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Office Politics

Business Headquarters Plays Host to Two Artists’ Takes on Consumer Culture

THE ART WILL SEE YOU NOW: Shinique Amie Smith's "Dainty June's Parlor" waits patiently in the lobby.

By J. Bowers | Posted 3/30/2005

Kate MacKinnon and Shinique Amie Smith : Selected Works

At Gallery Imperato through April 24

Goya Girl, Cubicle 10, Seed/Vector, Current—there’s no shortage of new venues for contemporary art in Baltimore these days. But the newest kid on the block, Gallery Imperato, which opened last November in Locust Point’s historic Foundry on Fort building, has a strange pedigree. William Imperato, president and founder of Wireless Enterprises Ltd., realized that his company’s spacious brick-walled headquarters could serve as a commercial gallery, as well as a functioning office space. He recruited current MICA grad student Jordan Faye Block as gallery director, and together they came up with some innovative ways to hang art in common areas, install movable lighting, and hide the Xerox machine during visiting hours, and then—presto-change-o—Gallery Imperato came on the scene.

The gallery’s third exhibit features recent paintings and mixed-media works by MICA grads Kate MacKinnon and Shinique Amie Smith, two artists who habitually subvert graphic elements from consumer culture to create oddly familiar contemporary art. Sure, it’s a little bit odd to wander through a wireless company’s offices, searching for the rest of the art show, and this presentation strategy might not work for all of Gallery Imperato’s future exhibits, but the gaudy, bubblegum boldness and glib humor of MacKinnon and Smith’s pop-influenced pieces seem at home in an office space.

MacKinnon’s ultra-high-gloss oil and resin abstracts are inspired by bizarre source material: the patterns of Swatch watches, the colors and flavors of Jelly Belly jellybeans, and the upholstery of her friends’ living room couches. Her concepts are lowbrow enough but backed up by an intriguing process; MacKinnon transforms familiar patterns and colors into shining, almost sticky-looking abstract pieces, working hard to remove any evidence of human creation on the surface of her works while retaining dribbled remnants of paint on the sides of the canvases.

Upon close inspection, it turns out that MacKinnon’s thick, opaque colors are gradually built up through the application of multiple layers, and her frequent nods to her process go a long way in humanizing her work, which, while technically accomplished, often seems too simple. Her Jelly Belly and Swatch watch series provide fun, poppy splashes of color, shape, and texture, but works like the creamy yellow “Buttered Popcorn” and variegated green “Margarita” (two of the more disgusting flavors made by Jelly Belly, if you’re curious) feel like straight-up re-creation, not innovation. Similarly, it’s interesting to see the patterns and colors of seminal Swatch designs and the candy-striped colors of giant street-fair lollipops (“Only the Special Ones”) transformed into wall art, but conceptually, this is a bit of a dead end.

A miniseries of works finds her playing off of the age-old “art to match the sofa” riff, meanwhile, re-creating the patterns and colors of her friends’ and colleagues’ couches. This concept doesn’t go very far, either, and the only work that makes sense here is the burgundy- and red-striped “Shinique,” an homage to Smith that underlines the similarities between the two artists’ modi operandi.

Like MacKinnon, Smith is drawn to bright colors and bold patterns, but while her contemporary finds inspiration in the glossy, brand-new aspects of consumer culture, Smith is drawn toward salvaged materials and thrift-shop clothes racks. Her paintings, collages, and drawings directly echo her mixed-media sculptures, which themselves reveal a fascination with tying found objects and clashing fabrics together to create pillowy bundles. Some works, like “High Life,” show Smith’s assemblages in two dimensions, surrounded by bold swirls of paint, while installations like “Dainty Juneis Parlor,” which scatters bundles of black fabric and discarded accessories across a tiled marble floor, substitute fragments of burgundy carpet for the swirling lines in Smith’s painted works. Instead of imitating the patterns she finds in her source material, like MacKinnon, Smith repurposes the source material itself, often “painting” with the fabric by attaching it to canvases and boards in interesting ways. Works like “Last Year’s Gift,” which bundles a garish fuschia knit sweater and a faux flower to a slab of wood with orange baling twine, are heavily reliant on the interplay of texture and color, and they succeed in getting viewers to examine the components in new ways.

But Smith is at her best when she combines the material-savvy found in her installations with the bold brush strokes of her work on canvas. An untitled work, mounted on the brick smokestack at the center of the gallery, combines black and white cloth collage with tangles of black paint. Smith’s decision to keep the collage and painted elements separated, instead of overlapping paint and cloth, creates compelling visual tension within the piece, a tension that her paintings and installations lack on their own.

Ultimately, the contrast between MacKinnon’s disposable, candy-store ambiance and Smith’s already-disposed-of, thrift-store vibe makes for a gripping introduction to both artists’ work. But it’d be nice to see a little more ambition and overt criticism of the consumer culture that they evoke, especially in a gallery space where clients and businesspeople meet on a daily basis.

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