Saturday, February 28, 2009

Josh Smith at Luhring Augustine

Currents, Josh Smith's exhibition of new paintings and collages is brilliant and challenging. At Luhring Augustine Gallery - 531W 24th Street NYC - through March 14th. Gallery website


In this time of turbulent change we should expect the art world to be no different, "what was" has moved into history and a new group of artists are building a new foundation for the next twenty years. At just barely thirty years old, Josh Smith is one of these artists.

Of course we can expect that some in the critical community, bloated from gorging on the excesses of the last decade, will miss the point. We have passed the inflection point, the moment I wrote about in Nodal Time. This moment was the election of Barack Obama as president. It is a new era.
You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, "Who is that man?"
You try so hard
But you don't understand
Just what you will say
When you get home

Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

You raise up your head
And you ask, "Is this where it is?"
And somebody points to you and says
"It's his"
And you say, "What's mine?"
And somebody else says, "Where what is?"
And you say, "Oh my God
Am I here all alone?"

But something is happening
And you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
© Bob Dylan, Ballad of a Thin Man from Highway 61 Revisited

I have seen this exhibition several times now. The installation is intense, paintings punctuate the walls, a closely placed staccato of images rattle the senses.


First one has to contend with the tight installation. The paintings are placed close together, with less than half their width of space between them, the paintings function as elements in an installation. I took the installation view seriously, it reveals a process of thought, a conceptual investigation into what makes a painting a painting.

Josh Smith
Luhring Augustine Installation Views
Moreover, this lineup across the walls, of a dizzying number of identically sized paintings ,ironically calls into question the commodification of art at a moment when the fear of financial destruction is at it's height. It is stunning, the individual paintings fight each other for ones attention. It is compelling, one searches for differences, similarities, recognitions between the various paintings, in an attempt to unify the experience. What one experiences is the raw evidence, the residue of a series of intensely creative moments which explore a process of manifesting an internal psychological state.

Josh Smith's approach is unfettered by experience or refinement and I mean this as the highest compliment, for it is all to easy to bend ones output to meet someone else's standard. The problem is that the audience wants to pigeon hole every artist, to bag them up forever in some tight conceptual or visual cul de sac. The artists job, on the other hand, is to defy these expectations, to confuse, to irritate and to blur whatever boundaries are enforced by the outside world. To this end Josh Smith's paintings are hugely successful, with enough "insouciant verve" to match his young age and carry his investigations forward into territory yet unexplored.

The first day I saw this exhibition, I came once with another painter and then later that afternoon I returned to view the exhibition alone. In the subsequent viewings, I paid close attention to the individual paintings and less to my overall impressions of the installation.

In a period of barely over ten years the internet has changed both our social life and how we are able to access information. Artists today are able to see reproductions of other artists work with just a click of the ubiquitous mouse. Further, the digital image is now 'nature' growing like bacteria, billions of them. Artists find ways to come to terms with these evolutionary changes because they define the world we live in.

I am afraid I cannot come up with a concise definition of Modernist aesthetics, maybe in part because I do not believe that Modernism is a style and subject to the rigidity of an "aesthetic." Rather, I would suggest that Modernism (including postmodernism) is a phenomena which we use in an attempt to structure the changes of art in a post agrarian age. Functionally, in the twentieth century, painting sought to extend its self definition, by exploring and including the concepts associated with abstraction, conceptual structures outside the paradigms of representation.

This exploration is finished, painting as a language is essentially now defined. The painters in this new millennium can work with the language provided by painting to reveal truths of our time. Painting cannot die, one cannot negate the process of making an image with marks, one can only fail to use the language effectively.

A side effect of "pluralism" the "anything goes" mentality, is that the art world must now contend with the lack of a hegemonic style, a convenient 'ism' to imprison the artist for commodification. I spoke a bit about a concept of lineage in my post on Anya Kielar. I view 'lineage' in lieu of a particular stylistic definition. As a concept it refers to the roots of an artists works, their influences and affinities, as they exist in multiplicity, it allows for individual identity and historical precedent.

The stylistic associations one might make with Josh Smiths paintings are part of his linage. It includes both Rauschenberg and Warhol and maybe there are some roots in German Expressionist painting from the early part of the last century. Regardless of these associations, Josh Smith's paintings do not rely on them as a point of validation. Rather the references act as a momentary tone, creating complex associations between present and past, the expected and the unexpected.

Moreover, Mr. Smith uses visual materials, collaged or silkscreened, in the same way one would use paint, they composite into a final image which is the individual painting. The focus on the surface shifts our associations from printed street matter to the expressionist image to total abstraction, all done with a recognizable painterly hand.

I've included several images of the individual paintings because ultimately they will be seen individually and they do hold up as paintings. In spite of Josh Smith's youth he has a highly developed pictorial intuition, the ability to construct a successful painting with the materials at hand. His willingness to risk an exploration of the parameters of painting openly is commendable, too much of what passes for painting today is boringly predictable.

It is my opinion that when the current economic crisis begins to abate, the art world will find there is a new generation of artists redefining art as we know it. Typically we will find that the old guard is hanging onto past visions while the young begin to party. Josh Smith is one of these artists.

Josh Smith
Untitled 2008
Mixed Media on Panel
60 x 48" (152.4 x 121.9 cm) [ref-#20]


Josh Smith
Untitled 2008
Mixed Media on Panel
60 x 48" (152.4 x 121.9 cm) [ref-#21]


Josh Smith
Untitled 2008
Mixed Media on Panel
60 x 48" (152.4 x 121.9 cm) [ref-#22]


Josh Smith
Untitled 2008
Mixed Media on Panel
60 x 48" (152.4 x 121.9 cm) [ref-#14]



Josh Smith
Untitled 2008
Mixed Media on Panel
60 x 48" (152.4 x 121.9 cm) [ref-#17]


Josh Smith
Untitled 2008
Mixed Media on Panel
60 x 48" (152.4 x 121.9 cm) [ref-#04]


Josh Smith
Untitled 2008
Mixed Media on Panel
60 x 48" (152.4 x 121.9 cm) [ref-#02]


Josh Smith
Untitled 2008
Mixed Media on Panel
60 x 48" (152.4 x 121.9 cm) [ref-#06]

I had saved the two images below (ref-#13, ref-#25) and at one point thought I might have saved the same image twice. In fact they are two paintings of different sizes worked up, I believe from reproductions of the artists earlier work. I liked them both.

Josh Smith
Untitled 2008
Mixed Media on Panel
60 x 48" (152.4 x 121.9 cm) [ref-#13]


Josh Smith
Untitled 2008
Mixed Media on Panel
48 x 36" (121.9 x 91.4 cm) [ref-#25]


Josh Smith
Untitled 2008
Mixed Media on Panel
60 x 48" (152.4 x 121.9 cm) [ref-#03]


Josh Smith
Untitled 2008
Mixed Media on Panel
48 x 36" (121.9 x 91.4 cm) [ref-#29]


Josh Smith
Untitled 2008
Mixed Media on Panel
48 x 36" (121.9 x 91.4 cm) [ref-#30]


Josh Smith
Untitled 2008
Mixed Media on Panel
48 x 36" (121.9 x 91.4 cm) [ref-#35]


All images © 2009 Josh Smith and Luhring Augustine Gallery
Used blogger style.

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