Josh Smith: Spectre
On ViewDavid Zwirner
September 15 – October 31, 2020
Josh Smith has done it again. With a palette favoring lilac, tangerine, lime, and citron, he has transformed a relatively bland subject into a fevered dreamscape. In his current show at David Zwirner’s Upper East Side gallery, he’s depicted the streets of an imaginary, pedestrian and vehicle-free place as it might have looked during the recent lockdown. Think Bushwick without graffiti. Smith has erected industrial buildings, residential homes, a few shops, maybe some bars. It’s probably night because lots of windows are aglow with light. Instead of the radiant, clear blue skies that New Yorkers enjoyed throughout the spring and summer of 2020, Smith has rendered a more somber, overcast atmosphere. The dark streets and narrow sidewalks are uninviting. As for the two and three-story structures, they are a cross between what you’d find on a Hollywood backlot and the sort of primitive structures limned in proto-Renaissance predella panels.
At first, everything seems rather stark. Upon closer inspection, the townscape Smith has created is anything but. For starters, there’s the cacophony of colors. Then, there’s the architecture itself. It looks like it was designed by someone who had trouble passing high school geometry. Though there are lots of rectangles and triangles, curves and angles, this is an environment far removed from the ABCs of Minimalism associated with Robert Morris and Sol LeWitt. You won’t readily find straight edges or French curves, for that matter. Striped awnings enliven everything somewhat as do the banks of windows, which were carefully designed (tall rectangles, some topped by arcs, others divided into quarters or halves). The brushstrokes, which were applied in a variety of directions, add a DIY character to these scenes.
Though the golden decade of ’60s abstraction doesn’t readily come to mind when you think of Smith, he, like Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, has a gift for infinite variation. He’s a newfangled colorist. He seems to have no fear when it comes to putting one hue next to another. His combinations could not be more unexpected. Still, unlike some of Smith’s other series, the façades of these buildings have broader planes than, say, the robes of his Grim Reapers or the shells of his turtles. Consequently, everything seems less frenetic. Smith has done for industrial Brooklyn what Henri Rousseau did for the jungle.
Cumulatively, Josh Smith’s themes can seem to be all over the place. Watermelons? Turtles? Grim Reapers? Deserted islands in the middle of nowhere with one or two palm trees silhouetted against glorious sunsets? None of these seem to relate to one another. I, for one, can’t picture his Grim Reapers walking the streets of his updated desolation row. But, at some point, historical paintings, much less mythological scenes and other types of genre subjects fell away. A number of years ago, the Museum of Modern Art instead called attention to people, places, and things. With panache and all sorts of wherewithal, Smith is filling these categories handily and robustly with unusual themes.