The Education of Shinique Smith
For an Art Student in Spring, All That Stands Between You and Graduation Is Your Thesis Show--a Display of What You've Learned, How You've Grown, and Why You're So Wound Up
"I just panicked," she said the next day. "I started freaking out about how the work reflects where I was, and then I started to worry about where I'm headed."
Smith is one of 32 artists at the Maryland Institute College of Art who are preparing for their master's thesis exhibitions, a rite of passage that combines the performance anxiety of final exams with the pedagogical scrutiny of a dissertation defense, all carried out within the rather rum logic of the art world, where work and self-worth tend to be read by the same gauge. In the case of Smith, who is quiet and self-possessed, the anxiety has less to do with her ego than with the intellectual stakes of her show--whether it will be not only technically proficient and thematically tight but also articulate, eloquent, and, above all, true. With drives like these at work, it's no wonder art students are walking around town with fixed stares and darkened foreheads. But revealing what it does about the growth of a young artist, the tense thesis experience is reason enough to give shows like Smith's a close look.
The appeal of Shinique Smith's work in particular is advanced by the backstory that has shaped it. Born and raised in Baltimore by a mother who studied under the fashion designer Erte, Smith divided her developmental years between learning the fundamentals of high art and rebelling against them. By day, she took lessons in draftsmanship and color values at the Baltimore School for the Arts; by night, she ran the streets with a graffiti crew, where the hunt for giddy thrills turned up real lessons in line, form, and what it feels like to reach the broadest possible audience.
"It's thrilling," she says today, at age 32. "The more public the place, the greater the chance of getting caught. Just thrilling."
She and her friends also snagged free train trips to New York--"hiding in the bathrooms the whole way"--and on one visit in the mid-'80s, she met post-Pop poster boy Keith Haring at his Pop Shop store. But all the while, her formal education was falling by the wayside. After two years, the School for the Arts ejected her, not for lack of talent but for her distaste for authority, in art and in all things. "I remember the letter," she says. "It said I 'failed to conform to their standards.'"
It wasn't until more than a decade later that these two strains of Smith's training, the academy and the street, finally met up. After a stint in Seattle, where she founded an African-American film festival, and at the Boston Arts Academy, where she "paid back karma" by teaching unruly art students who reminded her of herself, Smith returned to Baltimore in 2001. The homecoming, it turns out, sparked a change in her work that she would spend the next two years chasing down in her graduate studies at MICA. She hit on a crossing point of her most potent influences--her studies in Abstract Expressionism, her interest in Haring's pseudo-tribalism, her years as a tagger--and the mix expressed itself in an unusual signature style. It might be described as classicized graffiti, or maybe streetwise calligraphy, a kind of supertext that suggests a lot more than mere words.
"I don't think it would've happened if I hadn't come back here," she says now. "It just happened automatically. I wanted to do something that was linear, and when I did, writing came out."
In her thesis show, you can see this technique at work whole-cloth. "Exodus, Mandala #8," for instance, is an octagon of red vinyl, stuffed plump like an upholstered cushion. Seeded in its center is a thick, white, perfect circle, which proves to be the work's only formal conceit. Overlaying everything else is a thicket of graffiti-style words, worms, and curlicues that radiates from the center, looking as if the vinyl frame had been left hanging for months at a stretch, waiting for roving street crews to come by at night and leave their mark. Some of the tags are legible--the phrase "I have unlimited wealth" can barely be made out circling the center ring--but most of what's left is far less literal, filling a void between words and scrawls, layered on in black and white and metallic gold to form a palimpsest of mythic-seeming symbols. And it's all carried out with the blocky, stylized signature of someone who's obviously spent a lot of time behind a spray-paint can.
On the adjacent wall, another work wins your eye. "The Deep" is a confident composition in black, a vertical rectangle whose left side is crowded with wide, emphatic strokes that make a dark, cramped core. As the brush travels upward and down from this painterly crush, it creates semi-calligraphy, the suggestions of E's, A's, and S's looking like the hieratic script of a language not yet invented. Over top, in broader strokes still, stand marks that are more gestures than words. And tempering everything is the surface of the piece itself, sanded down in spots and rubbed sparingly with a graffiti-erasing grade of paint thinner, which leaves the piece with a sense of having been muted, but not subdued. While not seeming knocked off, the piece still invites comparisons to artists who date back only 20 or 40 years: Jean-Michel Basquiat if he had had more discipline, Franz Kline if he grew up in the 'hood.
But Smith herself will point out that she didn't carve out this path on her own. Part of the purpose of a thesis show is to demonstrate lessons learned, and in many ways Smith's exhibit shows the hands of her instructors. Faculty adviser Peter Rostovsky was one of three teachers who guided Smith through the two-year program, offering input that ranged from Socratic exchanges to blunt critiques. Her work, he says, benefited from a strong conceptual base: The trick was in using her heady, expressive instincts to fuel a style that went beyond street graffiti.
"Most students have a formal fascination with something, but the meaning is not there," Rostovsky says. "For Shinique, it was just about making it visibly more seductive." Over the course of his mentorship, he taught her to tell which of her pieces were exercises and which were real statements, winnowed away what he calls the "hokey spiritualism" of her earlier work, and encouraged Smith to witness the influence of Abstract Expressionism in her art, and then build on it. "For her, the kernel was always there," Rostovsky says. "It was just a question of rarefying it into a more precise statement."
And already there are signs that Smith's education is not yet ended. Elements of her thesis show seem to augur what's to come--namely, themes, materials, and techniques that break away from graffiti and head out to new territory. In "Waimiri Rangi (Gentle Water of the Sky)," for instance, a giant six-foot square, she has used bleach on denim to leach an image out of the fabric that is so organic and lush as to seem almost carnal, a world away from the chilly urban feel of other pieces. Up from the grip of the square's bottom edge, a white stem rises, swelling into a tender, ovoid pod that appears to float near the center of the canvas. From it, bleach spills out into giant fans, petal-like in shape, rendered delicately enough to seem translucent. And flowing away from this clutch to one side are strokes more refined than much of what usually has come from the tagger's hand: little tendrils, a vessel resembling a chambered heart, and wisps of delicate, elongated curves that seem like the last remnants of Smith's trademark script, lines that look as if words had been written in kite string and then were blown slack by the wind.
Smith acknowledges the turn her work is taking--more organic, more diaphanous, but no less bold. If anything, she says, in the weeks before her thesis show, she had to rein in these new impulses, in order to keep her exhibit consistent. Hence, the freakout the week of her big show about where she had been vs. where she is going, and how it was all going to reflect on her before her peers and mentors.
"I decided I had to scale back," she says. "I learned that editing is very important."
After a couple of calming beers that panicky night, followed by four straight days of installing--and in some cases finishing--her work, the debut show opened last Friday, March 28, in MICA's Meyerhoff Gallery featuring nine of her best pieces. With this done, all that remains is the technical end game. Her show will be assessed by a visiting critic, and then Smith will issue a written statement of her meticulously crafted and hard-won aesthetic. The manifesto will probably include a sentiment close to this, she says: "There's one thing I know for certain: I'll continue to press my materials, to use low things to make something divine."
That she feels confident putting her agenda into words, Smith says, gives her the sense that the woman who came to MICA as a talented young tyro will be leaving with a more mature understanding of what she's been trying to do, ever since she started spray-painting rowhouse alleys.
"I don't think I had words, even last year," she says. "So that's very good."
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