By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Shinique Smith is as fine a mixture of street and salon as any artist could be.
For decades, her family lived in the genteel Baltimore neighborhood of Edmondson Village. Except that by the time Smith was growing up, she says, that gentility was lost and by now it's "totally the 'hood."
She was born to a teenage single mom who left Shinique (rhymes with "Clinique") behind to be brought up by her grandmother. This young mother, however, had "abandoned" her daughter to study fashion in New York and Paris, then came back to push culture and education on her kid.
Smith went to storied public schools in Baltimore: The Baltimore School of the Arts and later Frederick Douglass High. In between those two schools, she got arrested, for what she calls "ridiculous" graffiti crimes, and was bounced to Southwestern High, where metal detectors were de rigueur. Smith says she lucked out when her failing transcript from Southwestern was lost on its way to Frederick Douglass. Douglass sent Smith off with a scholarship to the Maryland Institute College of Art.
The old Brooklyn building Smith now lives in has its rougher edges, and there are crumbling projects within a few blocks. But the scruffy drugstore downstairs has been splendidly rehabbed as a trendy trattoria. Smith's apartment on the second floor has lovely hardwood floors, a marble fireplace and its original 1930s black-and-white bathroom -- and could use a second mortgage's worth of renovations. When a critic visits, it's also full to bursting with all the trash and scrap and found objects Smith uses to make art.
And now, as a kind of cap to all those contrasts, at the age of 37 Smith has made it into a new show at the august National Portrait Gallery in Washington, home to pictures by Gilbert Stuart, John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt. Yet the exhibition she's in, called "Recognize! Hip-Hop and Contemporary Portraiture," includes spray-painted murals by real street artists as well as concert photos and oil portraits of hip-hop's greatest stars, alongside Smith's own manic agglomeration of rap ephemera and found objects.
All along, this has been what Smith has had to reckon with: A complex negotiation between the "high" culture of the art world, for so long steeped in whiteness, and the black "street" culture of the city she grew up in.
Smith is proud of her brief flirtation with graffiti as a member of TWC, The Welfare Crew. "For a minute, I was the only girl writer in Baltimore," she says. But press her for details about her teenage arrest, and she just laughs it off as youthful foolishness, long since scrubbed from her record. That was more than 20 years ago, she points out. Her street-art past may be something "people like to glom onto," but she has spent decades moving on from it.
"My work isn't graffiti," she insists, explaining that the swirling letter forms on the walls in her Portrait Gallery piece, and on canvas in other recent work, owe as much to her study of Japanese calligraphy in college as to her long-ago painting in alleys. At the Portrait Gallery, her letters' swoops are done in Japanese sumi ink rather than Krylon spray.
Anyway, the unusually explicit "street" themes in Smith's Portrait Gallery installation, titled "No Thief to Blame," partly stem from the circumstances of this new work's birth. The installation was commissioned as a response to a new poem by Nikki Giovanni, the 64-year-old Godmother of Rap, that was also created for the hip-hop show. The poem is called "It's Not a Just Situation: Though We Just Can't Keep Crying About It (For the Hip-Hop Nation That Brings Us Such Exciting Art)," and it's broadcast over speakers and printed on one wall in the gallery Smith's work shares with it.
Giovanni's verses include such phrases as "You are Just / If there is any / Justice / Trying to find a way of not / Just surviving but living" and "You are just / trying to say 'I'm Alive.' " They inspired Smith to include the following in her assemblage, which cascades from one corner of the room: A torn Tupac Shakur T-shirt, collaged photos of dead hip-hoppers such as Aaliyah, Jam Master Jay and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes (along with similar homages to dead fine artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Harding), images of roses torn from a movie poster for "Youth Without Youth," a cardboard-cutout butterfly, a plastic "Heavyweight Wrestling" trophy belt, gold plastic beading hanging from the ceiling, swirls of illegible writing done right on the wall (in that sumi ink), lengths of red ribbon, blue shoelace and yellow caution tape stretched across a window embrasure as well as a pair of high-heel pink mules that sit demurely in the middle of the mess.
For the Portrait Gallery's more traditional visitors, all this street-inspired art, with its street-sourced supplies, is bound to come across as absolutely up-to-date. But the installation's street-smart maker sees it differently. Smith feels the piece is full of "nostalgia and romance for the past" -- for the era when she, and American culture at large, first began to feel hip-hop's impact.
Smith cites a friend's interpretation of the installation as the kind of sentimental Wall of Fame a teenage girl might mount in her bedroom, pinning up the pop-culture faces that mean the most to her. That teenager may have more in common with the spray-painting Shinique Smith of then, a young rebel in public school in Baltimore, than with the mature artist she's become since getting her master's degree and moving to New York in 2003. (Just weeks ago, she got taken on by the rich and prestigious Yvon Lambert gallery. That almost makes her part of the art-world establishment.)
Smith notes links between her roots in graffiti and the Japanese calligraphy she's come to more recently: Both are about marks made in a single swoop of spontaneity, as well as the impossibility of erasure. Both are governed by strict traditions that set clear bounds for any innovation. But both also have parallels in the grand, Dead White Male history of Western art that also matters deeply to Smith -- in the revolutionary sketches of Leonardo and Michelangelo, in abstract expressionism, maybe also in the subtle use of black and white and gesture by more recent figures such as Cy Twombly and Sol LeWitt.
Smith says that she is, proudly and definitively, black, and a black artist, and a black woman artist: "I think in this country, you can't not see yourself as an African American, or as a woman." She revels in her "freakish" resemblance to Josephine Baker, to the point of wearing her hair in a 1920s bob and dressing for a critic's visit in a striped French matelot shirt.
During the seven-year break between her bachelor's and master's degrees in art at the Maryland Institute, she lived for some time in Seattle. She found that city strangely lacking in African American consciousness and culture, she says, and so came to launch its first black film festival. She is keenly aware of all the black friends and role models she has found in New York's art community. "I feel like I'm part of some renaissance," she says, "but maybe that's just me."
She also insists, however, that blackness is not -- or not usually -- the "primary subject" of her work. "I see myself as an artist -- other people see me as an African American artist." By which she means that however much she may be an artist who is black, her work isn't simply "black art."
Even her explicitly black-themed piece in Washington, commissioned to work in the history-museum context of the Portrait Gallery and made in response to a poem written by a black icon and all about black culture, is a kind of extract from an ongoing project that casts its net more widely. In what's on its way to becoming what she calls a "big requiem" for our times, Smith has been amassing mementos of all the famous figures who have died during her life. ("I romanticize things," she says, "I don't know if you noticed.") Those dead figures include Tupac (he arrived at the Baltimore School of the Arts just after Smith got the boot, but she knew him through mutual friends) and the other hip-hop artists in "No Thief to Blame," but also Lady Di (a set of commemorative dishes from the Franklin Mint) and Kurt Cobain (a lunch box). Smith is not sure how the project will pan out, but that's the way she works: accumulating stuff that seems to strike a spark, and then recycling it into her art.
Her recent work has often consisted of baled scrap fabric that comments, at least obliquely, on excess consumption and the global trade in castoffs from the West. One such textile bundle is in "Unmonumental," the prestigious show that launched the reopened New Museum in New York. It fits in fine with other global art on display there, and only hints at a background with a can of spray paint on the streets of Baltimore.
Consumption and discarding are as much the subjects of Smith's work as the specifics of what gets consumed and dumped -- throwing out a Tupac T-shirt isn't that different from discarding one commemorating Motley Crue.
Her art has come to be about how busy we all are with feathering our nests as thickly as we can. "I think a lot about the urban habitat as nature," she says. If her cloth bundles often look like something from a homeless person's perch in a bus shelter, that's not because she has borrowed them direct from there. (That would be "vulgar and disgusting," she says.) It's because we're all hopeless accumulators, and the homeless simply take that instinct to what Smith terms its "Sisyphean" extreme.
Her origins may be on Baltimore's lean streets, but she cites New York as the perfect place for her to work: "This is a place of overt overuse and disposal."