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Mountain Man

Gallery Four goes wild

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Joshua Wade Smith’s “Ridgeline.”


On display through Aug. 18.

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Joshua Wade Smith was perched high above the drunken crowd on a stationary bicycle mounted to some kind of teepee/funeral pyre, pedaling while he read Robinson Crusoe at last year’s Baltimore Liste exhibit at the Contemporary Museum. He looked insane, but crazy or not, that shit was cool. It also provides some insight into CATARACTS, Smith’s one-man show, currently at Gallery Four.

The entire front room of the gallery is dominated by a single installation, “Ridgeline, 2012,” a mountain range constructed of wooden slats with spaces between them that rise from a dark blue at the base, through the lightening shades of the sky, up to white at the peak. It is clearly a man-made construction, with blue mopped in strange angles on the wall behind it to represent sky, but it functions as a remarkable sketch of a stark, Western mountain range. It also plays with perspective as it changes in relation to the viewer. At the show’s opening, the range was covered with people sitting on its crest, drinking Bohs and chatting: Mountains are made to be climbed.

“Ridgeline” is, in fact, a nice introduction to CATARACTS, which plays with the divisions between nature and culture. What is natural? What is an artifact? Smith seems to ask these questions with the physical gestures that resulted in the work. In the window of the front room, there is a small rock—or piece of concrete—covered with either lichen or neon spray paint, it is difficult to tell which. The moment you think it is painted concrete, some detail makes it seem like a rock with lichen growing on it and vice versa. This untitled little piece is the kind of thing that could easily be overlooked—especially beside the monumental “Ridgeline”—and if not overlooked, dismissed. Come on, a little fucking rock placed in a windowsill?! But in the context of the show it is strangely affecting.

The same can’t be said of the six untitled pieces in a series of black painted frames arranged around the wall of the gallery’s center room. Dustin Carlson, one of the gallery’s owners, remarks that it is a difficult space to fill, and this is true. But these wooden frames do little but fill the space in a desultory way. All of the other pieces somehow probe the space between the natural and the artificial, while these pieces are pure art-school artifice.

This misstep is more of a shame because of the quality of the rest of the show. In the center of these frames is a Plexiglas octagon. Inside, sawdust seems to form a beach around a pool of water in the center. If one squats down to just the right angle between the beach and the pool, there are lit-up pictures of a sunset beach scene, lined by the same kinds of slats that make “Ridgeline,” and stacked with rocks. It is clever, playful, and beautiful—the kind of thing one could stare at endlessly.

Even cooler is “Untitled (Face Down).” A clear-bottomed pool is cut into a rectangular piece of concrete. There is a rock in the pool, and another one below it. Initially, the piece comes across as sort of “so what?” until you notice that the rock in the water drifts, floats. It isn’t a rock at all but Styrofoam (or something) painstakingly made to look like a rock. There’s something similar to the feeling one gets when watching an eclipse as the floating rock passes over the presumably actual rock beneath, casting a dappled shadow.

If “Ridgeline” dominates the front gallery, “Dusk til Dawn,” a multipiece installation, dominates the back. The center of the piece is a belly-high table with a ladder built all the way around it—like a conveyor belt, the ladder makes a loop both under and over the table. Mirrors line the rungs of the ladder, and another beach scene covers the top of the table. It is a beautiful, if enigmatic object. On the wall beside it, there is a two-minute film loop of Smith climbing around the table with a camera mounted to his head. One doesn’t need to see the film to understand how strenuous and awkward the climb would be, but the film shows how disorienting it must feel to be maneuvering oneself around the bottom of a low table on a ladder.

On the wall above the table is a digital print of an ocean running vertically along the side of the page. Down the center is an hourglass-shaped wax pattern that somehow manages to suggest a sense of the sea’s churning surf. The small print juxtaposed with the large table piece somehow comes across perfectly, like the little rock and “Ridgeline” in the front room.

Many a college stoner has thought, “If we are natural, then so is the 7-Eleven, because we made it and we are part of nature, dude.” But then such thoughts usually fade into a contemplation of What can I get to eat? Even the most profound thoughts can be made stupid. But an artist like Smith is able to take such insights and investigate them with an intensely physical philosophy that forces the viewer into the questions in the most pleasant of ways. The fact that Smith’s work engages intellectual and physical questions in a manner both rigorous and extremely enjoyable shows that he might not be so crazy after all. He may just be the only sane person in a crazy world.

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