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February 2, 2011

Art: In context

Patrick Smith explores contrast in ‘119 Rodgers Street’

Recently, Mentos introduced new packaging for their fruit-flavored chews — one that allows you to see from the outside that inside are two of each flavor. Patrick Smith’s show of new paintings at Swanson Reed Contemporary rolls out much along those lines. From Market Street, the juicy, vibrant paintings advertise their flavor in a frankly enticing manner. Pairs also pay an important role in Smith’s show — pairs of funky brothers, soldiers from World War I and ironic hipsters stare out from backgrounds of boldly tinted tessellations. Their seriousness contrasts the acerbic neons that envelop them, drawing attention to their clothes and postures, isolating them from their usual contexts. The seeming randomness of the individuals creates a compelling contrast to the strong uniformity enforced by the single plane-patterned backgrounds throughout the show, titled “119 Rodgers Street.”

The nine paintings featured in the show were created over the course of a year when Smith, a Transylvania University graduate, worked for Vista (our domestic Peace Corps) in a small Appalachian town. While in Lebanon, Va., Smith lived in a low-income housing development, which he admits created a pervasive sense of insecurity and heightened awareness of his surroundings. Two paintings from the series, both of soldiers from the Great War, “Methadone” and “Methamphetamine,” were titles inspired by Smith’s experience witnessing the powerful hold such drugs can have on a community. The soldiers look stoic but associatively disoriented against their dazzling backgrounds — the subsequent tension created crackles with an assertive weirdness.

Despite not being old enough to have experienced a quarter-life crisis, Smith’s canvases emanate a blasé, ironic sensibility in addition to a cheeky sense of humor. A penchant for provocative, seemingly unpredictable titles is displayed in “Islam,” which is a double portrait of two black men in disco-era clothing. “Ellen,” meanwhile, features a visual pun — an attractive brunette in costume dirndl and blonde pigtail wig holding a beer stein against a background of pink and blue swastikas. Out of their expected contexts, and treated with a certain degree of dimensional flatness by Smith’s hand, the subjects seem ridiculous, yet all the while taking themselves seriously — like family members in a photo album confidently sporting mall bangs, Cosby sweaters and slouch socks. A warning perhaps that despite our best efforts, despite how seriously we take ourselves, removed just one degree from our contexts, onto a rainbow-tiled background, say, we all look pretty stupid.

Outside of the treatment of the backgrounds, contrast seems to be the real theme of Smith’s work. The immaculately groomed surface of the figures is contrasted by the pencil markings and drips that show through their backgrounds. But just when it seems as if one is starting to “get” his sense of humor or detect a pattern, Smith throws in a painting like “La Resistance,” which seems to be a pretty straight pitch, lacking the jokey hook found in some of the other paintings. This inconsistency heightens the tension in the mind of the viewer; I could feel my brain enjoyably chewing its way through this whole candy-colored show, trying to figure out what the next flavor would be. Outside of saying he’ll be showing new paintings at Transylvania University in September, Smith, it seems, is content to keep us guessing.

Patrick Smith’s ‘119 Rodgers Street’
Though Feb. 14
Swanson Reed Contemporary
638 E. Market St. • 589-5466 

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