Dirt and Flesh

Situated in the center of the three-gallery White Columns space, the exhibition “in awe of geometry & mornings” presented a thoughtfully chosen group of ten by artist and poet S*an D. Henry-Smith, drawn from their 2020 book of poetry and pictures, Wild Peach. The show began with primordial (2019), a small print of floating algae and soil soup. The photograph is visceral, throwing the viewer right back to memories of haphazard forts built over still creeks and mud between your toes on a wet spring day. In its imagery and title, the work references a time before humankind. There is fantasy and friction in this simple image of a muddy bank. Smith’s work interchanges sight and smell, using synesthesia as a basis for eco-poetical excavation and sensory experimentation. In their poems, hyssop can hiss and willow can whistle. Smith splices different senses—taste, touch, sound—to mingle what is usually separated by nature or by choice.

Close up of a pair of legs sitting in the grass, marked with impressions.

S*an D. Henry-Smith, imprint, 2019, archival inkjet print, 16 1/4 by 11 inches; at White Columns.

Indentations are a recurring trope throughout the exhibition’s photographs, alluding to knowledge transfer and memory. In imprint (2019), smashed grass mixed with mud provides a backdrop for a close view of impressions left on a brown leg. Wild Peach also begins with an image of a foggy morning, with grass flattened and overgrown, potentially carrying the imprints of bodies that had just left. (The book’s cover art, a line drawing of a spiral shape, likewise recalls a stylized crop circle.) In these separate moments Smith offers harmony, showing the comparable states held by dirt and flesh.

View of a beach obscured by locks covering the camera lens.

S*an D. Henry-Smith, Atlantic beckoning, or just over your shoulder, 2019, archival inkjet print, 24 1/2 by 20 inches; at White Columns.

Atlantic beckoning, or just over your shoulder (2019), placed apart from the other pieces on the same wall, was the only image of saltwater in the show, carrying the oceanic undertones of freedom and force. Depicting waves breaking on a sandy beach, with a rocky outcrop in the background, the seascape is overlaid with shadowy, limb-like forms—the silhouettes of lovingly locked hair obstructing the camera lens. & the roots that rise (2019), on an adjacent wall, depicts a figure with longer locks, framed by trees, while a person with shorter hair (perhaps the beginning of locks) peers out at the viewer in lavender tea (2018), sitting against a backdrop of lush houseplants. Together, these three images track time through growth, linking the axis of the earth with development and change on a comparably infinitesimal human scale.

Smith’s titles pointedly avoid conventional capitalization. Uppercase letters are used only occasionally, and always with intention—a choice rather than a given. This same eschewal of tradition and binary systems of categorization is evident throughout their work, both written and visual. Smith scrambles traditional frameworks and ideas, drawing out vital ingredients and using them to form a new alphabet with which the artist and their collaborators can craft open-ended narratives.

Like an earthbound creature that bores into the soil, slowly making headway, quiet and careful not to interrupt the lives of its neighbors, Smith’s gestures, with this exhibition, were unassuming and sincere. White Columns, one of New York’s oldest contemporary art institutions, served as a canvas for Smith’s exploration of where need and want fall within the scope of the natural world. In their work, the artist exhumes the ancient and invents futurity, harnessing all their senses at once. With their sense of curiosity and calm, the collection of images Smith presented felt perfectly suited for contemplation and meditative prayer—like the first full inhale at the start of a new day.

At White Columns, S*an D. Henry-Smith presented eco-poetical works exploring the entanglement between humans and nature.Read MoreArt in America, Reviews, S*an D. Henry-Smith, White ColumnsARTnews.comRead More

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