There was something slightly and delightfully inchoate about Allison Smith’s exhibition of new works linking household items and military gear. A performance as well as an installation artist, Smith said in a recent gallery talk that she was influenced by Civil War reenactments early in life. She described her mother as an “American crafts enthusiast” and her father as a designer of “spy gadgets for the C.I.A.” Hence Smith’s own psychological grounding is clearly laid out. What was surprising here, however, was how clearly and believably she laid it out for the rest of us.
The museum’s large gallery was dominated by the mixed-medium Fancy Work (Colonial Wall Sconce), a 10-foot-high faux candle and a mirrored sconce 12 feet in diameter. The sconce appears to be made from a large satellite dish with various bits of glass glued to its surface. Taken together, these objects have all the authenticity of a stage set seen close-up. On the floor was Fancy Work (Braided Rug), a half-finished rug, and at the far end of the room, draped over wood chairs, were hanks of fabric set out with directions on how visitors might complete the rug. These caricatures of decoration, along with an invitation to participate, could be cloying except for the way Smith casually layers the horrific within the homey. A dozen books on war and on handicrafts were strewn across the rug, and one, titled Trench Art, ties the two topics together with photographs of armaments people have made into art. Apparently the human inclination to collect and make beauty out of detritus extends to the battlefield.
In an adjacent hallway stood Needle Work (Wartime Textiles), a row of three display cases flanked by hundreds of collaged photographs of interior decoration and furniture that covered the walls. The cases were filled with oddly delicate reproductions of military gear, each accompanied by small museum-style information labels. The objects themselves are hand-sewn, soft and somewhat silly-looking. Most are made from easily accessible materials: canvas and waxed thread were used to construct World War I-era gas masks and a helmet. But not all the objects are taken from military equipment. A carefully folded piece of gauze is covered in red splotches and labeled “bloody bandage.” An accompanying tag shows a photo of a slim woman modeling the fabric like a miniskirt.
Smith casts a wide cultural net, but her focus on war and her desire to link it to the home is clear. Turning artifacts from each into handicrafts, she renders the military and the domestic equivalent-which is chilling.