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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston debuts new works in 'Shinique Smith: Bright Matter'
Shinique Smith (American, 1971), Splendid, 2014. Ink, acrylic, fabric and collage, ribbon, rope and yam on wood panel. Dimensions: 60 x 78 x 6 inches. Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai. Photo: Shinique Smith *© Shinique Smith. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MASS.- Sweeping calligraphic and collaged paintings along with large-scale sculptures of recycled garments come together in Shinique Smith: BRIGHT MATTER at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston—the artist’s first solo exhibition in New England. In addition to this survey of 30 abstract works by Shinique Smith (American, born 1971) at the MFA, the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway Conservancy has commissioned a mural by the artist, a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA), to be unveiled in Boston’s downtown Dewey Square in September. The MFA exhibition—which includes 14 new works—reflects an essential aspect of Smith’s practice: how to visually manifest emotional connection, belief and the resilience of human energy through gestures and materials that shape daily life. Her work is an embodiment of the powerful spectrum of expression that, for Smith, “leans toward joy.” On view in the Museum’s Henry and Lois Foster Gallery (August 23, 2014-March 1, 2015), the exhibition includes painting, sculpture, site-specific installations, video and performance. Shinique Smith: BRIGHT MATTER is sponsored by Celebrity Cruises. Presented with generous support from the Robert and Jane Burke Fund for Exhibitions, The Contemporaries, and the Callaghan Family Fund for Contemporary Exhibitions. Additional support provided by the Eugenie Prendergast Memorial Fund, made possible by a grant from Jan and Warren Adelson.

Throughout its run, the exhibition will foster new connections between the MFA and the Boston community. On Sunday, September 7, Smith will participate in the free MFA Community Day: Celebrating 20 Years of Director Malcolm Rogers by leading two family art-making sessions and presenting a performance artwork featuring a dancer in the gallery. On September 11, following a week-long installation of the Greenway mural, a block party will take place on Dewey Square, featuring a talk with exhibition curator Jen Mergel, the MFA’s Beal Family Senior Curator of Contemporary Art. On February 11, 2015, Smith will present a second performance in which the lyrical qualities of her signature calligraphic lines will be translated by a dancer into choreographed movements of the human body. A third performance in front of the Greenway mural is planned for next spring.

“Shinique Smith’s creations are inspiring,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director at the MFA. “It is exciting to welcome this SMFA alumna back to Boston for her first New England exhibition and to connect the energy of her work with the city through the Greenway mural.”

Smith has worked closely with the MFA since 2012 to develop the exhibition. The 14 new works that are debuting allow Smith to realize projects that she’s long been developing and to expand in new directions. New paintings that reflect her experience growing up in the 1980s include Splendid (2014), which features a palette of crisp turquoise with white, pink and black accents that reflect the popular product colors of Smith's teen years, centered by an effervescent web of scrunched fabric and ribbon braids. Likewise, Inner Clock (2014) charts days from girlhood to adulthood, with the arm of a mannequin set to spin to keep time. Mylar birthday balloons, pink fuzzy boas, a purple-haired doll, ripped jeans, composition notebooks and a sweatshirt saying, “HEART and SOUL” mark passing years and colorful memories.

“This conviction that brightness can exist in even the darkest stroke, densest material or emptiest room is the sum and substance of Shinique’s unique voice, aesthetically and personally. I have admired this because it is exceptionally rare,” says Jen Mergel, Beal Family Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the MFA. “Shinique does not artificially separate self-exploration from aesthetic exploration, but combines them with each move. I have not seen anyone so bravely pursue this, let alone articulate it so openly—hers is work to be felt as much as seen.”

Smith is internationally known for infusing her artistic repertoire with personal experience—creating artworks that are evocative and intricately composed. The collaged painting Bright Matter (2013) is an assemblage of vibrant color inspired by the “bright matter” that exists in the spectrum of visible light, and within contemporary lives. Smith created the work with garments, objects and textiles that were collected in various places and were meaningful to her—fabric from a project for the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, black and white ribbon used in her first sculptures and a shirt off her own back all find new life and nostalgic resonance in this dynamic artwork.

Seven Moons (2013)—which serves as inspiration for Smith’s Greenway mural—is centered by a constellation of fabrics patterned with bursting fireworks and flowers. The work features a disposable coffee cup lid whose black form suggests the abstracted face of traditional African masks. Such subtle suggestions of ritual—at the personal, social or cosmic levels—reflect Smith’s broader interest in the ways different cultures seek to harness and direct energy. In paintings like No Key, No Question (2013), Smith explores shifts in texture, transparency and scale through a quieter palette of black and white fabrics, calligraphic gestures and collaged paper. From a distance, her abstract imagery may suggest a spiraling mandala pattern (a symbol of the universe in Hindu and Buddhist traditions) or the explosion of a galaxy. Up close, scraps of her own graffiti-influenced writing are combined with stickers pulled from the streets.

Just as she composes and layers materials in images, Smith extends this activity into three-dimensional space. Her multi-part installations and freestanding sculptures often take the form of bound fabric—such as the compressed bales of used clothing frequently exported from the US to communities across the globe.This connection between distant communities is the foundation for Smith’s layered sculptures, such as Bale Variant No. 0021 (Christmas) (2011). While some of Smith’s bales of clothing, stuffed animals and fabric are tied with twine and rope, this version also incorporates wrapping paper and ribbon used to decorate gifts for Christmas, the residue of a community ritual of consumption and gift giving. Additionally, two new Bale sculptures have been conceived for the exhibition. The works will respond to the architecture of the gallery, assuming elongated forms that evoke totems or archeological steles.

Ties to Boston
Smith completed her Master of Arts in Teaching at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) and Tufts in 2000 while also working full time with local high school students. Smith looks forward to re-connecting with Boston’s youth during the exhibition by providing a platform for ongoing writing and programming projects with the MFA’s Teen Arts Council (TAC)—a youth leadership development program at the Museum. During installation in August, she will meet with the TAC to encourage this “brain trust” to spearhead future community programs related to the exhibition. Later in the fall, TAC members will have an opportunity to take part in a creative “intensive” to respond to Smith’s art through writing and a range of creative forms, which will be shared publicly this winter.

The Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy has commissioned Smith to create a new 70-by-70-foot temporary mural at Boston’s Dewey Square Park, which will be installed over seven days, September 8-15, and be on view for a year. The mural, located across from South Station, will be seen by the tens of thousands of people who pass by daily.

“We are delighted to partner with the MFA on the newest Greenway Wall mural,” said Jesse Brackenbury, Executive Director of the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy. “The MFA has been collaborative at every stage, and we're excited to bring Shinique Smith's work to the Greenway during her exhibition.”

Born in Baltimore in 1971, Smith embues her work with a personal need to recreate the feeling of discovery she had as a child, when she combined what was available to make a toy or a costume. Her work is inspired by the graffiti of her youth, Japanese calligraphy, fashion and the vast vocabulary of things that are consumed and discarded. Examining the ways in which such objects can resonate on a personal and social scale, Smith pursues the graceful and spiritual qualities in the written word and the everyday. Through objects that are both cherished and forgotten, Smith questions the relationships that contemporary societies have with the inanimate and the intimate.

While Smith’s early exposure to and deep knowledge of art history is a major influence on her art, just as strong are her vivid childhood experiences and memories—patterns of her grandmother’s curtains or a favorite dress in kindergarten. “All of my work starts with emotion. It’s about triggering memory," says Smith. "My work can be a journey between being a little girl and an adult and the paths in between—relationships, the change of one's body from childhood through adulthood, change in oneself.”

Recently, New York’s MTA Arts for Transit commissioned Smith to develop a permanent public art work at the Mother Clara Hale Bus Depot in Harlem. Smith’s design was inspired by a child’s drawing she found near Hale House, the clothing and materials she collected from the neighborhood (where her art work resides) and stories of Mother Hale’s generosity toward children. The resulting mosaic and hand-painted art glass windows, which is approximately 6,700 square feet, will be officially inaugurated in fall 2014.

Smith has had more than 20 solo exhibitions, including exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (NY), Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), Deutsche Guggenheim (Berlin, Germany), Los Angeles County Museum of Art (CA), The Bronx Museum of the Arts (NY), National Portrait Gallery (Washington, DC), The New Museum (NY), MoMA/PS1 (NY) and the Studio Museum in Harlem (NY).

A recipient of the prestigious Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Biennial Award, Smith’s work was also included in Carrie Mae Weems: Live at the Guggenheim Museum (NY), a weekend event in April 2014 curated by Weems in the context of her exhibition, Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video. Smith has received awards and fellowships from The Joan Mitchell Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, The Vermont Studio Center, The Headlands Center for the Arts, The Hermitage and The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

Smith’s experience with youth arts education also includes her Masters practicum at Boston Arts Academy (1999-2000) and her own education at the Baltimore School for the Arts in the 1980s. She earned her Master of Fine Arts in 2003 from the Maryland Institute College of Art. Smith is represented by James Cohan Gallery, New York and Shanghai; Yvon Lambert Gallery, Paris; David Castillo Gallery, Miami; and Brand New Gallery, Milan.

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