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Common Dense

Getting Found And Lost In Frank Smith's Wondrous, Swirling Canvases

BANNER YET WAVE: A detail of frank smith's "American Flag Rag #17, Bright Mississippi."

By J. Bowers | Posted 1/3/2007

The Magical Revolution

Sub-Basement Artist Studios Through Jan. 27

Painter Frank Smith sometimes calls his work "visual jazz." It's an extremely apt metaphor for his raucously colorful, improvisational canvases, which find Smith seamlessly blending strips of fabric, shirt sleeves, discarded socks, and other found objects with acrylic paint. Often incorporating expertly machined stitchwork, Smith's works possess an appealing anything-goes vibe, and showcase his freewheeling sense of experimentation with color and line: from a distance, it's difficult to distinguish painted lines from lines created with sewing machines or scraps of cloth, and all too easy to lose yourself in Smith's swirling, riotous tangles of color.

Sub-Basement Artist Studios has given its entire gallery space over to a retrospective of Smith's impressive work, featuring pieces from the 1980s through the present day. The exhibit also serves as a thumbnail course in the AfriCobra, or "African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists" movement, founded in the late 1960s by a group of African-American artists who strove to develop a "new" African-American aesthetic, with an emphasis on social responsibility, local involvement, and pride in black identity.

Smith joined the movement in 1972, and he relies heavily on motifs from African tribal culture as well as early African-American folk culture, combining the two aesthetics with the improvisational, monumental, and textural aspects of abstract expressionism to create paintings that are distinctively Pan-African. The mural-length magnum opus "Other Voices #1" is a world unto itself, a riot of checkerboards, spirals, dots, triangles, and diamonds, painted in a seemingly infinite variation of colors: harsh greens, bright reds, lemon yellows, eye-popping orange, and turquoise. Staccato lines of color evoke the simple beauty of Maori war paint. Thickly applied, the creases in Smith's paint often resemble stitches. In turn, in works like "If'n Jesus Wuz Dreaded?," the stitches that tattoo his canvases are used like paint. One of the few objective works in Smith's repertoire, "If'n Jesus Wuz Dreaded?" includes a swatch of dreadlocked human hair folded into the composition.

Smith's 2005 "Fact Totem" finds him combining his painting prowess with more traditional collage elements, juxtaposing scraps of recent articles about Queen Latifah, Kerry James Marshall, and other notable African-Americans with text about lynching and slavery. More overtly political than his other paintings, "Fact Totem" feels out of place next to the subtly subversive, purely visual power of his other works.

Some pieces, like "Spiral Improvisation 2, Coast and Valley" hint at the unconscious nature of improvisation. Uncannily reminiscent of Australian Aboriginal "dream paintings" with their thickly spiraling lines, this painting suggests Smith's wild style is the product of an inward dream world. But despite the random, unplanned feel of his compositions, Smith possesses a stunning command of line, particularly noticeable in the massive "For This Occasion." Here, a stylized tribal mask hovers on the right side of the canvas, intricately bisected by flowing lines of sewn-on white sailcloth that sweep the viewer's eyes to another face, floating in the left side of the composition.

Speaking of floating, the gallery's spacious middle portion provides a venue for Smith's cloth-based works, suspended by wires from the ceiling to showcase their double-sided designs. Conceptual descendants of the 19th century "crazy quilting" fad, as well as the slave tradition of using scraps of fabric to create warm bedding, Smith's quilts incorporate readily recognizable remnants of domestic life. Using socks, embroidery thread, and other textiles just as he uses acrylics, Smith produces amazingly intricate, asymmetrical cloths that echo the aesthetic seen in his paintings. Handprints are sliced out of old sweatshirts and appliquéd to single Totes slipper-socks. The jagged edges and vaguely human forms of Smith's quilts suggest the Biblical coat of many colors, as well as the brightly hued kente cloth. They look wearable, somehow, and would look right at home thrown across a chair back, or swaddled around a newborn infant.

Appreciating Smith's work is a two-step process. His barrage of colors, textures, and a keen sense of movement, can be somewhat overwhelming, but Smith's works force close inspection. You must first stand at least 10 feet away from the work, to take in the sheer scale and overarching vision, then move closer to pick out the little surprises that the artist adds to his works--a lone baby's sock here, a safety pin or feather there--that become delicate tangles of color that look particularly attractive amid the visual din.

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