James Michael Smith's recent works, now on view at Fontbonne University's Gallery of Fine Arts, reaffirm what many of us here in St. Louis already know -- he's one of the city's very best artistic assets. How he manages, time and time again, to produce such profound abstractions, is a kind of ingenious mystery.
Yet there's nothing particularly mysterious about his works. They express their materiality so clearly: muslin tacked, unframed to the wall; smaller squares of fabric sewn or pinned to the muslin with deliberate care; small strokes of charcoal and color, contrasted by broad, sticky areas of impasto paint. It's all there for the eye to see. No hocus-pocus or illusionism here.
Yet the works set our minds to imagining what it must have taken to produce them. Those colored marks can only be described as obsessive -- hundreds of them, built up into a dense nest. The edges of the smaller fabric squares tell us they were cut with scissors, with a careful if not particularly steady hand. Stitches vary in size from tiny to big basting-type loops. These works are multimedia and multitechnique aggregates. In making them, Smith must have developed a rare kind of intimacy with the materials.
Five of the nine works on display here are large seven-by-seven-foot "Compass" paintings, each featuring a circular central form that appears to rotate about itself. The concentration on this form itself begins to seem obsessive, as if the artist were using it to capture some intractably elusive figment from a dream. The layers of fabric attached with safety pins or stitches are like desperate gestures to repair the original statement.
In parts of the paintings, pins and stitches migrate off on their own, moving beyond their function to become new visual elements. In "Compass -- Mesa" (2001), a horde of safety pins secure a layer of fabric while taking up the arcing sweep of the compass form. "Compass -- Revealed" and "Compass -- Narrows" feature pins and stitches that try to stay neatly within the painted lines.
There are echoes of postwar arte povera here, in particular the sorrowful stitched paintings of Alberto Burri. Burri treated his paintings like bandages, patched together to cover an open wound, saturated with blood and fluid and sadly inadequate. Smith's works share that sadness and underscore it with their obsessive repetition.
All this, however, does nothing to compromise the beauty of these works. Their grace and fragility are countered by their stubborn materiality. The beauty of the abstract compositions is heightened by the intimate care and involvement Smith has obviously invested in them. These days, art that possesses such tangible emotional and physical investment is less than fashionable. Smith carries it off beautifully. His works are nothing less than devastating.
This show also includes two smaller "Compass" pieces, tacked onto black frames. Their more limited scale, three by four feet, also limits their visual impact. More powerful are the two large works displayed in the foyer outside of the Gallery proper. At eight by six feet, "Steppe" and "Mirror" (both 2002) bring back the emotional charge of Smith's very best work while moving away from the compass theme.
"Steppe" contrasts a caked field of orange paint with a wash of light green. Multiple small flaps of fabric are pinned or sewn loosely onto the surface, with loose threads hanging ragged. "Mirror" is raw and wrenching, with rusty burlap pieces attached to a jarring mass of green paint. Both works are enhanced by being hung in the foyer, on separate walls that allow the viewer to observe each one in isolation and at a distance.
Unfortunately, the "Compass" works hung in the gallery are crowded tightly together, and it's impossible to study one without the visual interference of another. The tiny gallery must present all kinds of challenges to the curators, who deserve credit for organizing a show of this wonderful work despite the drawbacks of the space.
Smith has been around for a while, and he's earned his share of recognition. But he's proved to be an artist with true staying power, someone whose work you always look forward to seeing, the same way you anticipate a new CD by your favorite musician or a new novel by the only author who seems to intuit your moods and desires.
With works as wonderful as Smith's on display in St. Louis, viewers could hardly ask for more -- but more there is: Two exhibitions of Sue Eisler's new works provide a remarkable complement to the Smith exhibition. New Patterns at William Shearburn Fine Art and Ongoing Permutations at Gallery 210 feature recent compositions with paper and leather shoe patterns, found near the artist's former studio on Washington Avenue [Eddie Silva, "Sole Survivor," January 15].
Eisler has always been extremely sensitive to her materials and sure about her process. She treats common materials, such as paper, with the utmost care, coaxing expressive passages from it with pigment or ink or the perforations made by a sewing-machine needle. In Eisler's hands, flat things are never two-dimensional. She'll sandwich a paper piece in plexiglass and prop it up with a stand to remind you that nothing in the material world has only one side.
In the new works, Eisler arranges these familiar-yet-strange shoe patterns into sculptural forms that cascade down the wall or rise up from the floor like flowers caked in paint. Sometimes she leaves the paper patterns in the raw, allowing us to wonder about their now-surreal markings, and read their words like an absurdist text. I quote: "Insole Open Toe ... Sterling ... Cozy ... Last Bottom." In other constructions, Eisler employs thick and heavy paint, or thin translucent washes, that transforms the shoe patterns visually while maintaining a tenuous hold on their original identity.
Herein lies a great strength of Eisler's work: She's able to use found objects in such a way that they speak of their history and their original context while generating new meanings. These sad, slightly absurd forms tell us about St. Louis' past as -- of all things -- a shoemaking capital. They remind us that this history is all but forgotten, deteriorating in a back-alley Dumpster in the city's former garment district, and yet they unfold like flowers from another planet altogether.
New Patterns, at William Shearburn, mainly features wall pieces, subtle in coloring, casting lovely random patterns on the walls and floor. Gallery 210's Ongoing Permutations, the larger show, includes wall pieces, pieces in plexiglass and an array of sculptures that, we can hope, signals another direction Eisler will continue to explore.