by Joe Nolan

In order to get to the Frist Center’s Shinique Smith exhibition visitors have to pass through the Ink, Silk, and Gold display of Islamic art and artifacts. Visitors shouldn’t rush through the latter for the former, as Smith’s work is indebted to the calligraphic traditions of the East, and after walking through rooms full of painted tiles, fabric designs, and miniature paintings the connections between the two will be obvious.

This art historical context is important when viewing Smith’s work, which also borrows from “low” art traditions like graffiti and embraces an outrageous color palette that recalls 1980s retail design—two gallery-goers referred to it as “garish.” Add to that the too-cute-seeming Wonder and Rainbows title and visitors couldn’t be blamed for mistaking the whole display for some art prank.

Shinique Smith, By the Light, 2013, Ink, acrylic, fabric, and paper collage on canvas over wood panel

Shinique Smith, By the Light, 2013, Ink, acrylic, fabric, and paper collage on canvas over wood panel

But this show is for real and—despite possible first impressions—is one of the most openly sincere exhibitions I can recall. The centerpiece of the exhibition is a spectrum-spanning fabric and ribbon wall sculpture entitled Black, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, Red, Pink. To this visitor sitting on a bench in the gallery, the welcoming piece seemed to actually radiate a calming warmth, like a fireplace in a family home. Even the artist’s calligraphic designs on her title wall include pencil scrawlings that look like they were added by a child.

The best works in the show are the artist’s signature suspended sculptures made of bundles of found materials and stuffed clothing. Black Cluster transforms a black beanbag chair and car fresheners into a menacing, arachnoid form waiting to drop on an unsuspecting visitor. Another, called Tongues Became Flowers, is highlighted by a bright-orange t-shirt emblazoned with the album cover for The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s album Axis Bold as Love, which features the rocker and his band at the head of a pantheon of Hindu deities. It should have been the signature image of this bold and loving exhibition.

Shinique Smith: Wonder and Rainbows is on exhibit at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts through January 9. For more information, visit www.fristcenter.org.  

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