Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rebecca Gray Smith at Bert Green Fine Art, through June 21

In 1391,  Gaston Phoebus, the brilliant , warlike Count of Foix,  was hunting in the hills of  his mountainous domain,   when he stopped for lunch and dropped dead as a servant  washed his hands.  That was death in the pre-modern era: universal and often inexplicably, unpredictably  sudden.  In the following centuries, that became the theme of danse macabre – those quaint depictions of grimacing Death rudely interrupting medieval life, from peasant’s hovel to prince’s palace.. Over the past 20 years, printmaker Rebecca Gray Smith, impacted by the Aids epidemic,  has updated that theme to contemporary life.  Death is still a malicious joker, but sometimes it is preventable, and that is the message that Smith presents in her alphabet of morbidity: G is for guns, N is for Narcotics, E is for education (about Aids)  etc.  But while she’s free associating,  there are other kinds of  issues she would like raise: H is for Harlots and Hookers, P is for Petroleum , and B is for Banks, Bailouts, and Baseball.   Baseball ?  --   what’s wrong with Baseball ?  Is she a Cubs fan ?  And what’s wrong with “L” (Law)  or “T”(time) If everything is already in the grasp of Death’s bony hand, why be concerned about anything at all?   So though this project  bears some resemblance to the passionate, skull-filled  social satires of the great Mexican cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada  (1852-1913),  it’s theme  is more universal – and more despairing.  “C” is for Crucifixion, but “R” is definitely not for Resurrection.   The universe is a big cruel joke at our expense – all presented in the grim,  gray light of a netherworld.  It’s as if the artist never recovered from the demise of  her youthful idealism.  But at least, some images are funny – like the violins serenading the exit of the poor dunce who’s just lost her job in “F” (Fired).  And  there’s plenty of life in the variety of Smith’s compositions.  If one thing refuses to die, it’s the Classical traditions of perspective, anatomy, and  design that this artist employs almost well enough to give  a convincing reason to live.