This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 21, 2008 - James M. Smith’s new show at the Sheldon, What Came Before, shows the artist moving in a more sculptural direction and moving deeper into themes he has often broached in his long career.
His artist statement is a moving contemplation of maps and all that they entail — relocation, borders, contours, warnings — as well as the dangers embedded in the desert. The new work certainly embodies these ideas. But there’s so much more.
To his familiar elegiac stitched and safety-pinned canvas wall pieces he’s added cloth effigies, tied up with cord and given legs of wooden rods. Some of these stand, while some lie atop wooden structures whose joints are bound with strips of cloth (“Anvil,” 2008, is a good example).
Here and there, small, mysterious satchels are attached to the standing structures or the wall pieces (as in “Smoke,” 2008, which is painted in the most heart-rending shade of violet-gray I’ve ever seen).
Titles like “Medicine,” “Totem I” and “Bullboat” suggest the shamanic, even primitive undertone of these works. But a work like “Tower” (2008), with its easel-like constructs and wrapped, rectangular containers — are they books? paint boxes? little canvases? — brings us automatically back to the theme of artists, their love-hate affair with everyday life, and their ongoing desire to describe and escape the world using the only vehicle available: art.
Ivy Cooper is an artist and professor of art history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.