suggests a window through the naval into the energy and life within. The rose window is halo’d by blue spindly paint, almost buzzing around in a circle like it is electrically charged. To experience “Belly Button Window” is to question the meaning of the forms… is the life energy concentrated within the window? Are the black marks imprinted by Smith’s body and the pink and yellow swirls representations of limbs while psychedelic energy buzzes inside the small circle of the naval? Or are we looking at the rose window-naval like we are peering through a keyhole, and these black/yellow/pink marks on the outside are the life force that exists on the other side of the window? To view “Belly Button Window” is to oscillate between these two perspectives.
How can one reconcile these psychedelic collages with their structured, fabric companions? Perhaps it is their sense of self-reflection that ties them together. In our self-awareness we recognize who it is we put forth to the world, in what clothing, with what energy, and from what memories, to become our current selves. Life, Smith works illustrate, is a constant decision between being independent and free, and being bound by society’s constraints.
For more information, visit http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/shinique-smith to read about the exhibit and listen to Smith speak further about her inspirations. All outside information comes from this website, and the rest are my musings and opinions. I urge you to visit this fabulous museum, and to take a look at this exhibit before it closes in March!
xoxo, Chloe <3