Thursday, March 7, 2013

Mother of Invention

Barbara T Smith, Pink, 1965-1966
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of The Box

In 1965, Barbara T. Smith was a housewife living in Pasadena with her husband and three children. Smith had the idea to make a make a lithographic print combining gravestone rubbings and flowers. In need of technical assistance, she approached the newly established Gemini G.E.L. print studio. Gemini rejected Smith’s inquiry, but she was not discouraged. She turned to the newest printing invention of the 20th century, the Xerox machine. Smith leased a copier and set up shop in her dining room. Over the next year, she produced a prolific output of images that are presented in The Box’s current exhibit, Xerox: Barbara T. Smith 1965-1966.

In many of the pieces, Smith uses the form of the book to collect and contain a series of images. Not unlike the multiples produced by Fluxus artists, Smith’s Xerox works speak of a blurring between the intimacies of art and life. Her work reflects imagery drawn from domestic life including flowers, food-stuff, undergarments, her children, and her own nubile body. Even within the history of Feminist art, it is rare to find examples of art from a mother’s perspective. One notable exception, Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document is clinical and distant in contrast to Smith’s more tender and fleshy renderings. Smith’s works have a warmth and accessibility, like scrapbooks that contain and document moments in time.

Barbara T Smith, Katie, 1965-1966
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of The Box

In a text that accompanies the exhibit, Smith states, “My overall interest had to do with light, identity, the erotic body and the passage of time.” Issues of time, body, and identity can be linked to Smith’s later performance works and in some ways the Xerox pieces are performative works themselves. Smith pressed her body onto the glass of the machine, capturing the imprint of her flesh. Like Ana Mendieta’s Glass on Body, the gesture is a performance for the camera, or the machine. The erotic tone of the work comes through the mortal weight of the body pressing against the boundaries of the transparent “mirror”, as female flesh is revealed to be potentially boundless and terrifying.

Obvious to me, just bursting with my need and desire to “come out” as a full active erotic being, was to put my face and body onto the machine and print it. My sexual drive was at a fever pitch in 1966 (my mid 30’s). I was totally devoted to the idea of doing as art and art as action in life. This is why I liked the books so much for you had to hold them and do something with them to perceive them.

Barbara T. Smith, Coffins Installation View, 2013 
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of The Box

Smith calls her book works “coffins”, as they hold a “reality of a fixed location in time and in space”. The works contain a kind of body knowledge, haptic experience that we can all conjure from our own memories. We understand the sensation of the body on glass, the warmth of paper lifted from a copy machine, the feel of pages as they are collated into the form of a book which holds and can be held. In a comment about her book Pink Rose (two) Smith says, "A life that becomes a relic. Something like the Shroud of Turin, the Xerox becomes a mark that it was actually there. The question of the actual. A sort of sickening carnal nostalgia." Through the humble process of the copy machine, Smith found a way to capture layers of the sublime through images that evoke memory, loss, and the fleeting nature of time.

Barbara T. Smith,  Installation View, 2013 
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of The Box

XeroxBarbara T. Smith 1965-1966 is on view at The Box February 16 through March 23, 2013.

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