|JENNIE SMITH - by DeWitt Cheng
Animal symbolism in art begins with Neolithic cave
painting. Divine sacrifices in religious rituals evolve into symbols
of vices and virtues in folklore, and then, in contemporary culture,
into human surrogates. Two artists who focused on the theme were
the 19th-century Quaker preacher-artist Edward Hicks, whose many
depictions of the Biblical Peaceable Kingdom portray the lion lying
down with the lamb (Isaiah 11) in a bucolic Pennsylvania clearing;
and Franz Marc, the early twentieth century German Expressionist
famed for his spiritualized red and blue horses and yellow cows,
who ardently admired the purity and simplicity of animals.
San Francisco artist Jennie Smith joins this
tradition with her etchings, drawings and watercolors of humanized
animals (Northern Spotted Owl, Aleutian Canada
Goose) and their nests, hives and burrows. Her elegant etchings,
published by Eastside Editions
in San Francisco, with their fluent line and delicate
floral color set against the pristine white page, radiate calm
her animals are simplified and endearing, like
the benign, helpful creatures in fairy tales, but also apparently
asleep or dreaming,
because their eyes are always closed: instinct
in animals is analogous to spiritual bliss in meditating Buddhas.
In both prints, Smith’s
animals are metamorphosed into marionettes, complete with strings
and wooden control bars, reflecting the artist’s interest in
In Without, the marionettes lie sprawled on the
page surface, awaiting another puppeteer; their H- or X-shaped control
rods, seemingly overgrown by flowers, shells, raffia and beads, become
nests or homes, or home planets.
In Another Story we see a similar scenario: three
towers, or totem poles of a dozen or so animal heads, stand upright,
slightly swaying, their strings and control bars having been cut.
Snail, owl, raven, badger, pigeon, elephant, leopard, boar, and buffalo
somehow maintain their balance and preserve their formations, even
with eyes shut.
Smith’s images may be endearing, but they also read ambiguously,
given their urgent environmental subtext — both folklore and
specimen, both Beatrix Potter and John James Audubon. The cozy cocoons
and their sheltering denizens seem to be observed intact ‘in
the field,’ but often the specimens are teased out across the
page like “stratified ecosystems” awaiting inventory.
The implied light in these generally high-key works
is bright and diffused, and the backgrounds are blank and unshadowed,
the indoor/outdoor ambiguity.
In his notes on Smith at the 2006 Whitney Biennial,
Guy Carrion-Murayari acknowledges the fairy-tale
side of the work (“nature’s creatures lie tucked in sleeping bags”),
but also elucidates the ecological and activist message of her “nomadic
community on the move,” exemplifying as it does, “cooperation,
community and dynamic change.” Smith’s lyrical work,
while far from polemical in tone, advocates seeing
life holistically, and ceasing to regard a now globally threatened
nature as fodder
for our economic juggernaut.