Rachel Wolfson Smith’s pencil drawings of motorcycle and car crashes seem to memorialize modern epics. At once glorious and kitschy, these homages to what the artist calls “Renaissance battle paintings” capture moments of intense struggle, dialed up to eleven: they border on the farcical but maintain an undeniable gravitas. The monochromatic graphite tones and occasional gilt highlights situate the drawings in a context of glorified opulence while the aggressive pencil strokes emphasize the dynamism of the depicted collisions. The total effect is a self-reflexive body of work that acknowledges the seductive, even mythic, quality of large-scale contemporary violence.
Smith’s murals are cinematically obsessive and scopophilic in their visceral rendering. The sheer size of a work like Uccello II (2016) actively pulls a viewer into the scene of the drawing, asking that one bears witness to a fantasy of extremity. There is something revelatory about the multiplication of crashing bodies, mechanical parts, numbers, and symbols. By depicting such excess in tactile, monochromatic graphite—each stroke, smudge, and shadow visible—Smith produces a sense of solemnity that appears earnest, yet the straight-faced presentation is jarring in relation to the subject matter. An approach once employed for grandiose representations of legendary battles is here used for crashing motorbikes and cars, well recognized symbols of phallic power. While a viewer perceives the tropes of this style, the works seem to take an almost silly pleasure in such over-the-top imagery.
This body of work is timely. The smoking wreckage in Monsters (2016) calls to mind J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash, which critiqued a media-saturated culture through its exploration of dark, psychosexual impulses. Like Crash, Monsters recognizes such an extrapolation while remaining frank about the necessity of its expression. Monsters is a night scene of vehicular carnage, with iconic Mustangs, Porsches, and Hummers crumpled into smoking piles. As collateral damage from the force of impact, broken signposts tip haphazardly across the cars. In the far right corner, one car is demolished beyond recognition; smoke from the burning hulk billows into the night air, the heat shimmers rendered in fervent strokes rippling across the sky. The piece wraps an interior corner of a gallery, enveloping a viewer as if she has just encountered the wreckage. Monsters provokes a series of overlapping responses: incredulity at the excessive scene, with such lavishly expensive cars; recognition that destruction on this scale does occur; pleasure in the expression of destructive power; and recognition of the absurd pictorial elevation of a car crash to the significance of an epic battle. The sum of these effects renders Monsters’ urgent inquiry into the violent desires of the capitalist subject accessible without simplifying their often incompatible conjunctions.
Smith’s exploration of the displacement of aggression and desire within capitalist social reality can be seen in other contemporary cultural productions, many of which are post-apocalyptic in theme. With cars and motorcycles glimmering out of murky depths, Night (2016) looks like a scene from George Miller’s film Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). The post-apocalyptic fantasy presents a world left in ruins after the collapse of capitalism; while symbols of power continue to speak to ideas of violence and social domination, a disordered world uses those symbols to enact what they had formerly only made reference to. In Smith’s work, the elevation of this kind of frenzy to the style of sacred and historical paintings offers both a knowing nod to the absurdity of such desire and an urgent concern that absurdity may be all that remains.
Rachel Wolfson Smith is a full-time artist living and working in Austin, Texas. Originally from Baltimore, Maryland, she earned her BFA in painting from Maryland Institute College of Art and her MFA in painting from Indiana University. After following the Corot trail in Italy as an Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant recipient, she spent six years as a professor at Indiana University and Western Oregon University. She has been an artist-in-residence at Halka Sanat in Istanbul and the Babyan Culture House in Ibrahimpasa, Turkey, and will spend the next six months creating permanent works for six fire stations as the recipient of the AFD Residency Grant through Austin’s Art in Public Places program. She can be found on Instagram: @wolfsonsmith.