Volume 78 - Number 42 / March 25 -31, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


A work from “Veil”

“Veil” offers glimpse into Smith’s work outside of music

Eclectic installations provide insight, provoke imagination

BY STEPHANIE BUHMANN

Many consider Patti Smith one of the true poets of our time. And if trying to sum up her multi-faceted work with one general term, “Poet” may indeed be the most accurate.

For roughly four decades, Smith has expressed herself in a variety of media. In 1967, at the age of 20, she left Philadelphia er to pursue the life of an artist in New York City. In the early days, she lived at the Chelsea Hotel with Robert Mapplethorpe and created works on paper that — in the tradition of the 19th Century poet/artist William Blake — combined drawing with language. It was not until 1970 that Smith started to work on songs. It was an organic progression, largely inspired by Bob Dylan and Smith’s growing ambition to find a unique mélange between poetry and image.

Since then, Smith has expressed herself in music, performance, film, photography, drawing, installation and poetry. Her passionate engagement with political, sociological and metaphysical concerns has made her an important liberal spokesperson. Her vehement honesty, while expressing her opinions in art, has made her a widely worshipped cultural icon. Today, Smith is best known as a singer-songwriter. Her albums “Piss Factory” (1974) and the landmark “Horses” (1975) are credited for their significant influence on the punk rock movement. Smith also made her mark in the genre of rock: “Because the Night” (co-written by Bruce Springsteen) cracked the charts in 1978.

Although her reputation as a famed musician has overshadowed other achievements, Smith’s dedication to fine art and her urge to be taken seriously in this field have been continuous and determined.

For three decades, Smith has shown with Robert Miller (one of the most renowned fine art galleries) as well as at the Fondation Cartier in Paris (2008) or the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh (2002). Her presence at these venues has re-enforced her status as an artist whose photographs, drawings and sculptural installations can stand on their own.

Smith’s current exhibition, “Veil,” offers another glimpse into her work outside of music. Overall, “Veil” is as elegant as it is eclectic — containing an installation inspired by a series of photographs made in the Basque region; recent black and white photographs; new and early works on paper; a sculpture; and a film about the French poet, writer and philosopher Rene Daumal. Each body of work is installed in a distinct section, providing this exhibition with the quality of a mini-retrospective.

The photographs make up the core of the show. Smith prefers to work with a Polaroid camera, which allows her the satisfaction of an immediate image — something she values while on the road with her band. It is not until later that a negative is made, from which silver-prints are printed on matte paper. The aesthetic effect is that of gravures, which generates a sense of classic timelessness.

There are two distinct photography installations. The main gallery wall is lined with smaller photographs of church interiors, sculptures and a variety of motives that Smith found during her extensive travels. They are images of, as Smith puts it, “little material value” but of things she “cherishes.” The result of Smith’s meditation on the world that surrounds her, they are sensitive studies of light, form, and composition which succeed in leaving enough room for spontaneity and abstraction to avoid literalism.

In that aspect, they remind one of the photographic work of the famed sculptor Constantin Brancusi. Brancusi photographed his sculptures in order to understand their true potential — creating unique examinations of the absorption and reflection of light. Smith shares this strong focus on light as main compositional device. In this particular exhibition, she further examines how light can serve as a veil and optical disguise.

The theme of the veil is most evident in the large photography installation that features images taken in several Basque church interiors. Each work depicts altarpieces covered in plastic during the time of renovation. Blown up and cropped to make the plastic object’s abstract folds and shapes take center stage, they make for potent images. Here, the ceremonial symbols of Christian offerings and sacrifices have been veiled in a layer of uncertainty.

Hung in a separate room and arranged to flank a large black cross, they amount to their own version of a place for worship. The difference is that in this case anyone, the viewer is able to project whatever he or she might desire underneath the plastic layers. In that sense, the veiled altars have become blank canvases for our imagination.

A selection of works on paper and a sculpture are kept separate. Smith still uses language in her drawings — which is usually loosely rendered and, except for the occasional clear words, rather illegible. In drawing, Smith uses language like a secret code that allows us access to the artist’s emotions visually (but not intellectually). One drawing offers a reference to 9/11, using written language to evoke the remains of the south tower of the World Trade Center; others allude to the human figure and Christ crucified.

Often, Smith pays homage to artists she admires by depicting places that reference important aspects of their lives. The French 19th Century poet Arthur Rimbaud, whom Smith has frequently cited as her most significant influence next to Bob Dylan, receives such a nod through sculpture.

The work refers to the sad end of Rimbaud — when a growing pain in his left knee forced him to leave Africa in 1891after settling there as a merchant. He had a stretcher made, covered with canvas, which was carried by several men to cross the almost 200 miles of desert to the port of Zeilah in Somalia. In Smith’s hands, the unusual carrying device (of which original drawings exist) has been translated into the bare bones of a black wooden stretcher covered with a black net that continues to spill onto the gallery floor. The illness, which eventually was diagnosed as cancer, killed Rimbaud later that year. It trapped Rimbaud physically, and Smith’s sculpture is a solemn memorial to the capture of a great independent spirit.

It’s not the literal content that is important in Smith’s work. It is the establishment of continuous sentiment which amounts to a fusion of nostalgia and mysticism. In addition, it is characteristic for Smith to depict her subjects with a healthy dose of poetic abstraction. She is not interested in spelling it out for her audience. Instead, she aims to establish a distinct atmosphere which will serve as the framework for contemplation.

Smith’s artwork has a tranquility and serenity that is almost meditative; deeply personal and inspired by an inner need for creative expression. While her musical performances are clearly targeted at a public audience, her artworks are, like visual diary entries — originally made for herself and only later shared with the audience in a public setting.

“Veil” uncovers some of Smith’s private thoughts while managing to let us to explore our own imagination. 

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