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I See France

Allison Smith explores adult drama within the context of childhood memory.

by Cory Dugan

ostalgia in unskilled hands is just cheap sentiment. In Allison Smith’s hands, as evidenced by her exhibit “Rock, Scissors, and Paper” at Ledbetter Lusk Gallery, it is sometimes wickedly clever, sometimes sharply double-edged, sometimes vaguely unsettling, sometimes all of the above. And sometimes it’s just cheap sentiment – but it’s cheap sentiment in skilled hands, which is one kitschy step removed from and above plain old nostalgia.

The reference of Spin in Circles is universal, the interpretation individual.
The majority of the work in Smith’s exhibit deals with childhood rhymes – visual puns and three-dimensional wordplay based on such immortal verse as “I’m rubber, you’re glue...” and “I see London, I see France...” and “liar, liar, pants on fire.” The execution of the individual pieces varies (sometimes in the same work) from tongue-in-cheek, vacation-Bible-school craftsiness to art-gallery, mixed-media sophistication.

Most of the pieces incorporate translucent paper, often stained with oil paint, molded over a wire framework. The steel-wire armatures, visible through their paper skins, lend a powerful-yet-playful gestural quality to the work; like Calder’s wire sculptures, they are lines in space, three-dimensional drawings. Most are wall-mounted (at least for this exhibit) and they engage in a lively visual interplay along the walls and across the gallery.

If nostalgia tends toward the cheap, puns tend toward the low and the obvious. One criticism I overheard of Smith’s exhibit was along the lines of “I wish I hadn’t looked at the titles, they make the work too obvious.” I understand the concern. And any artist who delves so deeply into the realm of common experience and cliché should also understand it; this kind of art is a tightwire act, fatally susceptible to missteps.

Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back is, for example, a paper-and-wire composition incorporating an apron and a rolling pin. I See London is two pairs of underpants, made from maps of London (the Thames flowing through the crotch) and France. What if You’re in a Car Wreck? is seven pairs of paper-and-wire panties, each mounted on a rubber panel and emblazoned with a day of the week. Are these works obvious? Yes, of course, they’re over-the-top obvious. Do the groan-evoking visual puns detract from the work? I think not. Slapstick is as healthy and legitimate in visual art as it is anywhere else. In these and other examples, Smith’s reliance on childish rhymes and clichés gives the work an easily accessible point of reference and the viewer a humorous entree into more serious, sometimes darker territory.

Burn at Both Ends and Jacket for Tied Hands are quite logically paired in the exhibit’s installation. The former offers a pair of pants, the waist overflowing with unlit matches, each elongated leg capped with a candle. It plays visually with the chestnut title and it makes a curious wall sconce, but it also suggests a multitude of interpretations – libidinous, spiritual, and several thought-provoking combinations of the two. Jacket for Tied Hands is a rather formal, blue-tinted straitjacket, its elongated arms forming a seamless loop; futility and frustration are the obvious connotations, but paired with the trousers in Burn at Both Ends, the possibilities are rather more interesting.

More oblique, at least in their composition and presentation, are Better to be a Fool than a Knave and its complement, Spin in Circles. The former is an installation of paper-and-wire dunce caps, colorfully stained with oils and dangling mobile-like above an old wooden classroom chair – its seat inhabited by small, rubber-cone echoes of the suspended paper caps. Spin in Circles repeats the classroom chair, this time sawed-off and appended to an elongated metal cart complete with casters; the seat of the chair, high above eye level, is inhabited by an open book rendered in Smith’s signature paper-and-wire armature. The schoolroom references, like the schoolyard poetry, are nigh universal; the arrangement and signifiers may be personal to the artist but they still speak in a language easily adaptable to the viewer’s interpretation – this viewer reads frustration of a less physical nature than the previously discussed pairing.

The literal and figurative centerpiece of the exhibition is titled Old Sins Cast Long Shadows. Two pairs of ladies’ formal gloves – sewn from rubber and stretched to inhuman lengths – hang from two rolling coatstands, extending in opposite directions across the gallery floor and ending in supplicant-style open palms. The top of each rack is capped with a small paper hat – one is a fool, the other a dunce. Is this obvious? Is it eloquent? Yes. To both.

Obviously eloquent and eloquently obvious: This describes “Rock, Scissors, and Paper.” Evoking the taunting rhymes and combative stance of the oft-defensive child-persona in all of us, Allison Smith beautifully manages some universal truths and some exquisitely private confessions. The art of the matter is that we can’t tell the difference.

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