Over the Wall:
The Restless Steven B. Smith Is Moving On
by Douglas Max Utter
Cleveland Free Times
March 15, 2006
A chunk of Cleveland is about to break loose and float away, ultimately attaching itself somewhere else. Barcelona is said to be a good bet. That soon-to-be-drifting subcontinent of rust-coast culture is none other than Steven B. Smith himself, amazingly prolific visual poet, founder and long-time producer of the proto-'zine Art Crimes, and devoted son of the very special, late, late-blooming artiste known as Mother Dwarf.
After a sojourn lasting more than 30 years, Smith is off to new pastures accompanied by the love of his life, poet and ex-electrical engineer Lady. The two began their relationship just last year, shortly after the death of Smith's mother, Florence E. Smith. Flo, aka Mother Dwarf, moved into the suite Smith occupies on West 14th Street in Tremont after a car backed into her. That hit-and-run accident initiated a decade of pain, organ failure, and ultimately death. Yet there was a far brighter side to their life together: a mother-son artistic collaboration of sorts, maybe more about life than any particular art. But Smith is a restless, charismatic re-inventor of tropes who tends to infect almost anyone with his approach to making. And his mother, like the good Smith she was, just went a lot farther than most, generating her own epidemic of allusive found-object imagery. The first of her five solo shows at Brandt Gallery took place when she was 68, the last not long before her death in 2005.
But all that's only one dimension among the vicissitudes of Steve Smith's life. His prodigal early years, for example, seem woven from the stuff of tall tales - an all-un-American treat - too many to recount here. Visit the unabridged Smithopedia, spread through some 1,500 pages at www.agentofchaos.com. Thoroughly steeped in the corrosive chemistry of urban legend, it contains many delights, from autobiography to poems and pics of the art. As it says on the homepage, "Let's face it Smith, if the song 'My Way' were written about your life, it would be lyrics by William S. Burroughs & music by Laurie Anderson, as performed by The Velvet Underground."
A few highlights: Born in Wallace, Idaho, he spent most of his boyhood down on a farm in Spokane, Washington. But the bucolic period was short-lived; even more than most, Smith's life abounds in rapid change and non sequitur. A car-stealing spree in the early 1960s culminated in armed robbery, then somehow led to a college education at the expense of Uncle Sam. The journey from prison to prep school to boot camp to the Naval Academy seemed to end badly when he was kicked out of the Academy, along with 11 other pot-smoking types. But in fact it was only the beginning of his college education. A listing of Smith's further walk-on roles would include life-insurance salesman, prison cook, avant-garde theatre manager, newspaper film/music critic, milkman, women's shoe salesman, computer operator, programmer analyst, poet, publisher/editor, and last but not least, happily married expatriate.
All this is reflected in Smith's protean art. His collages and assemblages reconfigure the mind, beachcombing daily realities. Language is scavenged, just as much as tree lawns, and sometimes Smith's punning titles are the best part. Among the 90-odd (often really odd) works for sale at the Inside-Outside Gallery at the opening of his solo show Prison Break on March 10 were "Inside Track" (a circular wall-mounted "combine" involving a model of a horse's head, a bald mannequin phiz, and a big soup ladle), " Hell 4, Purgatory 7" (you have to see it), "Pandora's Box" (about nuclear war), and "Budget Cuts" (includes scissors, mirror and glass shards, and an Eisenhower silver dollar).
A smaller tableau, "Downstairs," is made to look burnt up by judicious use of black and gray paint. It consists of a cupid-like doll clutching a bow, perched on the brink of a shallow niche; next to the doll, a vertebra sits on its haunches like a demonic pet, and the whole thing is attached to a short grid of bent fencing. The cherub and his bud have encountered brimstone in what appears to be a valentine from hell.
Just outside the gallery on opening night was Gallery U Haul, parked at the curb. The brainchild of Patsy Cline, director of the recently closed Gallery U (get it?), this movable venue featured two of Smith's sculptures. Displayed on the wheelwell ledges and complemented by light-sensitive, fresco-ish paintings by Michael McNamara, "Mercy" was an orange- painted Christmas tree angel in flowing robes with a chicken head and claw added, spray-painted orange. "On The Road" was white and made in part, says Smith, from the artificial leg of a deceased drug dealer.
Many of Smith's works encounter brimstone in one way or another. His signature use of oxidized copper makes them appear to have been fetched from the bottom of the sea if not the depths of Hades, evoking time and tide, suffering and perhaps a dawning glow of redemption. Everything from a real dead mouse to a 1963 Life magazine cover painting of John F. Kennedy finds a second spiritual life in the air of Smith's studio.
Someone recently sold his own soul on eBay for $500. At bargain rates that range from $100-$200, Smith's soul-filled works are definitely priced to sell.
Buy something, so the Smiths can get the heck out of here.
As Smith (also founder of the Church of Not Quite So Much Pain & Suffering) says, "Go thee and suffer less."
March 10 - April 1, 2006
Inside / Outside Gallery
2688 W.14th Street, Cleveland (Tremont), 44113