Selections from three bodies of works on paper are featured in Dean Smith’s “The center is the edge of the threshold,” which the Oakland, California–born artist has been diligently refining since the early 2000s.
Drawings from the “labyrinth” series, 2012–, are subtle but striking. On blemished vintage paper are dimensional, diagrammatic forms elegantly rendered in graphite. Rectangular structures appear frequently, suggesting monoliths or portals. On occasion, a faint orange pencil is delicately applied as a framing device that, as we see in untitled [ds_57], 2020, binds a pale, slightly upended cross hovering within a blackened field, inviting the viewer to ponder its glowing and charged presence. This centripetal intensity continues in Smith’s series of graphite “focusing and diamond net” drawings, 2002–, where innumerable tiny staccato marks gravitate toward seemingly magnetic geometric shapes. Given the accretion of time and gesture, these works call to mind the drawings of Vija Celmins, but where her imagery concludes at a pictorial ideal, Smith provides an ideal space for unreachable conclusions.
The “environment” collages, 2014–, integrate fragments of nineteenth-century line-engraved illustrations to create circuitous compositions that evoke—if meticulously subverted and warped—the landscapes of ancient Chinese painters Jing Hao and Guan Tong. Here lie the only perceptible links to reality—take environment #48, 2021, which may or may not incorporate a ladder and the winding branches of an oak. These works also present a concrete signal of the artist and his origins: They are comprised of scrap materials gifted by Bruce Conner’s widow, Jean. Smith was friends with and assisted San Francisco–based Conner in his last years.
Cerebral decoding of Smith’s art will lead to failure. The longer it is examined, the more allusive—and elusive—it becomes. Collectively weightless, each work breathes as phenomena, as unimaginable and untethered atmosphere, offering a calming respite from certitude—a credit to Smith and his masterful aptitude for abstraction.