The first work you saw when you entered Barbara T. Smith’s “Words, Sentences & Signs,” at the Box in downtown Los Angeles (September 17–October 29), acted like a beacon. It’s a small drawing from 1965, done with cray-pas and pencil on yellowing chipboard. The vague shape of a small sailboat interrupts a two-toned ball of blue. From a slight distance, the sailboat could easily pass as a belly button. Cursive at the bottom of the drawing says, “One day there was a hole in the sea, & it looked like this.” Hole in the Sea hung at the entrance to a room full of intimate drawings, paintings, photographs, and sculptures made between 1962 and 2015 by Smith, an artist still best known with her 1970s performances.
Many of these works had never been shown. Some, like a dense oil-on-canvas painting of a stick figure summoning, catching, and consuming a fish, are undated. The works hung staggered (high, low, in clusters), with artist books in vitrines and small sculptures on pedestals. There was no fantasy of polish. Instead, the installation felt familial, as if created by a cousin or niece more interested in her own idiosyncratic relationship to the art than in impressing savvy audiences.
Such installations have become standard practice at the Box, especially with exhibitions by older artists who have, for whatever reason, remained relatively under the radar. The approach keeps rarely or never-seen work from reading as a canon-worthy discovery finally getting its white-cube due. In Smith’s show, older and newer works read as equally, indistinguishably, experimental, especially notable at this moment in which the vintage work of aging feminists is too often fetishized.
In 2008, after a version of the the Box’s first exhibition of Smith’s work traveled to Maccarone gallery in New York, Roberta Smith wrote a New York Times review that framed Smith’s monochromes on glass and flesh-colored fiberglass columns from the late 1960s and early 1970s as a stopover made en route to her feminist performances. In 2011, artist Mary Jones interviewed Smith for Bomb magazine, also focusing on performance and biographical details, asking about the controversial ways in which she had used her body. In Feed Me, for instance, she sat nude in the lounge of a public restroom, inviting visitors one at a time to “feed her”—food, wine, massages, sexual favors. “[It] has nothing to do with being seductive,” Smith said. “There is an innocence about a person, a whole person, who happens to have a female body and happens to be sexual, spiritual, physical, everything, and that’s my body.”
That holistic innocence, intentionally maintained over decades, coursed through her show at the Box. A trio of oil-pastel drawings from 1986, Pronunciation: That, Mirror Voice, Words on Glass, has cartoonish open lips, with an expanse of watery blue between them, at its center. It reads as a study, perhaps exploring the relationship between sensuality and speaking out. Other drawings, like the collection of color spectrums called Analysis: Time Talk (1970), are more explicitly map-like, as if made to figure something out.
In the main gallery, tendrils dangling from a masked, blond suspended creature, originally made in 2007, reached down to the floor—the creature presiding over the space as an unaggressive sort of guardian. In a side gallery, a pen-on-paper drawing called Fleeing (1964) shows a figure running away from a woman’s open mouth. But any literal psychological read—is this Smith running from captivity, giving herself the freedom to be an artist?—was offset by the drawing hanging beside it. Portrait of an Apple (1964) shows a multicolored apple bisected in various ways, and treated with just as much care and attention as the fleeing woman. This show, so full of experiments, never allowed one kind of exploration to assume primacy over another.