Visiting Jenn Smith’s show Divine Ventriloquism at Apparatus Projects, calls to mind James Elkins’ introduction to What Painting Is where he compares a painter to the spiritual alchemist, stating,
“whatever happens in the furnace is an allegory of what takes place in the alchemist’s mind and soul […] alchemists paid close attention to their crucibles, watching substances mingle and separate, always in some degree thinking of the struggles and contaminations of earthly life, and ultimately wondering about their own souls and minds.”
Smith, very much a spiritual alchemist of paint, conjures up spectral figures, diluted and abstracted apparitions from scenes of the Bible. I like to imagine Smith in the studio, amidst a sea of books with titles like “How to Pass Out Tracts FOR JESUS,” “HYPNOTISM: Divine or DEMONIC,” “Puppets go to Church” (all real books posted on the artist’s Instagram account), mixing together a mercurial swatch of umber and crimson with which she places the final touches on finger puppet Jesus’ beard who adorns the finger of a disembodied hand in her painting Second Coming II.
Her work uncannily marries the comedic and the divine, played out in strange, fragmented scenes. In Why You Won’t Remember Horse Boaz, 2018 a haunting red figure, flat like a cast shadow, bends over a slate blue wall, its head and hand stretched out into a deep, black cube-shaped void. A smaller figure, rendered only as a faceless brown oval, stands behind the shadow, watching as it is drawn into the darkness. In the foreground along the entire length of the painting are seven canary yellow candle flames atop trapezoids in turquoise, black, and lavender. It looks as if the audience is viewing a puppet show from behind the stage: the red figure playing the part of a spooky Oz behind the curtain. This calls back to the title of the show, which possibly describes God as a ‘Master of Puppets’. Barely visible in the bottom right corner of the painting, is a ghostly suggestion of a face eerily peering out from behind the paint with a blank, wide-eyed stare.
Smith is gifted in this way, making paintings that are illustrative and instructive–even her color palette is akin to the felt cutouts and faded construction paper of Sunday school memories–yet uncanny and soft. Many of her figures are translucent and irresolute with a kind of wobbly, amorphous naiveté. Some figures (as in the case of Laying on of Hands (Purity Ball), 2018) disappear into the background altogether. This technique marries well with her subject matter, rendering the images as specters of memory, especially those that are half-remembered and mischievously transplanted from imagination.
In A to Z Milkies 2018, one of the standout paintings in the show, an awkward arrangement of Midwestern images are scrambled together to form a kind of (self?) portrait. Lined with rows of corn on either edge of the painting, a half-finished white snowman shape sits on top of a Pepto Bismol pink background, a tiny red top hat perched on its head. A turquoise bird in an orange nest bursts out of his torso, and down below him a pair of disembodied eyeballs sit on a silver plate, adrift a scattering of pine green brushstrokes. This one feels like it’s shouting “WELCOME TO THE MIDWEST” while simultaneously whispering “…let us not forget St. Lucy…”. St. Lucy is often depicted holding a platter with her own eyes resting upon it. In this painting, Smith successfully conjures up a chaotic assortment of images that materialize awkwardly on top of one another as if it was an unwieldy stack of children’s drawings arrayed on a table, cut out and piled up haphazardly.
Jenn Smith’s paintings carry a precarious, enigmatic balance that both invites and ensnares. Although they contain finger puppet and pastel cheer, they have a quiet, haunting residue that emerges with closer looking. Smith invites us to reconsider the images of memory, perhaps to find something unknown lurking in between the folds.