On ViewDavid Zwirner
Josh Smith: High as Fuck
May 21 – June 21, 2020
At the height of COVID-19 restrictions in New York City, artist Josh Smith hauled a series of new paintings, along with seven ceramic sculptures dating from 2013 and 2014, to the roof of his Brooklyn studio. Taping the name of his show, Josh Smith: High As Fuck, to the inside of the stairwell door, Smith transformed the space into an open-air gallery. While quarantine measures kept the exhibition inaccessible to the public, photographs and video clips documenting Smith’s efforts can be viewed online at the website of David Zwirner, the gallery that officially represents the artist.
In one clip, Smith speaks sardonically to the camera, declaring, “this is a real show,” before saying “cut.” This may be a wry understatement—of course it’s a real show, David Zwirner says it’s a real show—but after three months of staring at the eternal present of my computer screen, the distinction between what is real and what is not has become murky for me, and I appreciate his candor in acknowledging the question. What remains unclear, however, is whether the show is what happened on Smith’s roof, or if it’s the photos and videos, or maybe the website itself? Perhaps none of this matters. Smith is quoted on the website saying, “This is a gallery show for a gallery that’s not physically accessible because of our collective isolation.”
The paintings show the empty streets of Smith’s neighborhood, seen during his morning and evening walks through a city in lockdown. Choosing a cool palette of greens and blues for street and sky, Smith creates a forlorn environment into which he angles houses and buildings in vibrant hues of red, yellow, and pink. There is not a figure to be seen, but a warm glow of orange in the windows of his edifices hints at the lives unfolding within. The work has the feel of an old children’s book—I thought of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939) and Curious George (1941)—but it also evokes 20th century depictions of American cities by Stuart Davis and Louis Lozowick. In one of Smith’s paintings (all of them are captioned Untitled, 2020), a squat red house with a striped awning over its door stands at an intersection. From behind it, the turquoise gable of another house can be seen, a grey ribbon of smoke rising from its chimney. Another work shows a four-story building with an awning and a row of flower pots full of orange blossoms in front of it. Painting with a fast, thick brush, Smith restores the idea of the city as a place of overlooked charm, where a solitary walker can take comfort knowing that however alone they may seem, they remain surrounded by community. The inhabitants of Smith’s world are home, safe and sound—they just can’t come out. Photographs documenting Smith’s paintings modestly propped against the parapet of his roof echo his search for workarounds to isolation, and undercut the coy persona Smith presents in the video clips.
In contrast to the freedom found in Smith’s abandoned streets, seven ceramic sculptures, each about the size of a shoebox, show figures confined in barred cages. Smith positions them along the ledge of the roof, spacing them six feet apart in a nod to social distancing protocols. A photo taken at street level shows them lined up along the building’s cornice, silhouetted against a swirl of white clouds. In a video clip, Smith suggests the viewer might find their own meaning for these jails, but confesses he made them a few years ago just to see what they would look like. The little prisons might register as a metaphor for sheltering-in-place, although much has been said about the insensitivity of comparing working from home to the experience of the 2.3 million individuals currently incarcerated in the United States. Perhaps, instead, they could refer to the distinction between those who can stroll around freely in safety, and those others for whom a leisurely walk at an early hour might prove dangerous or even fatal.
A quote from the artist on the exhibition website reads, “It seems like a good time to share the ceramic prisons. These sculptures allude to the sadness in the air.” Posted on May 21, the statement refers to the thousands of lives lost daily to COVID-19, but now also reads as a forecast of what was to come. Five days after David Zwirner uploaded Smith’s show, thousands upon thousands of people assembled in streets across the country to protest systemic racism, police brutality, and the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police; propelling the country into a new, if not fully realized, era. We do not know yet how we will look back on our months of seclusion, nor how we will fold this time into the ongoing narrative of American history. Meanwhile, Smith’s show on the roof is transformed from an actual event into an experience captured by photos on the internet, weaving itself into the memory of a moment still being revealed.