Against a glowing porcelain heart, ornate with nodulation, scalloping and incised patterning, a slip-cast Dungeness crab brandishes its open claws and flails its limp, celery-stalk legs in a weird, destroyer-of-worlds dance of aggression and pathos. Below this bizarre hybrid of crustacean and vegetable, a tiny hand extends downward like a synechdochic manifestation of God exiting the impenetrable mystery of a Byzantine cloud. The speckled bulge on which the fingers gently rest is for a moment unrecognizable as a strawberry, partly due to discontinuity of scale and partly because the color, texture, and opacity of the sculpted berry’s real-world counterpart have all given way to monochromatic luminosity. What motive the miniature hand might possess for bestowing its gesture on a strawberry and what purpose a celery-legged crab might fulfill through its ungainly thrashing of sinuous limbs is anyone’s guess. In this, and other illuminated-porcelain sculptures by artist David Scott Smith, enigma prevails as a fundamental consequence of the method of composition.
Though there may be no intentional iconography in Smith’s masterful bricolage of avian and reptilian parts, fruits, vegetables, toy fragments, and diverse articles of uncertain origin, the viewer cannot help but intuit the kind of cryptic symbolism associated with undecipherable inscriptions, imagery from myths lost to the passage of time, and accoutrements of ritual separated from the jealously guarded secrets of their use. No doubt this impression of meaning (not simply latent but mystical even) is induced partly by the influence of the emanating light. Like the glow of stained glass diffusing in the shadowy bays of a medieval cathedral or the glimmering of gilded statues in the smoky recesses of a temple, light is fundamentally emotive in Smith’s sculptures. Its function is to elevate the forms (which, after all, are mostly cast from mundane elements found in the living world) above the sphere of routine understanding and onto a level of uncommon experience.
It is important to note, both as a matter of accuracy and as confirmation of the artist’s symbolically aimless intentions, that the sense of mystery Smith generates through his compositions does not arise from pursuit of anything spiritual or even particularly metaphysical. The compositions often unite ordinarily incompatible elements simply out of desire “to see what they would look like.” Smith is motivated primarily by a fascination with experimental building: a sheer joy of bringing diverse references to the natural world together in configurations that never existed before and that could not, even were they organic rather than ceramic, manifest the real qualities of life. He readily refers to sessions in the studio as play and describes the components of his compositions (the frogs and flowers, snakes and vegetables, pheasants and fruits) as toys. The conceptual side of things is left deliberately fluid in order to indulge a primal desire to make: a kind of Eros of creativity. “One of my problems with a lot of contemporary visual art,” Smith confesses, “is that it’s become so cerebral that there doesn’t seem to be anything happening below the neck.”
That is clearly not the case with Smith’s sculptures. The passion he feels for his work is deeply rooted, mingling with some of his earliest memories. Like Georges Braque, who famously stated that his cubism evolved through a process of aligning art with the particular skills he possessed as a commercial painter, Smith has oriented his sculpture toward abilities acquired in other walks of life. Growing up the stepson of a taxidermist in Spokane, Washington, he learned the techniques of producing animal mounts, and by the time he was in high school, he was responsible for preparing most of the birds, fish, and small mammals that passed through the shop. “While other kids were working in fast food restaurants,” he recalls, “I spent weeks with dead animals. Today I tell my students that I learned more from working with my dad than from any sculpture class.”
While earning a BA in English at Whitman College in the early 1990s, Smith registered for a few studio electives, and after graduation applied his ceramics skills to establishing a basement business he called Foolish Fish Studio. Producing whistles, fountains, and tiles and selling these at a local farmer’s market, he managed to turn a reasonable profit. His life headed in a rather different direction, however, when he decided to shut down the studio and accompany a girlfriend to Connecticut. While she pursued a graduate degree, he found work in the theater department at Eastern Connecticut University and later at the Hartford Ballet. The success of his props, which included a life-sized grizzly bear and a 15-foot articulated spider that scurried naturally across the stage, lead his supervisors to suggest graduate studies at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where he enrolled in 1999. Although financial considerations would eventually lead to his dropping out of RISD and completing his MFA several years later at Louisiana State University, he still values a particular conversation with RISD faculty member Frank Bosco.
“He asked me if I had ever heard of Bernard Palissy,” Smith recalls. “I went to the library to take a look, and I was blown away. It was like seeing a picture of a dead relative who looks just like you.” Although the basic processes of Smith’s work (molding from the carcasses of animals, slip-casting the parts, and organizing them into complex compositions) were already well established by the time he encountered images of Palissy’s figulines rustiques, at least one important manifestation of influence from the Renaissance master would surface during Smith’s time at LSU. His thesis exhibition included a majestic bath lavishly encrusted in tiles suggestive of polished apples, smooth stones, reptilian skin, feathers, and leaves, surrounded in stage-like pomp by a heavy tasseled drapery of deep red and filled with limpid water on which floating ceramic trays carried softly glowing candles. Grotto, the title of this ambitious work, recalled Palissy’s famous commission for Catherine de Medici at the Tuileries.
Another breathtaking sculpture created for Smith’s thesis exhibition, The Honey, conjured all the ornate drama of Baroque ceilings such as Pietro da Cortona’s Allegory of Divine Providence, the Barberini heraldic bees of which seemed echoed by the trio of chubby horned seraphim hovering above the illuminated honeycomb escutcheon in Smith’s elaborate composition. Over a backdrop of heavy wine-red brocaded upholstery, Smith orchestrated a candle-lit spectacle of revelation. Garfish, opossums, and other small creatures, quiet nests bearing eggs and infant armadillos, and a multitude of fruit and floral forms swarming like glistering insects, milled in frenetic anticipation around the expanding corona of textural bands and the geometrical perfection of the glowing center. Here, the dramatic heightening of the revelatory moment reflected Smith’s expertise in theatre design, both through the exploitation of difference between the hidden and unveiled and the masterful employment of the emotionally provocative potential of light.
In Smith’s more recent work, light has shifted from the role of supporting element and become the primary means by which interest is generated in the sculptural forms: an animating energy that in effect raises the dead (since the models for Smith’s molds are for the most part carcasses scavenged from the highway). Although plain white porcelain (often slip-cast and unglazed) has become a preferred medium among many contemporary ceramic sculptors, Smith no doubt would never have ventured to reduce his palette to pure white if not for the opportunities that plain, translucent porcelain provides for manipulating effects of light. Oriented toward sensual, even libidinal, properties of form, Smith employs the monochromatic purity of his surfaces not as a means of purging the viewer of all thought of material presence but, on the contrary, of enhancing the impression of a living energy, a bodily heat, that draws primal attention to the physical.
The sense of light as warmth (a warmth emanating from the sculptural forms themselves) is a consequence of Smith’s relocation of the source from external agents, principally candles, to electric light bulbs ensconced within the hollow, slip-cast forms. This innovation is most dramatically illustrated by the 2008 installation Halls of Love, which consists of six panels bearing thirty-six upholstered housings for the light fixtures and wiring of thirty-six slip-cast porcelain sculptures. Each of these sculptures, a composite of forms molded from diverse natural and human-made objects, is unique, both in terms of its physical configuration and in the manner in which it modulates the light beneath its surfaces. Varying in intensity from the white-hot brilliance of molten steel to the dull glow of embers beneath a layer of ash, the light exhibits a range of expressive nuance that could easily be described as painterly. Certainly Smith employs light as an aesthetic and emotive medium equal to any other in art. Wielding it in conjunction with the strange and disorienting combinations of natural forms that constitute the porcelain components of his work, he converts solid objects into atmosphere and ceramic surfaces into the equivalent of conductors of energy.
the author A frequent contributor to CM, Glen R. Brown is a professor of art history at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.