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Jo Smail's "Species Of Love #11."
Jo Smail: Species of Love and Angel's Footsteps

Smail's exquisite sampler of birth announcements from deep inner space, Species of Love and Angel's Footsteps at Goya Contemporary, is a truly blessed event. The 24 essentially black-and-white natal images that comprise the twin series on passions and presences propose indications of new life afloat in an environment of nurturing white silence.

Smail has been an important artist in Baltimore's creative community for many years, guiding Maryland Institute College of Arts students toward profundity in painting, serving as muse and collaborative partner with famous fellow South African native William Kentridge, and, most recently, winning the coveted Trawick Award. She is also respected for overcoming some serious life challenges, first a devastating studio fire and later a debilitating illness, and for the manner in which these hardships so remarkably transformed her art and further intensified her mindfulness.

Deceptively simple works on paper, Smail's subtle compositions speak with a priori knowledge. Extrasensory perception, intuition, and other such things that the experiential and rational world must hold for further testing are their natural birthright in the receptive pictorial space of these barely determined silhouettes of buds and blossoms, nearly illegible compulsive script, and unexpected visitations of spontaneous drips and spatters. All measuring 30-by-22 inches and baptismal in white frames, they are constructed out of nominal applications of pastel, black gloss enamel, charcoal, ink, pencil, and bits of collaged paper.

Smail is no skeptic. She is not unlike those solitary zealots who patiently comb the beach for something precious swept under by the last tide, or who listen through the night for a message from distant intelligence-these being the sort of covert activities that only true believers can bear to undertake regularly. She leads us to imagine that it might be impossible for the universe to keep a secret, for those willing to devote it such attention. Because there she is listening, seeking, and fathoming the absolute pared-down, shushed truth of existence and presenting it in the innocent evidence of her images. Stéphane Mallarmé, the French Symbolist poet, once suggested nothing lies beyond reality but that within this nothingness lies the essence of pure forms. He could have been imagining Smail's eloquent and unpretentious body of work.

Goya Contemporary's spare syllabic installation resonates perfectly with the euphony of the two corresponding series. Whether gathered into a grid, as is the case with "Angels Footsteps 3-15," or in small linear groups, they indicate an information flow, a beginning and a conclusion to the separate implication of each neighboring piece. It's a banter of beautiful utterances-really, they would make a wonderful limited-edition artist book because the individual works advance something of a story. In the gallery, what isn't organized in the large grid arrangement is presented like a series of interludes, with long pauses of nothing, accentuated by quiet potent comment. One after another silhouetted organic image is placed in the company of a Rorshachian ink mark and/or a small orderly geometric cutout imported in vivid color.

Part of the lyricism of the installation and the manner in which it communicates the message of Smail's work is the orchestration of softness to loudness throughout the space. It feels so crucial to each piece. The Species of Love images possess dense negative/positive energy fields. The indefinite dark subject-allegedly a sweet pea, iris, or orchid bloom, but adequately ambiguous to suggest other identities as well-is rendered in charcoal with a sinewy tuning-fork aura emanating from it, as though in continual vibration.

All the noise in the show comes from this series, while a distinctly more reticent murmur issues from the exact same botanical/biological forms ghosted for Angel's Footsteps. This contradictory visual strategy alters the potency of Smail's ancillary elements. A delicate pink scrap of paper has more authority against a milky shadow than it has vying for the same shared air as a dynamic black version of that same form. It takes Smail's application of a vivid yellow or red mark to hold the dark form at bay.

There are a number of artists and poets who surface when thinking about the quality and resonances in Smail's evolutionary work. One visual artist is Matisse, who also began to use solid shape and amorphous squiggle to codify the paradoxes and nonconformities of life, to speak of exuberance, reverence, joy, and longing through a vocabulary that wasn't too fixed. Matisse used the female form to accomplish his search for the source, whereas Smail describes her feminine sense of absolute origin in botany.

Another fitting comparison for Smail is Hélène Cixous, a feminist author and poetically rigorous nonlinear thinker whom Smail admires and often references. As both Matisse and Cixous are French, you might say that this South African-born, naturalized U.S. citizen is at her core a 20th-century French deconstructionist with a 21st-century American vocabulary of her own immaculate conception. critter: jo smail's "species of love #11." ★


Reprinted from The Baltimore City Paper