By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Outside of the purely ironic, Smith's life as an art professor serves as another, perhaps more directly autobiographical theme running through some of the work showing at Dunn and Brown. At first, "Class Portraits" (1999-'03) might seem to be an homage to the long tradition of portraiture, as they bring to mind some of Rembrandt's portraits of guilds from the 17th century. Far from such convention, the 13 portraits of individual classes Smith has taught are, when standing alone, a record of his overall success as a teacher. These images let on not only that teaching pays the bills of a once-struggling artist, but that it is also something rewarding. Such straightforward sincerity doesn't last long for Smith, however, as art without irony may very well be inconceivable to him.
The many happy faces of these portraits stand in ironic contrast to the framed class evaluation from a student hanging on the adjacent wall. Written by an anonymous Texas student in handwriting with bubble-dotted I's , the evaluation censures Smith for "wasting" his or her "time and money" by randomly criticizing the students in the class. Smith explains that the evaluation came from a design class that he taught for which he was neither trained nor prepared. Far from exonerating or redeeming him, the evaluation is a joke that Smith plays on himself. Next to the happy-happy faces of his many other students past, the anger of the evaluation stands as an ironic foil to the pretense of any such cheerfulness.
If you're having trouble getting your mind around just how all of this constitutes "art," perhaps Smith's description of himself as a "post-studio" artist will be of some help. In so titling himself, Smith has not only described the process of his work in terms of its essential unconventionality, that making "art" doesn't always necessitate his being in the studio, but also that the act of "making" itself has undergone drastic changes. For Smith, the materials of invention are more temporal than spatial, with performance being a prominent vehicle of self-expression. His palette is his body. Instead of paint, the event and experience are his media. At times self-deprecating and at other times mock-heroic, Smith's body is the foil of his own mind. The work makes for an artistic economy of slapstick and the absurd. But more important, it makes for an art driven by ideas rather than just form. It is art that makes you laugh out loud then walk away resolutely uncertain about what art is--and what it ever was.