Kansas City artist Colby Smith has incorporated references to buildings in his work for many years. One body of photographs that he produced in the early 2000s captured each layer of a wall as it was stripped: multiple layers of wallpaper, and then paint, and then plaster and lath. A work from 2009 features various types of jambs and moldings adhered together to form a vertical stripe painting.
In “Navah,” Smith’s exhibition of new constructions and works on paper at The Late Show, he has chosen to compose the pieces and parts into recognizable imagery. Nonetheless, for him the role that the image plays in the work is very formal. “It’s a point of order, a starting point and a jumping-off place for the composition,” he says.
According to Smith, Navah means “to bring home; give comfort; make beautiful.” He explains that Navah is the name of the church that he attends, and that the word also refers to his creative goal.
With this body of work, the meaning of the word Navah has multiple layers. The bulk of the objects that Smith used to create the pieces in the show were scavenged from his work rehabilitating buildings. He states with a laugh that before he transforms this material, “It’s stuff that pretty much looks like trash, or that needs to be burned.”
Some of these unassuming items came from homes. By turning them into art, he makes them beautiful again and gives them a new home in a gallery setting. In doing so, he also pays homage to the craftspeople who worked with these materials originally, in their pristine state. Furthermore, Smith affirms that the process of making these works brings comfort. “When these are made it is chaotic in the studio, but the result is calming. They bring a sense of order (to me), because my life in general I feel is chaos.”
Most of the work in the show evokes a spare cityscape or landscape. In Navah (Yellow Sky), high-density polystyrene foam and a variety of wood pieces suggest narrow skyscrapers, while a triangular piece of sheetrock wrapped in green paper forms the outline of a hill. The distant horizon and the yellow sky are comprised of mesh tape that is used for plastering walls, while much of the sky has been formed from the unadorned white surface of the work’s substrate. Navah #7, a work on paper that is a precursor to Navah (Yellow Sky) reveals a slightly more complex earlier composition, illustrating Smith’s goal to pare down and simplify.
Navah #2 and Navah Cityscape (Red Sky) come across as more muscular, yet also offer subtle and poetic rewards. In these works, broad pieces of wood painted grayish-green march across the picture plane, bringing to mind urban hillsides that have been developed into offices or condominiums with upscale views. In Navah #2, wood molding stretching horizontally across the bottom of the composition can be read as a window sill, as if we are viewing the hillside from afar in our own cozy home. In Navah Cityscape (Red Sky), red chalk snap lines perhaps bring to mind stratified clouds catching a colorful sunset.
Smith’s palette and his angular compositions bring to mind seasides and window views by Richard Diebenkorn, or perhaps the bustling urban scenes of Wayne Thiebaud, but with a more ramshackle, lived-in quality. In contrast, four small works on paper in the show appear more jewel-like and seem like the flip side of Smith’s output. The same compositional strategies are in place here, but with a brighter and cheerier palette.
Colby Smith: Navah continues at The Late Show, 1600 Cherry St., through Sept. 30. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and by appointment. For more information, 816.516.6749 or www.lateshowgallery.com.