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Like beauty, “treasure” is in the eye of the beholder—though treasures are usually objects. What does treasure mean, then, for an artist who has largely defined their career not through objects, but performance? At The Box, Treasures: Barbara T. Smith with Friends takes a kaleidoscopic approach to Smith’s life and output, presenting her works alongside those by more than 20 artists in her personal collection.
This configuration offers a textured portrait of Smith both challenging and deeply fitting for her philosophy of eschewing ossification. As a young woman, Smith suffered pressure to adhere to strictly gendered social expectations; her later self-discovery and spiritual introspection coincided with the end of her marriage and estrangement from her children. This rupture in identities, and the accompanying measures of freedom and grief, is evident throughout Treasures. Smith’s works offer varying levels of biographical exposition, while those from her collection outline her colorful trajectory through the postwar Southern California avant-garde. Collage-like in form, the exhibition mirrors Smith’s approach to her own creative redefinition, in which the process of individual and collective becoming—through releasing the past and shaping the present—is the art itself.
Smith’s most inward-looking works dance through a minefield of demanding female identities, from little girl to mother of little girls. The single-channel video Just Passing (1979) offers direct commentary on her formative concerns: Here, she layers images of herself in various stages of dress with narration detailing the confusions and contradictions of growing up female, from not being allowed to kiss “all the boys” in kindergarten to the “horrifying feeling of being treated as available” post-divorce. The funerary Julie, You Will Live Forever (1965) features a grave-like box with the name of her daughter “JULIE”, placed in front of a large free-standing square frame; a window and a void. As Smith notes in the exhibition text, the mixed-media sculpture Night Stand (1963), with its sacrificially placed baby doll atop a baby blue nightstand, is “about the death of [her] marriage.”
As Smith was eulogizing parts of her life and identity, she was also weaving herself into a larger community of artists who were similarly negotiating the past through assemblage and probing the future through experimental performance. Hung beside Night Stand, Daniel LaRue Johnson’s monochromatic Untitled (1964) echoes Smith’s baby doll, as it includes the black-painted parts of a dismantled baby doll at its center. A doll head also peeks out from George Herms’ F (1965). These discarded objects appear to double as symbols of aborted youth, while the more future-looking works in the exhibition pursue creative risk not confined to the art object. In Smith’s PIERCING THE CORPORATE VEIL (1980), represented with documentation and artifacts, she collided experiences of life and death by resting inside a satin-lined coffin and inviting visitors to keep vigil. Many of the “treasures” from Smith’s compatriots are likewise remnants of performances in which artists’ bodies were simultaneously vulnerable and powerful. A wooden platform with suspension chains and an optical device represent Chris Burden’s performance, Being Photographed: Looking Out Looking In (1971), for which he invited visitors to climb onto the platform and use the viewfinder to look at the sky—through a second viewfinder, they could watch Burden in an adjoining room, where he sat on the lid of a toilet.
“The best way to do away with evil,” Smith narrates in her video Just Passing, “is to make energetic progress toward the good.” In blending Smith’s work with the accumulations of her life, Treasures shows us how the artist chose to define “the good”—not as a type of art or art object, but as a continually moving network of experimentation and growth.
Treasures: Barbara T. Smith with Friends runs from March 18–May 13, 2023 at The Box (805 Traction Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90013).