Stars and Symbols: Ming Smith at Nicola Vassell Gallery

Human figures appear throughout Ming Smith’s photographs on view at Nicola Vassell Gallery, but rarely do they meet our gaze. Subjects more often turn away from the camera, remain engulfed by shadows, or take the form of silhouettes. Black cultural luminaries such as Grace Jones and Sun Ra, pictured at the height of their powers in the 1970s, wear tinted or reflective glasses as part of their regalia. So does the impassive man who stands with his back to a window display festooned with hanging flags in America Seen Through Stars and Stripes (New York), a spatially complex and symbolically loaded picture from the bicentennial year of 1976. His mirror-coated lenses, two bright circles hovering above an arrangement of intersecting black and white bars formed by the flags and a set of horizontal window markings, are the focal point of Smith’s dramatically high-contrast composition. Their opacity, paired with the forbidding and, indeed, carceral appearance of the orthogonals behind them, ironizes the patriotic vision invoked by the work’s title. It also shields their wearer from unwanted scrutiny, foreclosing the feeling of intersubjective encounter between viewer and subject that photographs can simulate. The title of this exhibition—the gallery’s first—is “Evidence,” a term etymologically and conceptually bound up with visibility and knowing. But what is it, exactly, that we are given to see here? What kinds of vision do Smith’s poetic pictures and frequently obscured subjects embody?

One thing the exhibition effectively renders visible is Smith’s oeuvre itself. Neglected for decades by established art institutions—including the ones, like the Museum of Modern Art, that presciently collected it at the time of its production—the artist’s work of the 1970s only recently began to reappear, piecemeal, in high-profile historical exhibitions like “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” organized by the Tate Modern in 2017, and “Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop,” the Whitney Museum’s recent spotlight on the Harlem-based collective that Smith joined in 1973, becoming the group’s sole female member. The exhibition at Nicola Vassell, comprising forty-eight photographs taken between 1971 and 1998 in locations ranging from Brooklyn to Paris, Japan to Senegal, accords Smith the monographic treatment she deserves. It avoids the chronologically or thematically segmented appearance of a museum-style retrospective, however, by interspersing many distinct moments in the artist’s decades-long career in a tight hang. The gallery has also made Smith’s photographs feel resolutely contemporary by leaving most of them unmatted, and digitally enlarging them to a scale that likely would not have been feasible at the time of their initial production: the prints in the main gallery range from twenty-four by thirty-six inches to an expansive forty by sixty inches. What emerges is a highly consistent artistic sensibility, clearly steeped in the larger Black culture of its time but also characterized by a private, even subjectivist logic, independent of the social movements and collective groupings with which the artist has recently been identified.

View of “Ming Smith: Evidence,” 2021, at Nicola Vassell Gallery.

Like many of her peers in the Kamoinge group, Smith was a gifted street photographer with an eye for pregnant moments and fleeting juxtapositions. Despite the present exhibition’s title, however, her pictures are less documentary than they are suggestive: they belong somewhere within the Symbolist and Surrealist orbits advanced by forebears like Brassaï, whose portrait Smith took in 1979. Given these affinities, it is unsurprising that many of the exhibition’s most memorable images are of interiors. Works like The Window Overlooking Wheatland Street Was My First Dreaming Place (Columbus, Ohio), 1979, a layered composition in which a winter landscape is reflected in the pane of an open window, project a quiet lyricism. Male Nude (New York), 1977, an arresting study of a shadowy, muscular figure surrounded by floral wallpaper, is similarly suffused with a mysterious, slightly melancholy mood. The latter photograph also demonstrates a principle similar to the one borne out by America Seen Through Stars and Stripes, with its guarded central subject: the model, facing the wall rather than the camera, seems to direct his gaze downward. His eyes—his seeing—remain unpictured so that Smith’s may become evident.

Human figures appear throughout Ming Smith’s photographs on view at Nicola Vassell Gallery, but rarely do they meet our gaze. Subjects more often turn away from the camera, remain engulfed by shadows, or take the form of silhouettes. Black cultural luminaries such as Grace Jones and Sun Ra, pictured at the height of their powersRead MoreArt in America, Reviews, Kamoinge Workshop, Ming Smith, Nicola VassellARTnews.comRead More

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