Shinique Smith Discusses Her New Show at James Cohan Gallery

On display at the James Cohan Gallery in New York are over twenty large-scale paintings and sculptures by Shinique Smith. The show, Bold as Love, combines the artist’s disparate inspirations drawn from calligraphy, literature, music, dance, fashion, and spiritual elements, which are literally and symbolically “tied together” in her sculptural pieces. - Nadiah Fellah, NYC Contributor

Shinique Smith | No Key, No Question, 2013, Ink, acrylic, fabric and collage on canvas over panel, 60 x 60 x 2 inches, Courtesy James Cohan Gallery
Shinique Smith | Love is a Dreamer, 2013, Artist’s clothing, fiber-fill, ribbon and string, 37 x 21 1/2 x 16 1/2 inches, Courtesy James Cohan Gallery

Walking through the exhibition, Smith describes how many of the materials she uses—mostly recycled textiles—come from her own closet, from friends and family, from used clothing stores, and from previous works and installations. She explains that the process of recycling materials with personal meaning imbues the work with a certain nostalgic element. This is the case with the piece Love is a Dreamer, which is largely constructed from a black dress she wore to many openings last year, and Soul Elsewhere, made from her work jeans, which still reveal the contours of her hips and are covered in paint, evidence of their repeated use.

Shinique Smith | Soul Elsewhere, 2013, Artist’s clothing, fiber-fill and rope, 38 1/2 x 18 x 14 inches, Courtesy James Cohan Gallery

Standing before the largest work in the show, a double-paneled painting entitled Kaleidoscope, Smith explained the origins of the work. Recently, Smith participated in The Bearden Project at the Studio Museum in Harlem, along with fellow artist Barkley Hendricks. She says she wanted to create a work that was a reaction to Hendricks’s paintings, which are often bold expressions of masculinity and male prowess. In response, Smith wanted to explore a method in which to boldly express her femininity on a canvas in the same way. Kaleidoscope is unique in that it is the first time she’s ever used her body to build a composition on canvas, the impressions of which begin to emerge on closer inspection of what appears to be an abstract painting.

Shinique Smith | Kaleidoscope, 2013, Ink and acrylic on panel, 96 x 96 x 2 inches, Courtesy James Cohan Gallery

After her walk-through, I had an opportunity to speak with Shinique Smith a little more about her process, inspiration, and the relationship between the formal and representational elements of her work.

Nadia Fellah: You mentioned that Kaleidoscope is the first work that you’ve used your body in successfully, but I see the body in so many of your works. The connection between clothing and the body, and how it can be something associated with ‘femininity’—particularly in the marketing and making of clothing—is that something that you see your work engaging with?

SS: You know, I think I’m cocky about being a woman. I think there’s a large amount of bravado to the work that I make, in terms of confidence. I wouldn’t lament about being a woman and the things that we go through. I take pride and joy in it and the power of that, creatively. And I’m not sewing, as far as things that are associated with being a woman. I didn’t crochet that blanket [in Granny Square], it was a found object that had the formal elements I needed. I paint, and I tie things up, and there’s something aggressive in that kind of making. For me, it’s a dance between an aggressive hand, and a lyrical, light quality. That for me is the movement of making, and I think it filters into the work. But there’s an edge to it.

Shinique Smith | Granny Square, 2013, Acrylic, fabric and collage on wood panel, 48 x 48 x 2 1/4 inches, Courtesy James Cohan Gallery

NF: I love the use of textile, not just for formal reasons, and the fact that it can be seen as part ready-made, at the same time showing traces of your hand, but that the material engages with the social issues of clothing and textiles. Can you talk about some of the materials you used in this show—I’m especially curious about the denim, which is a material with so much history, and also is politically loaded.

Shinique Smith| The Spark, 2013, Denim and bleach on wood panel, Triptych, each panel: 80 x 36 x 1 1/2 inches, Courtesy James Cohan Gallery

SS: Every fabric has a very long history in its use, in the lines of traffic that it’s traveled from its creation and its life in fashion, and all of that is interesting to me. And that is especially true of denim—Old Masters used to paint on denim, because it’s a canvas, and it’s a very versatile fabric. In its history, people have taken denim and tricked it out, and its one of those fabrics—like the bandana or plaid—that is pervasive. Each cultural pocket does their own thing to it, and yet they’re connected by it.

But the social issues of fabric are never a dominant aspect of the work, and they never over-ride the formal aspects or the making of the objects. I’m not trying to make a political statement, and like to leave things open-ended. I don’t like to be lectured myself, and I realize that those issues are subjective, but they are considered and they’re acknowledged when I’m using certain materials.

NF: Denim is also a material with a memory, it retains the shapes of those bodies who have worn it, something that really comes out in Soul Elsewhere.

gees bend
Work clothes quilt, made by Stella Pettway of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

SS: Making that work reminded me of an exhibition I saw of Gee’s Bend quilts, quilts which read kind of as abstract art, but are made from recycled clothes. One woman had made a quilt out of her husband’s old workpants, and the impression and memory of his body was still in the quilt, and it was so many things at once. That’s one thing that really inspired me. You could see his body, but it was also a beautiful composition. I’m enamored with that kind of duality, something that conjures multiple readings. In a similar way, when I was a teenager I saw Rauschenberg’s Bed piece, and I thought Wow, here was this fabric that can hold such intense color, and still retain its integrity, so that’s also engrained in me.

Robert Rauschenberg | Bed, 1955, Oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wood supports, 6' 3 1/4" x 31 1/2" x 8", Museum of Modern Art, New York.

NF: What other artists do you look to for inspiration?

SS: There are people I glance at to make sure I’m not doing the same thing as. I like to make things and find my own way, and not look to others too much. If I do find myself looking at others’ work, it’s more like a glance, like a flip through, and then I move on. For this show I looked a lot at nature. Mandalas, chrysanthemums, poppies, and the repetition of those shapes. I didn’t really look at art. And I feel like if I look at art to make art, it’s cannibalistic, and it’s boring. It’s more about the energy of the work, in addition to the way it’s constructed.

Shinique Smith | My song to sing, 2013 , Ink, acrylic, paper and fabric collage on wood panel, 84 x 84 x 2 inches, Courtesy James Cohan Gallery

For The Oldest Love, that work started with my own writing. I was reading a lot of Rumi love poetry, and considering these ruminations on love in my work. The work was an attempt to push that energy onto canvas, and it sounds kind of hippie-dippy [laughs], but it presents a desire to be illuminated through the making of my work. I want to allow that energy to transfer between the works and the viewer, and am constantly investigating how and if that can happen.

Shinique Smith | The Oldest Love, 2013, Ink, acrylic, and fabric collage on canvas over panel, 60 x 60 x 2 1/2 inches, Courtesy James Cohan Gallery

NF: How do you move between your paintings and sculptures? For example, do you ever start something on a canvas that you realize you’d rather create in the round? Do you see them as different mediums, or just different channels of energy, as you say?

SS: I approach them in the same way. They have different material qualities that require a different touch, but the editing and the process are very much the same. And they have a different presence. A sculpture is more finite, and has more of a finish than the paintings. I feel like with paintings, I could just keep going back to them, so sometimes I have to stop myself.

Within a detail
, 2013, Acrylic and fabric collage on wood panel, 48 x 48 x 2 inches, Courtesy James Cohan Gallery

NF: You recently moved from Brooklyn to Hudson, New York. Do you see the urban environment that has often shaped your work as having taken a back seat? You mentioned that this show is a little bit more inspired by nature, do you think that’s a result of moving out of the city?

SS: Sometimes you need a change, and you need a more contemplative space, a freshness, so I moved further out where there’s green, and there’s quiet. I think the inspiration [of nature] was always there, but moving just allowed me to focus on it. Before, I didn’t have that opportunity because there was always something else infiltrating those thoughts. You can’t always pause to have a musing thought on the way a flower opens.


Shinique Smith is originally from Baltimore, MD; she currently lives and works in Hudson, NY. In 2012 Smith was commissioned by MTA Arts for Transit to create a permanent installation at the Mother Clara Hale Bus Depot in Harlem (at Lenox and 146th). The work will cover 6,672 square feet of the building’s façade, and is scheduled for completion in September 2013. Upcoming projects also include a commissioned sculpture at the Birmingham Museum of Art in 2013, and a solo exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2014-15.

Shinique Smith: Bold As Love is on view at James Cohan Gallery in New York through March 16th. 

Nadiah Fellah is a graduate student of Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York.

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