Jo Smail: Angels Footsteps & Species of Love by Cara Ober

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at Goya Contemporary
September 28 – November 2

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“The Limits of Language” by Jo Smail.

Before speaking there was the other side of the tongue,
I saw silence.
Now I shout or whisper.
Seeming contradictions live in a world of perhaps,
Opposites attract or not . . .

There are 15 thousand varieties of Orchids, I’m told.
I call love without words,
Without knowing names.
I sit by the faces of flowers,
Losing myself.

Things happen and suddenly you know.

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This prose piece is one of two artist statements provided for Jo Smail’s exhibit, Species of Love & Angels Footsteps, at Goya Contemporary from September 28 – November 2.

I wanted to include this artist statement because I can’t describe the work any better. The spare, articulate choreography of this written poetry is as intimate and as genuine as the works in this exhibit. If you are familiar with Jo Smail’s large paintings on canvas, you will expect to see slick and pristine surfaces of white and pale pink punctuated with looping black gestures and imperfect grids. Smail’s paintings push the limits of emptiness, sensuality, and decoration, and strive to develop a system of non-verbal language – to express in ‘utterances’ rather than in words, to express the most mysterious emotional ideas in a way that is deeper and truer than language. For those who know Jo Smail’s work and like it, as the jurors of this year’s Trawick Prize certainly did, this new exhibit is a rare opportunity to experience a whole other range of thinking and visual art making. This exhibit is comprised entirely of small mixed media works on paper.

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The meat of the show lies in a series of 30×22 inch collages on heavy printmaking paper. These twenty-four works include a lighter series (angel’s footsteps) where dirty white pastel shapes subtly float on pristine white paper and a darker series where heavy black shapes and smudges, enhanced with bits of ripped paper and collaged elements, dominate the white paper (species of love). The asymmetrical and often empty compositions are reinforced by the odd and unusual placement of the works throughout the gallery. One wall is left purposely empty and white, facing a haphazardly diagonal placement of three works while another wall is filled with a tight grid of 12 works.

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Jo Smail’s work is as simultaneously nebulous and clear as artwork and poetry can be, at one moment baffling and foreign and at another, as familiar as deja vu. Like snow, the active white spaces in the works muffle the artist’s ideas into whispers and glimmers, but at other times, illuminate with precision; these works are as clear and piercing as a bell. The immediacy and temporality of the paper and collage approach sheds a layer of formality usually found in Smail’s paintings. There is less prep, more quick moves, lots of re-stating and change, and the viewer feels even closer to the artist’s thought process. These works are less ‘pretty’ and organized than larger past works, favoring process over product. There is also an interesting sense of the artist quoting her past painting cycles, reconfiguring and reinventing these moves in a new and fresh system.

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‘black angels’ – a painting on canvas from a past show

In the back office a series of ten smaller collage works, “Postcards from Brittany” sparkle like tiny jewels. Many of these pieces included bits of postcards, stamps, or other mail paraphernalia and have a more raw and free look to them, completed by the ripped ‘holes’ from the edge of the paper. It is tempting to compare the small collages to the larger, ‘heavier’ mixed media works. The ‘Postcards’ are tiny, fresh, and playfully appealing, especially next to larger, more seriously considered works. However, I think this comparison is missing the point. Both series and sizes are opportunities to see the artist’s thought process – in different places and at different times. There is a depth and density in the larger works that the smaller lack, and the smaller works enhance with their puckish immediacy. Which you prefer is a matter of taste, but I believe that exhibiting both series makes for a more authentic show.

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Smail’s desire to express the ‘knowing’ that exists beyond words is her strength and also her Achilles heel. Compared to Smail’s light and lithe visual approach, words, and even feelings, are heavy and bumbling. There is a sense of banging a square peg into a round hole, and an uncomfortable fit. The abstract expressionists also intended to deliver subconscious nonverbal depth-on-a-canvas, shedding all forms of representational distraction, and even they fell short. Smail’s use of decorative and recognizable forms – flowers, grids, loopy handwriting – can come off as trivial, especially when placed in direct opposition to the ‘big themes’ – death, love, god, life, meaning, communication, and understanding.

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I find Smail’s ‘everything and nothing all at the same time’ approach to meaning, invigorated through playful and personal references, much more interesting than the seriousness of Rothko, Newman, or Gotlieb. The evidence of these master’s influence is present, though; in gestural looseness, in heavy black organic shapes, and even in the white emptiness, but it adds up to something completely different. Jo Smail’s struggle to say true and important things in her own voice, a voice that includes the humble and insignificant, as well as the grander themes, is an authentic one. The struggle is the exciting part. The struggle is what imbues these cut and ripped pieces of paper with that ‘certain something’ we can’t put our finger on, a larger idea that simply can’t be expressed in a way our brain can understand in words.

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– Cara Ober

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