Smith typifies 'working artist hero'

by Michael Meikson | 11/19/97 6:00am

As a working artist, Ed Smith, this term's Artist-in-Residence, is keenly aware of the stereotypes that surround his profession. In a world where success can often be subjective or arbitrary, fluctuating with the ebb and flow of cultural trends, Smith takes pride in what he calls "a working man's job."

"All you need to know about me is that I work," he says, prefacing a slide-show presentation.

Indeed, his business day is, in some ways, quite similar to that of the average nine-to-fiver. Upon entering his studio in the morning, he sweeps the floor and looks at the previous day's work, chewing a cigar, considering what has been accomplished and what will be explored in the day's work.

Unlike the typical working man, however, he has the freedom to follow his whimsy. Sometimes, he gets into a "jag"; like a binge, he spends a year on drawings or makes hundreds of small sculptures. Smith calls these forays into inspiration "divine madness."

By sheer volume, Smith's work stands as the embodiment of his ideas. His sculptures have filled a barn, and he jokes about selling drawings "by the pound." He has the bad back and rugged demeanor common to those involved in heavy physical labor. This intense effort has paid off: Smith has garnered a variety of awards and prestigious teaching positions throughout his career.

His sculptures are primarily made from cement-like materials, wood, and metal, capturing the visceral, organic nature of their creator in an abstract form. The prints, on the other hand, are highly allegorical, employing a variety of symbolic imagery to explore themes like family life, death and anger. In these intense, dark creations, one can find Smith's hallmark, a black bull, along with trees, monsters, ghostly figures and portraits.

Despite (or because of) the fact that drawing is the least flashy artistic medium, Smith is fascinated by it and stresses its importance as a primary outlet for artistic expression. As such, Smith's drawings are a breeding ground for ideas he expresses in other media. Some, made with shoe-polish or charcoal, look like blueprints for the sculptures. Others are mythical or narrative in nature, and some simply explore issues of design.

Although it is difficult for an artist working in today's media-infused atmosphere to avoid attachment to some ideology, Smith has done just that. Refreshingly, his work lacks socio-political subtext, focusing instead on timeless problems such as the relationship between organic and linear shape, repetition, and themes of mythology.

Indeed, while he acknowledges his admiration for the work of many different artists, Smith draws his influence primarily from Classical Greek sculpture. He intersperses his speech with anecdotes from Greek myths and frequently refers to the classical concept of man, especially the artist, as a hero, one who constantly pushes the boundaries and questions established norms.

Certainly, given his fierce work ethic, affinity for Bruce Springsteen, and humble bearing before the Muse, Smith assumes the role of working-class hero. In the fine arts, where image and "inspiration" have long been the name of the game, his attitude is a breath of fresh air.

Smith's current exhibition, which had been on display at the Jaffe-Friede & Strauss Galleries in the Hopkins Center, represents a timely cross-section of the artist's work, reflecting the diversity of both his ideas and the media he employs.

In keeping with his fascination with Classical times, Smith has taken it upon himself to literally reinvent the wheel, or at least its image.

Several of his sculptures feature the smooth black discs juxtaposed against a roughly-formed landscape of cement-like structolite and wooden bars. The image is certainly provocative, and is reminiscent of the black monolith from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey."

As the film's smooth, artificial monolith becomes ominous against an untamed landscape, so these discs appear out of place and unnatural in their amorphous matrix. Like diamonds peeking out from a piece of basalt, the wheels draw attention to themselves; one might interpret the sculptures to comment upon the conspicuousness of human or artificial influence against the backdrop of a natural order.

The theme of repetition manifests itself in two works composed of hanging arrangements of tile-like squares made from sculpted structolite.

The pieces are related, but each is slightly different from the next, like a few consecutive frames taken from a film sequence; considered as a whole they demonstrate the power of repetition to produce an arresting image.

Perhaps the most fascinating element of his exhibition were his prints. Done in monotype, Smith's images of the bull and shadowed Ku Klux Klan-like figures are haunting and mysterious, quite different in tone from the robust or whimsical drawings.