Dean Smith: An Appreciation
Ideally, I would like to take a viewer to a place where thinking almost floats; where thought becomes less linear and goal-oriented and more rhizomatic, like a branching structure. You could call it a meditative state—a reverie of questioning that doesn’t fixate on one particular thing, but allows a range of possibilities to come into play within the mind.
--Dean Smith, interviewed by Bruno Fazzolari in Art Practical, 2011
Our days and hours are measured and marked by a flow of information as incessant as it is random: a never-ending stream of emails, texts and notifications reminding us of time lost, even as they erase our ability to sense its passing. In a few hundred years, we’ve gone from reading the sun’s position in the sky to gauge the hour, to listening for a clock tower’s chimes; from pulling out pocket watches, to glancing at one’s wrist, to staring at devices that-- carried in the hand, a pocket or purse-- enslave us more securely than chains or ropes could ever do. There is no escaping it. In a narcotized trance, we swipe and click. Swipe, and click.
It is art’s job, it seems to me—or one of them, anyway-- to push back against this tyranny. Dean Smith’s drawings offer us a chance to seize control of time by inviting us to join in a slow, rich meditation on an idea as it unfolds to its conclusion; eyes following the unexpected, subtle events that have happened as marks have accumulated on a sheet of paper over the course of days, weeks, or even months. Like spring grass (or a field of fur), slight graphite lines fill geometric forms with a flickering dark gray, their delicate texture pulling us in for a closer look. As close as we can get, inches away, the lines seem numberless-- though, like grains of sand on a beach (or the hairs on an animal’s skin) they could, of course, be counted. And that would be a kind of meditation too.
Smith acknowledges his intention to slow both his own experience and that of the viewer to a tempo more appropriate to monastic contemplation than that of twenty-first century life. Art that embodies time through labor forms its own category: Wolfgang Laib’s glowing accumulations of pollen gathered flower by flower come to mind, or Janine Antoni’s patient subtraction through washing/ licking of soap or chocolate self portrait busts. There is practically a school of labor-intensive drawing in the Bay Area, including virtuosos like D-L Alvarez, Peter Mitchell-Dayton, or Katherine Vetne, though the spiritual father of them all-- as demonstrated by the endlessly inventive, endlessly work-and-time-rich work included in his recent retrospective-- is the late Bruce Conner.
Smith, as it happens, met Conner through archiving the artist’s papers at the Bancroft Library, and the two men became friends. Towards the end of Conner’s life, when minute manipulations became difficult, Smith began assisting with the collages made from found book engravings that Conner produced for many years. After Conner’s death, his wife gave Smith the collage material that remained.
That was several years ago. It took some time for Smith to figure out how to use them in a way that aligned with his own practice, but his recent exhibition at Anglim Gilbert Gallery included several small collage works (around 5 x 7 inches) that give off the same kind of humming resonance as the drawings on view. Engraved lines that seem to have once depicted water or clouds are punctuated with slivers or squares of other images, and the contents of these are sometimes recognizable, but often not. The fields of rippling lines suggest contours on a map, or growth rings on a cut slice of tree-- or any of a number of organic allusions, as they curl slightly around small interruptions. The collages are siblings to the drawings, or perhaps cousins once removed. They clearly belong.
Several examples of Smith' newest family of drawings were present as well-- a series collectively titled labyrinths. Though just as identifiably works by Smith’s patient hand, they are quite different from those featuring the fields of marks I’ve already described. These small, enigmatic compositions evoking circuit boards, or maybe the symbolic language of maps, magic, or spiritual architecture, are drawn either on salvaged sheets of vintage paper (surplus from Smith’s job at the Bancroft Library, perhaps?) or on panels covered with a smooth ground of chalk gesso. Less sensuous to my eyes than his other work, they are still deeply compelling.
As I stood in the gallery, appreciating the spare and elegant installation, I thought about the single large framed work that Smith had placed on the floor, roughly near the center of the room. Entrance II (2009) is a square field of dense marks; in it, a long slender finger of white remains, leading from near the perimeter to a tiny, empty rectangle in the center of the drawing.
At first, the placement of this work on the floor baffled me. But I’ve come to think that offering viewers this gambit could be Smith’s ways of taking us, at least visually, out of the ordinary stand-and-stare experience and through some kind of wormhole-- to a place where the constant chatter of thought just falls away. Looking at photographs of the installation, I’ve noticed this piece’s almost prayerful relationship to an even larger drawing in the show, hanging on the wall across the gallery. Titled intooutof #7 (2016) and measuring four by nearly six feet, it consists of a vast rectangular field of marks, its expanse punctuated by flickering vertical bars of white.
Thinking about the hours of labor such a drawing represents is almost inconceivable, faintly unbearable, and utterly otherworldly. Remembering it now, I realize that looking at it made me feel like I could never really see it, no matter how long I looked. But that was all right. I could just be there, and feel time, without needing to measure its passage or mark it with any device.