Alchemy In Reverse
by Frank Green
The Cleveland Free Times
April 20, 1994
Cleveland's inner city writers and artists have long been inspired by the awful beauty of the industrial valley, with its blue-green skies belching orange flame, with its droning hum wafting over mounds of gravel and slag and salt, with its dingy edifices like half-buried old men, with its rusting hulks lurching over murky waters.
How is it that artists in industrial cities around the world find environmental degradation so beautiful? Perhaps it's akin to Dante versifying the pits of hell or Goya etching the horrors of war, or perhaps it's something more: in Roman mythology, Venus, the goddess of beauty, is married to Vulcan, the lame and ugly god of the forge.
Steven B. Smith has been plumbing these lovely pits for nearly 20 years - not only for inspiration, but for materials. He incorporates the cast-off remnants of industrial production into his work, and in the process, transforms them into ideograms in a language of decay.
Something of a legend among local artists, he's self-taught and incredibly prolific. Currently showing at the Law Office/Gallery of Jean Brandt, he will have new work every month at different spaces on the Tremont Art Walk, ending with a career retrospective in September.
Though he works in various veins, Smith is best known for a long series of mixed-media pieces awash in shades of blue - the sacred color of Venus.
Working with copper wire gathered in the valley in the late 1970s, he's developed a process he's refined ever since. Mixing matte medium with copper powder and salt, he applies the resulting thick blue pigments in layers onto his surfaces. Reversing the process of alchemists who turned base materials into precious metals, he turns precious metal into base material, mimicking the activities of contemporary Vulcans who turn verdant fields into putrid wastelands.
Copper, it should be noted, is the metal sacred to Venus, and salt is the substance the alchemists associated with materiality.
The surfaces themselves are rarely canvas, but rather plates, bowls, serving trays, and baking pans. Served up for the consuming masses are violent blue seas. Their varying shades and thicknesses are currents and eddies that manage to appear frozen and solid amidst their flowing - just as dead things appear to have stopped changing, yet continue to decay. Embedded in this polluted foam which gives birth to Venus are the flotsam and jetsam of industrial culture: nails, nuts and bolts, wires, bits of plastic. Though his iconography varies, certain elements appear frequently: animal skulls, dead birds, syringes, mass-produced statues of Christ on the cross, faux jewels.
There's a good selection of these works at Jean Brandt's. "Triptych: As Above,So Below" is a series of three plates arranged vertically on the wall. The top entombs the carcass of a bird, the bottom the corpse of a rat. In between, where man lives, is a manufactured imitation of a bird surrounded by fake flowers and tiny plastic figures of Mary and the infant Jesus. "Dead Sea" includes a calcified, crucified Christ besieged by glow-in-the-dark angels. Captured, their wings embedded in the bluish murk, six cherubs plant their asses around a jagged circle of plastic as if awaiting to dine.
Roughly half the works in the exhibition explore other styles and techniques. Rosie the Riveter, symbol of America's wartime romance with industrial production, shows us her muscle in "Rose Colored Glasses"; buttons and sewing pins decorate a canvas and frame both covered with architectural schemata from a Simplicity dress pattern, onto which she's pasted. A Rotisserie Roasted Chicken label is covered with glass crystal pyramids that function hologramatically. Depending on your angle of view, the label mutates into words like "rot," "chick," "rose," and the name of our heroine. The mythology of the working woman is nothing more than a dressing up of the consumption.
Most impressive of all is a wall sculpture called "The Big Bang." Ten years in the making, it's an incredibly dense array of nails, car parts, wires, chains, skulls, crosses, toys, and more, all covered with thick black paint. Tiny highways and railway tracks jut much farther from the surface than is typical in a work by Smith. The monochromaticism conflates the disparate elements into a single exploding field, from which an upside-down Christ dangles by his feet from a wire. Such is the precarious existence of mankind in the post-industrial world.
Did I mention that Vulcan was lame? The say he was hurled from heaven.
Comment on Smith's poetry...e mail smith at smithcrimes @-sign yahoo dot com