A COMPASSION AND CALM IN THE FACE OF THE LARGER SCHEME OF THINGS

By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

In a show that includes drawing and a variety of graphic processes, Robynn Smith reveals her technical diversity and amplifies our view of her narrative concerns. Her prints revisit some of the familiar translucent coloration, images of raw nature and scenes of a female figure with her dog on the beach that we know from other recent exhibitions. New are surprising drawings that incorporate a windstorm at a worlds fair, a WWI gas mask and a print with images of the garment district of New York. The range of references seems so broad that the viewer struggles at first to find the connecting thread. Yet there is a point of view and a worldview expounded in Smith’s work.

coiled and ready

Robynn Smith’s photopolymer etching, Coiled and Ready

Without rancor, Smith acknowledges the fragility and vulnerability of the human experience. Through references to such astounding events as a volcanic eruption, a world war, 9/11, loss of world habitat or the Holocaust she reminds us of the brevity of life, devastating shifts that can alter life for survivors forever and even the remarkable ability of life to persevere. There is humility in the beauty that Smith is able to attribute to situations that should be upending, but are indeed part of the larger and longer adventure of evolution, trial and error of life forms, and movement of planet earth in concert with the universe.

The familiar theme of the woman on the beach with her dog is one that becomes more meaningful to me in the context of this exhibition. I see the muscular dog, frequently pictured running, as an untamed force of nature; wild, handsome, dangerous and appealing. The woman who accompanies the dog is the constant companion to unbounded energy, precipitous action, territorial imperatives and aggression. She is caution, care, renewal, nurture, loyalty and forgiveness.

In many of her prints, Smith plays with a dichotomy of form/imagery, as well. Two, and sometimes three, layers or horizontal bands of imagery, distinguished by color shifts and the play of photographic images against elements that are drawn or embellished by the artist’s hand, are merged into a single scenario with only subtle and disappearing boundaries dividing them. Here again the artist seems to acknowledge the contradictory forces that play on our lives, and the fate of the earth.

covering ground 1

Covering Ground, photopolymer etching by Robynn Smith

In Covering Ground, Smith presents a multilayered image that is divided by a major and minor horizon line. Below is the ocean yielding up one of its mysteries in the form of something linear, vaguely figurative and red. A golden glow is reflected from the sky above where the silhouette of a powerful black dog is leaping across wet sands, away from the viewer. In deep space a mushroom cloud dominates the upper left quadrant of the image. Ripples of the ocean and what may be shock waves provide both texture and linearity throughout this commanding image. It is curious yet satisfying that its lovely pastels and muted values seem to reference something so ominous. Are those of us who did not suffer the consequences of atomic fallout directly so removed?

turtle

Robynn Smith’s Heart in New York, 2008, Photpolymer etching

Heart in New York, another moving example of conflict on grand scale and a strange elegance, addresses both the devastation of sociopolitical tragedies and acts of nature. A giant blue skeletal model of the earth is caught in a turbulent molten lava flow. Below this inexorable burning mass, a patient and peaceful Hawaiian sea turtle awaits his fate. In bolder colors this time, Smith evokes empathy for both the earth and the defenseless creature whose fate is imminent.

Smith’s charcoal drawings are simpler, more fluid and direct than her prints. Cyclone is based on a windstorm amidst structures at an old World’s Fair. Smith visits the sites of old world fairs to experience the architecture, artifacts and assumptions of another age. There was a 20th C concept of dominant culture and “the other” exotic cultures that was embodied in these events. That such international cultural fairs seem to have become extinct is another reminder of the evolution of social and political realities. In our smaller but increasingly divided world, international dynamics have clearly shifted. Cyclone is full of light airy gestures that stroke the page, suggesting turbulence and gyrating forms, perhaps a suspension bridge in motion. The artist informs me that it is a roller coaster‚Ķ an even better metaphor!

gasmask

Mask, 2009, charcoal on paper by Robynn Smith

With the same artful gestures, but a decidedly more threatening outcome, Smith draws a museum artifact: the WWI gas mask. Although Robynn Smith manages to approach so many disasters with a philosophic demeanor, the equanimity and distancing beauty of color in many of her prints does not exist in this drawing. The strokes of the hand are deft and the charcoal sits on the paper with grace, but the form is horrific. At the reception I overheard comments by viewers that could not engage this powerful work. Too bad: because, in its placement, it was a strong introduction to the more complex and often understated concepts of the artist.

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