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The Fugitive Mark

Jo Smail's incremental search for meaning and expression continues

Jo Smail's "Agitated Meditation"

By Bret McCabe | Posted 10/14/2009

Jo Smail: Conjurations

Through Oct. 14 at the Goya Contemporary

Jo Smail's mixed-media "Figure With Broken Halo" may give you the fantods. A quick glance reveals a seemingly chaotic collage of black and white paper against a sky-blue acrylic background. Some hotter colors line rounded lines that circle the hard angles of the paper polygons. And a vertical off-white rectangle of almost blank canvas occupies the right third of the painting, cheekily making you look at it and wonder why it's there.

Stay with the work for a few moments, though, and it pulls you into its peculiar rhythms. The composition's forms, gestures, and colors settle into an engaging musicality. And if you hold up a sheet of paper and crop that vertical negative space as you look at it, you realize the work needs it to convey its allure. Now, don't sleep on this exhibition's title--Smail isn't calling it "tricks" for naught.

The life of Smail--the South African-born, Baltimore-based painter who has been teaching at MICA since 1988--has been inescapably intertwined into her artwork for the past 15 years. The chief plot points: 1) the Sept. 16, 1995, fire that hit the Clipper Mill Industrial Park that destroyed her studio and the works contained therein, effectively erasing an entire career, and 2) a 2000 stroke, recovery from which included relearning mobility and language. Responses to her shows since have tended to see the work through the prism of her life, an enterprise that Smail's artist's statements do invite: in a 2004 statement titled "Sounds, Identities, and Words" Smail writes that the "black spills of paint are my way of making sounds," while another 2004 statement is titled "Art and Autobiography." But to view the work purely through an autobiographical filter can cause you to overlook the intellectual rigor and often sublime gestural developments in Smail's vocabulary. And in Conjurations, her work approaches an exploration of visual semantics, an individual investigation of meaning and linguistic representation.

And representation isn't a word typically associated with Smail. Her work in recent years has been unambiguously abstract, but working toward a purpose. A 2004 Goya exhibition of new work maintained the gentle pink hue of her post-fire palette and introduced curlicue lines and gestures--her way of "making sounds" post-stroke. Her forms in the 2007 Goya exhibition Species of Love and Angel's Footsteps felt like a snapshot of an emerging vocabulary, as forms took on a more prominent role in her compositions. The works in Conjurations continue this ongoing evolution, and now Smail's interest in the fugitive mark and how it relates to language is even more mirthfully articulated.

In fact, the exhibition's 40 pieces form an alphabet of ideas. In the large canvases, Smail gives indelible abstractions titles--such as "Figure With Broken Halo," "Called Back to Life," "Agitated Meditation"--that toy with narrative ideas. "Agitated Meditation" is exceptionally fidgety: a large, amorphous black shape is shadowed by a block of citrus-y orange; the figure itself is a mix of matte black and a flossy enamel forming a loose grind on top. The entire piece feels to purposely imbalance the stately calm of richly colored canvases with the anxious movement of darting, intersecting lines.

And that nebulous shape isn't merely a nebulous shape: In the smaller canvases here other dark forms appear and reappear, as certain shapes and motifs recur in the compositions--such as a half circle with a small square excised at the diameter--as if Smail is considering what they could mean, signify, suggest, convey. It's the way of establishing a highly coded individual vocabulary (see also: Carroll Dunham), but it's also a way of exploring that space in which Chinese calligraphy floats: where the written symbolic system of language fuses with the expressive possibilities of the artist's hand.

That idea is most apparent in the series of five panels titled "Waking Up From the Inside Out, 1998-2009" in which Smail's signature, or some version of it, is the nebulous shape occupying the largely blank canvas-qua-page. Here, she explicitly links the artist's mark with the written word, and makes it unmistakably personal. And what happens if you could grab this signature, made in what appears to me a continuous stroke, and pull it out as if unstitching a monogram? Perhaps it would become the bundled fibers of Smail's "Painting With Long Thread."

Just where Smail is moving with her enterprise is hard to discern, but the eventual destination feels less important than the proverbial map created in the getting there. Her practice isn't always effective: Sometimes, Smail suffuses her subtlety with such negative space that it not only veers right on past regarding the something in the nothing and drifts toward the inconsequential. Of course, every language needs its banal words and symbols.

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