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Kaneem Smith doesn't make pretty sculptures. Her work conjures up the same kind of queasy fascination you get looking at some weird dead thing on the sidewalk, trying to figure out if it's animal or vegetable. There's usually something slightly icky and unsettling going on in her loose, abstract forms. They're covered in fabric and liberally coated with viscous substances that tend to evoke visceral reactions from viewers. New work by the artist is on view in the "Kaneem Smith" exhibition at Rudolph Projects/ArtScan Gallery.
Smith mixes earthy, natural hues with latex and silicone to make things look rubbery and fleshy, while her tinted resin calls to mind the hard, shiny exoskeletons of insects. Adding to the organic nature of her work, Smith weaves much of the fabric herself. It's usually stretched over or wrapped around metal or wire armatures, giving them furry pelts or epidermal coatings.
Her piece in the front gallery, The Afflicted Spirit Moves, is one of the best in the show. It looks something like an enormous pair of white felt trousers pieced together for some bloated mutant being. But instead of feet protruding from the leg openings, two glossy, transparent, podlike shapes emerge from the bottom; they're made from resin-coated fabric over a wonky wire armature. The bulky but light piece dangles from the ceiling like an alien piñata.
In the same room is Oppressive Release, a large but less quirky work with three warped, towerlike shapes that have been blasted open as if they hatched something. They're made from rectangular wire grids, covered with felt and coated in latex. The tobacco-colored latex makes them look like dried plant husks, but it's at odds with the geometry of the wire grids. Although they lean at irregular angles, supported from the ceiling by filament, they need to be much looser and more organic.
That's exactly what Smith delivers in Compulsory Matriarch, which hangs slackly from a nail on the wall. It's an elongated oval shell of felt lined with thick, matted strands of light brown camel hair. The six-foot-long work feels like a cross between a giant orifice and a nest. You don't know whether it's a place for birthing or for sleeping, but it doesn't feel creepy. There's a kind of warm animal comfort to the piece.
Other wall pieces are less successful. Progressive Aggression is a series of works that use flat bands of metal and strips of thick and fuzzy gray felt bent and wrapped together. Hung on the wall like paintings, they're all pretty rectangular, around three feet high by about a foot and a half wide. Some work better than others, but overall the series seems tame and constrained.
The series illustrates an underlying problem in much of Smith's work: its overwhelming rectilinearity. As you look around the galleries, you realize that almost every piece, no matter what the materials or seemingly irregular method of construction, still exists within a rectangular format. The choice seems unintentional on the artist's part -- more habit than anything -- and such constraints don't click with the organic aspects of her work. Her sculptures feel like they're trapped within imaginary rectangular boundaries. Smith needs to be aware of this and open herself up to more expansive experimentation with form.
She's certainly open to materials, and they are definitely her strength. Smith's approach to gloopy, rubbery, shiny substances naturally calls to mind the work of Eva Hesse, the '60s-era sculptor whose career was cut short when she died from a brain tumor at the tender age of 34. Hesse didn't make pretty work either. Smith's sculptural forms differ from Hesse's, which had strong sexual overtones and were usually much more linearly organic. But the two artists share an infatuation with coating things in evocative substances. Hesse's bag of tricks included latex, fiberglass and polyester resin. Both artists choose their materials for their ability to simultaneously attract and repel.
It is widely thought that Hesse's tumor was brought on by the toxic soup of materials she used for her art. Let's hope Smith has a respirator and follows hazmat guidelines. She's a young artist, and it will be interesting to see what happens to her intriguing sculptures when she jettisons their internalized conventions and embraces their organic yearnings.