Matt Sheridan Smith’s current exhibition at Hannah Hoffman Gallery is a portrait show, but not in the conventional sense. Instead of painted likenesses of his subject (there is one representational image; more on that later), Sheridan Smith uses pattern, abstraction, and the readymade to create what he dubs “a sort of speculative portraiture.” Evocative and confounding rather than illuminating, the works in the show obscure even as they reveal bits of their subject.
And what a subject he has chosen. The title of the exhibition, Widow Fig. 1 Ep. 3, refers to the widow Clicquot, who is perhaps better know by her French name: Veuve Clicquot. Born into a wealthy family in 1777, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin was only 27 when she inherited her husband’s wine business upon his death (either from typhoid or suicide, depending on who you ask). At the time, the British had developed a style of champagne that was cloudy with yeast residue and large, inelegant bubbles. The widow perfected a process of drawing out the sediment into the neck of the bottle so it could be removed, giving us the clear, sparkling, fine-bubbled beverage we celebrate with today. Clicquot died at the age of 88, her legacy established as “a woman who was a smashing success long before anyone conceptualized the glass ceiling.”
Sheridan Smith doesn’t focus much on the biographical specifics of her life, choosing instead to represent her through opaque symbolism. As portraiture, this yields mixed results, but he has created some individual works that are truly compelling. A number of pieces on linen, each titled Pattern Portrait (Widow) (2014) feature gold bubble patterns on faint white grids. The bubbles range in size—on some canvases they are large and clunky, and on others they are delicate and dense like those in champagne. The artist created these works by placing a Xerox coated in acrylic gel medium on the linen and then rubbing most of the paper away, until only the image and bits of paper (the faint white grid) are left. The resulting ghostly image is the product of erasure instead of accretion. The artist’s hand is absent, but the work bears the trace of his physical interaction. The results are hypnotic and haunting.
Image creation by obliteration is also at play in a series of Scratch works. Here, Sheridan Smith begins with a tight bubble pattern, which he has covered in scratch-off ink (think lottery scratch-off tickets). On some, the ink is the signature Clicquot yellow-orange, on others gold or black. Two are left untouched, the pattern barely visible beneath sublime, glowing monochromes. On the rest, he has used his hand or a knife to scratch off areas of the ink, revealing bits of the pattern beneath. To reveal the entire pattern—thus achieving revelation—would require destruction of the work. Sheridan Smith has provocatively begun this process, challenging us to follow him, if not with our hands, then with our eyes—to attempt to see beyond the surface.
Other attempts at portraiture are similarly obscured but less satisfying. On top of a digitally printed portrait of the widow herself (from an 1861 painting by Léon Cogniet), Sheridan Smith has placed a grid of polished aluminum. When we try to visually piece together the entire image, we see slices of ourselves staring back. It is an interesting optical trick, but it falls flat next to the nuanced and subtle pattern works.
A large installation, Untitled (Skin Contact) (2014), includes a pile of dirt, deadly nightshade plants, and champagne glasses perched on two yellow-orange Formica pedestals. Two of the glasses are filled with champagne (replenished periodically by gallery staff), two others with the residue of lees, the yeast used in champagne production. The dirt could be seen as an allusion to the terroir so important to wine production, while the champagne glasses might serve as a kind of obtuse vanitas image. The poisonous plant comes off as a failed attempt at edginess. Although intriguing, the piece feels on the whole unconvincing, pointing in different directions without following through.
In building a portrait of the widow Clicquot, Sheridan Smith problematizes a facile definition of identity. His work makes the case that representational images hold no more claim to biography than colors or patterns. Not all of his works hit the mark, but the ones that do are well worth the visit.
Matt Sheridan Smith: Widow – Fig. 3 Ep. 1 is on view at Hannah Hoffman Gallery in Los Angeles through August 23, 2014.
 Exhibition press release