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Monday 12.29.08

« Crawl Space Centennial | Main | Looking back at 2008 on PORT »

Woolley's 15 and Smith is Ecumenical

Just in time for the holidays, Mark Woolley's savvy eye for up-and-coming artists has given Portland another reason to celebrate besides the fact that it's the gallery's 15th anniversary. Titled Selections from ME9, this show by Stephen Scott Smith is a fitting affirmation of Woolley's keen eye for fresh contemporary Portland artists.

The Woolley Gallery has been an integral part of the contemporary Portland art scene since first opening in 1993. While in the Pearl District, Woolley became a pioneer in discovering new talent in town. His eye for new artists has been and continues to be an important factor in the Portland art vocabulary.

Installation view, Selections from ME9 by Stephen Scott Smith

Recently, the Woolley Gallery has changed locations around town but some of the artists he has given important starts to are; M.K. Guth, Damali Ayo, Joe Thurston and Matthew Picton. Thus, it seems fitting that on the gallery's fifteenth birthday Woolley would return to form and give a blooming artist like Smith run of the space.

Smith's photography, video and three-dimensional works have a level of craft and concept that is sexy, enticing and delivers a worthwhile payoff for the viewer. Overall, his new work utilizes visual tools from Matthew Barney, M K Guth, Ann Hamilton and Andy Warhol and is well on his way to refining his own visual vocabulary.

Andy Warhol established fame as subject by often making his persona the focus of his work. Similarly, Smith uses himself but it is possibly for accessibility reasons. Warhol's work has an opaque poppy accessibility that leaves room for inquiry. Similarly here, nearly every piece involves Smith's face or his body in an aspiring quality. The installed ropes in the up and downstairs pieces share a similarity to M. K. Guth's braid elements, which are the manifested narrative of personal connections between people. With Smith the conceptual nuances are changed from personal responsiblities to fame, but in the end they're both the about interconnectivity. Smith also owes a debt to Ann Hamilton's emphasis on the mouth and her rooms full of rope, the resulting installation pushes our commonsensical understanding.


Smith's attention to detail in ME9 executes exactly what is expressed in his artist's statement with a clean and enigmatic video presence that never directly resolves - much like Matthew Barney's beautiful and endless conundrum The Creamaster Cycle. The unresolved videos are not answers, just conundrums upon which people ponder ethical questions. In one video, "Jackel Smith" is in a kind of dance, an unraveling of himself - but the video is in reverse. The screen is split into three sections and one is not quite sure of what is happening or how the cameras are timed or arranged. But there is a tension and pining for resolution that never evolves. This unresolved tension elicits examination of the character, allowing for elaboration upon the character's essence. In this case, the character developments angle focus on empathy with people. The dance of unraveling one's bandages is a small act, but the time it takes getting to the point of unveiling can consume large amounts of time and affect who we are. This piece, and this show as a whole, is visually appealing and inspires brooding on tough interpersonal topics.

The ME9 exhibit was originally shown in Philadelphia at three different galleries simultaneously - obviously, the entire original installation was not an option, so Woolley's selections from ME9 condense and highlighted the original installation, resulting in an excellent composition that may actually have benefited from the editing.


Fame is the starting block for Smith's work, and it definitely builds upon itself while I perused his website. As such, Smith's website is an extension of or companion to the current installation. It is very easy to get lost on the site; however, once you find the correct homepage you get a teaser to the actual ME9 show. The webpage is set up in a flash animated grid, showing nine different heads of Smith playing off the title of his show, ME9. After selecting one of the Smith heads, you are directed to a variety of different pages and once you have gone through your chosen head's adventure, you are directed to a screen that says, "coming soon."

The ride through this flash world is entertaining - also very narcissistic. Luckily, the selections from ME9 are composed in a manner that is less narcissism and more entertainment. Smith sees his work as a portal, permitting viewers to intertwine their identity with the characters Smith is portraying, also allowing the viewer to parallel with the characters as they float through the gallery.

Smith's magic is his ability for the viewer to experience interpersonal connections by transforming himself onto the canvas and making images of diametrically opposing characters. The characters illustrate how similar everyone is despite our differences. Browsing through the characters, one can't help but feel like one is stepping into a strange AA meeting witnessing bits of one's self throughout the group. Inevitably, all his work is about "Smith", a name that represents everyone much like John Doe or Dick and Jane. And though Smith's artist statement and work begin on the concept of narcissism, the inevitable occurrence for the viewer is to experience self awareness, toning down Smith's vain "me" and turning up the viewer's autonomous "you:" the viewers of the show. One is pulled into the photographs by the reoccurring and interweaving rope and lost in the strange metaphors and monitors.

Zebrasmith video installation

The show's layout also echoes the artist's statement, placing the narcissistic elements as a secondary element. As the start for the show flows from character to sign, to signifier, to nature, to Smith's statement relating harmoniously to the work in a concise and simple manner, allowing for public accessibility so that "anybody" can be "everybody" without becoming an absurd 60s platitude. The straightforwardness of the statement illuminates the idea of interconnectedness as more than just an overtone, but as a light on all the pieces in the show. As one gazes for a second time upon "Zebra Smith," the president who struggles with hard questions, a light is shed upon him that the strange costume is more than a outfit but a metaphor.

This rouses a dialectic between the esoteric art world and accessibility of craft. Smith elicits the tension between the two minds about contemporary art. The one mind believes that art is a universally accessible truth, while the opposing mind believes in the art history conversation leaving off with postmodernity's omnipresentness, which often leaves the layman in the dark. Smith's attention to detail in his videography, photography and three - dimensional works show craftsmanship, and the craft just looks good. Smith's vocabularies may be less accessible, but the craft and ideal make it very ecumenical.

Even if contemporary art is relevant to contemporary life, there is the residual burden for contemporary artists to point out the breadcrumbs leading art out of the woods and connect it to a reality that matters. Postmodern art's chief ideals of banality and masturbation leave little room for discussion-but the conversation can be revived or made relevant again by engaging a topic like understanding polar personalities like "art and craft";. That is why interconnectedness between people is such a hot idea: it is an accessible and universal conundrum that is perpetually important.

Zebrasmith (still)

Smith is clever to chose a topic that is pertinent and relevant to both the artworld and society. It is still a little icy and snowy out, but you have till January 3rd to make it into the Woolley Gallery, the installation has a depth that will warrant studying the show further as one warms back up.

Posted by Alex Rauch on December 29, 2008 at 11:24 | Comments (2)


I liked this show, but I felt that it over reaches a little as a commentary on the cult of personality. maybe if/when smith reaches warhol levels of fame, but with a relatively unknown artist, i thought your comments on identity & narcissism hit a lot closer to the mark.

also, the show totally owes a debt to David Lynch, particularly Inland Empire, and to Donnie Darko.

Posted by: Megan [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 29, 2008 02:50 PM

i think stephen scott smith hit the mark completely! he's a genius.

Posted by: Tom Dura [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 30, 2008 04:27 AM

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