Aggressive Nastiness Jabs At Viewer
The Plain Dealer
May 27, 1992
For 15 years, Cleveland artist Steven B. Smith has cultivated a bad boy persona on the fringe of the city's art scene. In addition to his activities as poet and editor of ArtCrimes, a small edition journal of art and poetry, he's a practitioner of assemblage, the art of making images and objects out of every day detritus.
Smith's complex and manic creations blend images of porn queens and Christian saints, genitalia and biblical passages, Mickey Mouse and the American flag. Other ingredients include rusty metal shavings, chopped up baby dolls, a flattened toad, a chicken head and a tiny dead mouse.
This work - good, bad and ugly - is the subject of a self-organized retrospective exhibition on view through Sunday at the Studio Gallery in Tremont. There are 68 objects, spanning 25 years in the artist's career.
In his use of popular images and commonplace items, Smith's work has roots in the dadaist collages of Kurt Schwitters and the early pop art constructions of Robert Rauschenberg. But while Smith's aesthetic is familiar, his works are as repellent and grotesque as they are provocative. What comes across mainly is the artist's anger and his eagerness to shock audiences.
In a work called "Cross Breeding," Smith makes a cross out of Polaroid photos of genitalia. In "Govrnmt Benefits," the artist has glued a tiny Captain America doll to a wood panel covered with fragments of glass, shiny puzzle pieces and a matchbook emblazoned with the words: "Direct Payments" and "Free Cash Grants." Another piece is a mock Christian shrine with a grinning rubber "E.T." doll hanging from the cross.
In Smith's artwork, everything is under attack, and nothing is sacred. His work is a cranky rant against materialism, organized religion and political hypocrisy. It's gritty and shrill, although the sharp edges of Smith's visual rhetoric often are submerged in a murky visual stew that muffles his message.
Step back a few paces from a Smith construction and the images blur as if submerged in cloudy water at the bottom of a brackish pond. One such work, called "Memory Bank," is a grayish melange of animal bones, metal shavings, a carnival mask and other bits of unidentifiable grit.
If this sounds unpleasant, it is. Smith's primary strategy is to defile popular symbols of authority. There's nothing wrong with art that makes a political statement. But Smith does so crudely and clumsily.
Oddly, there's a lyrical side to Smith. Many of his works are dominated by a metallic blue created by a blend of copper dust, salt and acrylic gel. When mixed with the gel, the salt and copper react to create exquisite shades of blue. The sumptuous color contrasts with the aggressive nastiness that pokes out through many of Smith's works.
At 46, Smith views himself in mid-career. In an interview at the Studio Gallery, he said he's about to give up computer programming temporarily to embark on an open-ended artistic pilgrimage to Europe. His exhibition is a kind of summation of everything he's done so far.
Born in Idaho, Smith grew up in the Washington farm country outside of Spokane. He joined the Navy, spent three years at the Naval Academy at Annapolis and finished his bachelor's degree at Loyola College in Baltimore. In 1977, he moved to Cleveland. The show at Studio Gallery covers 25 years of work, most of it produced in Cleveland.
By organizing an exhibition covering such a large chunk of his life, Smith shows considerable courage, Too many local artists hide from scrutiny by showing spoonfuls of work in group shows. Smith's approach is much more gutsy. He should show the kind of courage in refining his work to bring subtlety to his political rage and visual clarity to his murky constructions.
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