Shinique Smith: STARGAZERS installation view, including (left to right): “Mutual Butterflies” and “Grace Stands Beside,” April 21 – July 31, 2022, Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas. Photo: EG Schempf
In a May interview with Artnet.com, multidisciplinary artist Shinique Smith stated, “My most indispensable tools are my hands. I touch everything: building, drawing, wrapping, bundling, brushwork — all of my work is imbued with my sense of touch.”
This overarching use of tactility, along with the spiritual nature of self-reflection, exudes from every pore of the visually rich and intellectually stimulating exhibition “Shinique Smith: STARGAZERS” at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art.
Incorporating painting, mixed media, dyed cloth, bundled fabric sculptures, collections of objects and a video installation, “STARGAZERS” is composed of new work Smith completed in the rollercoaster of upheaval and solitude of the last two years.
“Inflamed by Golden Hues of Love” is a freestanding assemblage of fabric, garments, ribbon, rope, fiber and wood, which have been painted and dyed. Rich with black and gold textures ranging from abstract to patterned, it resonates with optimistic energy, electrifying the exhibition space.
Born in Baltimore, the Brooklyn-based artist, whose practice is influenced by graffiti, Japanese calligraphy, and abstraction, states that “STARGAZERS” is “inspired by ancestors who gazed at the stars as explorers and as slaves seeking freedom, like other artists before me.”
This idea of “gazing at the stars as explorers and as slaves seeking freedom” is very evident in the large-scale calligraphic paintings, some voyaging into mixed media, that Smith created blindfolded during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Large, flowing strokes of black paint over softer pastel colors collide on their way to finding a unifying purpose. These works are simultaneously intersective and introspective, like the Black Lives Matter protests themselves. There is an aesthetic of conflict in these works, as strokes and colors are sometimes seemingly in competition. There is also an aesthetic of cooperation as these same strokes and colors create a unified whole.
While many artists work to music, Smith says, “I keep it mostly silent in the studio when I prefer to listen to my own thoughts and internal music.” The poignancy of silence and self-reflection is evident in an assemblage collection including drawings, sketches, printed images, books, figurines, and a smaller, clothbound sculpture. Referencing race, time, space, science and mortality, these objects place the viewer on a raft riding the river of human thought, especially Black human thought in these tumultuous and trying times.
Smith’s belief that “. . . fabric is one of the greatest and most important inventions of humanity” is on full display in other colorfully vibrant, bundled cloth sculptures that are strategically placed throughout the exhibit. Created with sight and touch, as opposed to the large-scale works on canvas created while blindfolded, these repurposings and recontextualizations of used, discarded, and dyed fabrics speak to issues of duality, excess, greed and waste. These works also speak to issues of socioeconomic inequity and physical labor, given the physical effort that must be put forth to create each one.
While most take the forms of pillars or deities, one is in a shape that reminded me of a seahorse from the ads in the back of comic books from the 1970s. Utilizing discarded purses, along with clothing, it invokes the American obsession with status, fashion and style in the face of growing economic inequality and poverty.
“Breathing Room: Moon Marked Journey,” a meditative film directed and produced by Smith is, possibly, the very strong glue that cements this already tightly bound exhibit. Evolving from an Open Spaces Kansas City performance in 2018, “Breathing Room: Moon Marked Journey” explores the spiritual and aesthetic underpinnings of Smith’s practice. The film utilizes body wrapping, yoga-based breathwork, and colorful imagery to explore the influence of color and self-reflection upon Smith’s practice. In my opinion, it makes the biggest impact when viewed before, and then after, the rest of the works.
A factor in the timeliness and importance of this exhibition is found in the purpose and intention with which JoAnne Northrup, Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Nerman Museum, approached it. “When I began my role last August,” she said, “I knew that the first major exhibition I planned would serve as a public statement about my curatorial priorities as I lead the Nerman Museum into its next chapter.”
“I am so thrilled to present Shinique Smith: STARGAZERS as my first major exhibition of my tenure at the Nerman,” she added. “Smith is a brilliant artist and richly deserves this opportunity. She has created a mesmerizing experience for visitors and the JCCC community with STARGAZERS.”
“Shinique Smith: STARGAZERS” is more than an exhibition; it is a reflection meditation upon the nature of our humanity, both collectively and individually. In these trying times, it is a meditation that we can all benefit from.
“Shinique Smith: STARGAZERS” continues at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, through July 31. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday, Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, 913.469.3000 or www.nermanmuseum.org.