Published March 15, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Sarah Stefana Smith is an associate professor of gender studies at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., with a PhD in social justice education. In that milieu, she delves into cerebral concepts and communicates in the often obfuscating jargon of academia. But in Smith's interdisciplinary artwork, one thing is perfectly clear: her proficient hand.
"Willful Matters," Smith's current exhibition at the BCA Center in Burlington, comprises several large textile assemblages hung on metal dowels, as well as framed collages under glass. Using a variety of hardware store materials, Smith invents an eloquent vocabulary of twists and turns.
The large suspended works, from her "Flag to the Abyss" series, are marvels of entanglements. At first glance they might suggest a child's loom project gone awry, but Smith's convolutions are intentional and wildly creative. They are the result of assiduous knotting — including macramé — weaving, tying, attaching and detaching.
The artist primarily employs various kinds of netting. In her talk last week at BCA, Smith said she buys bird netting "from Home Depot or Lowe's" and has branched out into volleyball nets and the like. She merges the deconstructed nets with rope, paracord, plastic, fiberglass screening, thread and sometimes acrylic paint. Smith's assemblages are material collisions in which disparate factions literally hang in there — ragged but united.
All the works in "Willful Matters" are white or black or both. "Flag to the Abyss No. 3" (71 by 52 by 5 inches) is the only freestanding piece and is mostly white, but it's one of two "flags" in the exhibit to include elements of kelly green. The other, "Flag to the Abyss No. 4" (66 by 46 by 6.6 inches), is predominantly black. In both works, Smith knotted green paracord around a hoop shape and teased out sections of the nylon to create a kudzu-like fuzz.
"I'm interested in materials and how they shift in purpose," Smith said last week. To be sure, she has utterly transformed and abstracted materials from their utilitarian uses, and the results are both visually appealing and conceptually enigmatic. Smith suggested that "pieces of netting are in conversation with other pieces of netting."
In other words, the art is networking.
In contrast, the smaller pieces under glass are relatively constrained, at least in dimension. Two 8.5-by-11-inch collages — "Untitled" (numbered 10 and 11) — are abstract compositions on white paper that combine slices of archival photographs, graphite, ink, plastic, fiberglass screen, netting and adhesive.
In her talk, Smith noted that she photographs her installations and then cuts up the photos to use in other works. "It reflects a circular conversation I'm having with myself," she said. "It's kind of a personal archive: negotiating what happens in making the work, sharing it and then having conversations with people about it."
A similar mix of materials appears in Smith's "Symmetries/Asymmetries" series — 22-by-30-inch collages on black or white Stonehenge paper. In the black-on-black work "Asymmetries No. 5," two separate abstract forms are flattened beyond recognition, but reflective crenellations in the acrylic-covered material dazzle the eye. If seen as an aerial view, the forms might be two islands in immutable relation to the other. But, as one is small and the other larger, the mind also leaps to a parent/child or superior/subordinate dynamic. That association, in turn, produces a psychological rabbit hole.
Since our brains are wired to recognize patterns, relationships or some kind of meaning in our visual environment, abstract artwork invariably provokes idiosyncratic — sometimes anthropomorphic — interpretations. In "Willful Matters," a viewer might simply appreciate Smith's ingenious constructions; other textile artists might like to know how she made some of those knots. The linguistically curious may wonder about the connotations of Smith's titles.
And, in the context of social, racial and other divides, is there significance in her use of black and white?
Smith wisely does not impose a mandatory translation on gallerygoers' imaginations and emotional responses. But in her online artist statement, she expresses a "deep investment in the contributions of black diaspora ideas." Smith's scholarly work investigates, in part, Black art and culture, while her creative work, she writes, "explores the intersection of repair and disrepair, aesthetics and visuality in difference (e.g., race, gender, sexuality)."
Through Smith's lens, viewers might focus differently — willfully — on tangled matters.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Ties That Bind | Sarah Stefana Smith addresses interconnectivity in knotty artworks"
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