If, on some level, art really is about what you can get away with, then Josh Smith, known mainly for painting his name over and over, has been robbing us blind for years. Perhaps he senses that the gig is up on the name paintings because his current show introduces leaves, fish, bugs and butterflies, as well as an impressive foray into sculpture. It seems as if his transformation from boy-obsessing-over-his-name to kid-turning-over-rocks-in-search-of-lizards is nearly complete. Watch out, folks! Next thing you know, he’ll be asking to borrow the car.
There’s so much natural history museum style art out there—taxadermic specimens, hyper-realistic fake plants, and 19th-century illustration look-a-likes—yet Smith manages to stay in the realm of, for lack of a better term, art. This is mostly due to his messy mash-up of production techniques like silk screening, ink-jet printing, and direct painting. None of this is especially new, however, and many of the paintings at Luhring Augustine either juxtapose retro advertising with accidental brushwork à la Albert Oehlen or evoke the swashbuckling bravado of George Baselitz. But with all of the autumnal decay on view, there’s a somewhat solemn tone to the show. It feels like new territory for Smith and goes well with his trademark sense of experimental play.
Ever since his installation/assemblage at the New Museum’s Unmonumental in 2007, it’s been clear that Smith can hold down a large expanse of wall. And his current show has a fat dose of theatricality to it, which I like. Hung floor-to-ceiling with standard-sized paintings, the back room is awesome. Previous shows of Smith’s were linearly installed, each painting equidistant from the others, making it tough not to focus on weak links in the chain. There’s strength in numbers in the current show, as individual works work together to form a coherent whole. The Stop Sign paintings, for example, probably wouldn’t knock your socks off by themselves (actually, they’d suck), but as resting spots in a vast conglomeration, they do the trick.
But it’s Smith’s sculptures that really take the cake here. Basically, they’re stages lit with clamp lights and adorned with blunt but effective name paintings as backdrops. There’s nothing super fancy about them, and like the rest of Smith’s best work, they contain an attractive dose of nonchalance. You feel the urge to clamber aboard, yet I don’t think Smith is going for the performative or relational thing. He knows that’s played out. Their precedents include John Bock’s plywood platforms and basically everything by Rirkrit Tiravanija, but the mindframe of Smith’s sculptures is more photographic than physical. You can’t help but imagine your foto-booth experience with his name as the backdrop. But the intimation of use is much more alluring than actually touching these things. Calling them Stage Paintings, Smith might be toying with the idea of theatrical backdrop or just exploring a painting off the stretcher. Either way, he’s deviating from his norm, which is good.
As a matter of fact, this show marks a turning point for Smith, where subject matter might actually have, um… weight. Regardless, what it all comes down to is whether or not you like his style. Obsessiveness is often an excuse for artistic legitimacy, and Smith certainly benefits from this. But it’s good to see that he can dig beneath the surface a bit without losing himself in the process, a.k.a. you can alter, erase, or obliterate it, but as long as you scrawl your name really big on it, it’s still yours.